National Affairs: East Timor: Whitlam was the culpritby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, September 23, 2000
The release of some 484 previously secret Foreign Affairs Department documents relating to East Timor, dating from 1974 to 1976, just days before the Olympic Games began in Sydney, may have been mere coincidence. In any event, it had the effect of disguising the events which led to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the responsibility of then Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, for the developing Timor tragedy.
The documents were released under the title, Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of East Timor.
Much of the media’s attention was focused on the role of the Australian Ambassador in Indonesia at the time, Richard Woolcott, who urged Australian acquiescence in Indonesia’s plans (about which he had foreknowledge), and the advanced warning he gave to the Whitlam Government about the Indonesian incursion in October 1975, during which five Australian journalists were killed.
However important these events might appear to be, Mr Woolcott was simply a public servant at the time, answerable to his political masters in Canberra; and in any case, his actions were themselves the consequence of Mr Whitlam’s earlier decision to acquiesce in Indonesia’s absorption of East Timor.
According to the documents, as early as September 1974, Whitlam told officials, “I am in favour of incorporation [into Indonesia], but obeisance has to be made to self-determination.”
Although the Timor documents have been censored to delete sensitive intelligence material, enough emerges from them to make clear that early in 1975, seven months before the Indonesian invasion, Mr Whitlam held a fateful meeting with Indonesia’s President Suharto in Townsville, at which Australia’s Timor policy was determined.
At that meeting, Suharto made clear his concern about the collapse of Portuguese administration in East Timor, due to the emergence of a pro-communist military government in Portugal, which had sided with the Marxist Fretilin group in East Timor, just as it had done in Portugal’s African colonies, Angola and Mozambique.
Whitlam, who had earlier pushed Papua New Guinea into premature independence, and whose antipathy to Portugal was legendary, told the Indonesian President that he supported their incorporation of East Timor, but would not do so publicly in Australia.
Apparently, the reasons for this were the fact that Whitlam was cultivating the left in Australia, which supported Fretilin, and the fact that both his Foreign Minister, Don Willessee, and the head of the Foreign Affairs Department, Alan Renouf, disagreed with his policy.
In any event, developments in East Timor in 1975, forced Indonesia’s hand. Shortly after the Townsville meeting, Portugal hosted a meeting in Portuguese Macau of the political parties in East Timor, to determine a timetable for the transition to independence. Those present decided that the future of East Timor should be determined by referendum, under UN auspices, not earlier than 1976 nor later than 1978. Fretilin boycotted this meeting.
In August 1975, following reports that Fretilin planned a coup later that month, the pro-Portuguese Democratic Union of Timor (UDT) attempted to seize power. This failed when the Portuguese garrison in Dili turned its guns over to Fretilin, who themselves took control of Dili and subsequently other parts of the colony.
The Fretilin takeover was characterised by executions of their political opponents, as well as women and children. Estimates at the time put the death toll at 2,000 — and further, some 40,000 refugees fled into Indonesian Timor, Australia and Portugal, as documented by Senator Willessee in Federal Parliament on November 9, 1975.
Indonesia — clearly alarmed at the prospect of a mini-Cuba being established within the archipelago, and with recent memories of the attempted Communist takeover in Indonesia itself — immediately proposed an international peace-keeping force in East Timor, including Indonesian and Portuguese troops, but the proposal was not accepted.
In this anarchic situation, Indonesia limited itself to trying to destabilise Fretilin by encouraging a covert invasion from Indonesian West Timor, during which the five Australian journalists were tragically killed. Clearly, the Whitlam Government knew about this at the time, and remained silent about it.
A little later, Australia became engulfed in its own constitutional crisis of 1975, when Whitlam attempted to govern without Supply. This deadlock was broken on November 11, 1975, when the Governor-General sacked Mr Whitlam, and appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister to conduct elections a month later.
But during the election period, Fretilin unilaterally declared the Independence of East Timor, provoking the open Indonesian occupation.
Responsibility for the tragedy in East Timor falls on many shoulders. But a major share rests with Mr Whitlam — the self-styled Australian statesman who strutted the world stage — who also laid the ground for the current political mess in Papua New Guinea, and the disgraceful betrayal of anti-communist South Vietnam at the time of the Communist takeover in April 1975.