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The airbrushing of history - 1917 to 2017

By Jim Dowling - posted Monday, 24 April 2017

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

It was with great interest that I recently read the following news item:

The newly-elected president of Timor Leste, former guerilla fighter Francisco Guterres, will lead a 30-person delegation of veterans to Brisbane this Anzac Day.

The visit by Timorese war veterans to participate in Anzac activities honours the commitment of Australian troops supporting the people of Timor Leste – both in the Second World War and since 1999 when Australian troops have helped restore civil order after a fractious vote for independence.


I have been moved by the plight of the East Timorese since I was a young man and read about the Indonesian invasion in the daily news. In the 80's and 90's I became active in trying to end the shameful role Australia was playing in supporting the genocide in that country. Through all those years our nation was providing military training and equipment as well as diplomatic support to cover up and excuse murder, rape, and torture on a massive scale.

While it is true that the Australian military finally led a peace keeping delegation in 1999 after the Indonesian military left (with one final looting, burning and killing spree), the history of the 24 years prior to this was one of betrayal and almost unlimited support for the oppressors. This has largely been airbrushed from history in a way that would have made the "Ministry of Truth" in Orwell's novel proud. Most of the present generation see us as liberators of East Timor.

I think a comparison can be drawn to the airbrushing of the history of WWI in this country. Most people today know nothing of the bitter division in Australia and the strong opposition to our taking part in the war. The opposition was largely led by Irish Catholics, many of whom saw themselves as enemies of British colonisers of their homeland, and Trade Unionists. How many know that trade unionists were jailed for merely speaking against the war? How significant is the fact that the Archbishop of Melbourne, (Daniel Mannix) could lead the anti-conscription campaign in this country? Two referendums were held and twice Australians voted against conscripting young men to go to war. Mannix famously described WWI as a "Trade War". But, war being the "health of the State", and in this age of patriotic fervour, the large number of Australians who opposed WWI have been largely relegated to the cutting floor of history.

I have no idea how long it took to eradicate the WWI anti-war story from popular discourse, but it is truly amazing how quickly the shame of Australia's role in the East Timor story has been revised. From when the Whitlam government made clear to the Indonesians that we would do and say nothing to impede the invasion of East Timor, until the 1999 withdrawal, each Australian government shamefully betrayed the people of that country. Whether Labor or Liberal, the litany of betrayal of East Timor and sycophancy towards the murderous Suharto regime is truly something to marvel at. I believe the turning point for East Timor came when the horror of the Dili massacre of 1991 was broadcast around the world. But still we were apologists for the Suharto regime, with Australian Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans famously called it an "aberration". In its aftermath even the US refused to train Indonesian troops. Australia promptly took up the slack and increased the numbers trained! A great friend of Suharto, Paul Keating visited Indonesia six times in just over four years. In 1995 he oversaw the signing of a defence pact with Indonesia. Gareth Evans had many years before signed the Timor Gap treaty to divide up East Timor's oil with the Indonesian Generals. When the Howard government first came to power in 1996, Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer promptly went to Indonesia where he fawningly described Suharto as "perhaps the world's greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century." Right up until the Indonesians withdrew in 1999, Foreign Affairs minister Alexander Downer was lying for them by claiming the Indonesian death squads were East Timorese fighting a civil war.

Not only did we betray the people of East Timor, but we betrayed our own journalists murdered by the Indonesians as part of the invasion. Every Australian should watch the video of Greg Shackleton reporting from Balibo the day before his murder. The Australian government heartlessly covered up the knowledge of the five journalists' deaths even from their own families, once again to appease the Indonesians. It was not until 2007 that an inquest made the government face the facts of the murders. Still no apology was ever given to the families. In fact when I thought to verify this fact and googled "Balibo five apology", the only article there was about the government apologising to a former Indonesian officer of the invading force, for asking him to give evidence at the 2007 inquest!

As for Australian troops supporting the people of Timor Leste, in WWII here the truth has been turned upside down. Any Australian involved in supporting East Timor in the terrible years between 1975 and 1999 will know the name Paddy Kenneally. Paddy was a young Aussie digger who was sent to East Timor as part of Sparrow Force in WWII to try to stop the Japanese there. Paddy felt he owed his life to these people, and spent much of the 80's and 90's campaigning for a free East Timor, and decrying our nation's betrayal of the people he loved. He had this to say about what happened in 1942: "We went to Timor and brought nothing but misery on those poor people. That is all they ever got out of helping us – misery." Over 40,000 lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese because they helped the Aussies. Our air force dropped leaflets on the island after we left saying "We will never forget you". But we did worse than forgetting them.


Over 200,000 lost their lives at the hands of the Indonesians because we were more interested in oil, trade, and diplomacy than the lives of these poor neighbours.

No lessons have been learned. We continue to train Indonesian troops as they oppress the West Papuan Independence movement. Recently an Aussie soldier put up a West Papuan poster at the SAS WA training facility where Indonesian Kopassus are trained. The shocked Indonesians temporarily withdrew their forces, until the Prime Minister offered enough apologies!

Lest we forget?

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About the Author

Jim Dowling lives in Brisbane and writes on peace and justice issues.

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