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Downer will not be able to rewrite history in East Timor

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The release of a joint Indonesian-East Timor report on last week by the Commission for Truth and Friendship into the causes of the crimes against humanity in the run-up to East Timorese independence in 1999, raises the issue of the culpability of Australia in the crimes committed by Indonesia's military, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI, and its militia surrogates.

During his tenure as foreign minister and afterwards, Alexander Downer argued that neither he nor Indonesian ministers and senior military commanders knew of the backing and control of the anti-independence militia by the TNI.

On the delicate diplomatic issue of forcing the Indonesian government to acknowledge its backing of militia to bring to an end the resultant human-rights abuses in East Timor in 1998-99, Downer, his department, the Australian prime minister and cabinet members sought to spin. They sought to spin a truth of which they were well aware, namely that to frustrate progress towards East Timorese independence the Indonesian government through the agency of the TNI was prepared to intimidate, torture and kill pro-independence activists.


As foreign minister, Downer had the means at his disposal to spin. Loss of office has denied him that, yet he still attempts to deceive and by so doing absolve himself of any responsibility towards the abuse of human rights in the last two years of the last century in East Timor.

Displaying his trademark, one-line attention to detail, Downer, in an article in The Age on July 12, began by saying that in 1999 ''it was widely known that elements of the Indonesian military were behind the violent militia activity in East Timor''. Three paragraphs later, he says, “In early 1999, the Australian government's view was that there were elements of the Indonesian military which I referred to as 'rogue elements' that were defying the orders of Jakarta …” I would have thought ''widely known'' and ''view'' are quite different.

Without citing evidence, Downer says it is, ''highly unlikely that Habibie sanctioned the violence'' and he claims that Wiranto was aware of the violence, ''but I suspect he felt powerless to stop it on the grounds that there were significant elements of the TNI that felt bitter and vengeful towards the East Timorese''. The previous day Downer told the ABC that, contrary to popular belief that Wiranto was a ''big strong man, he didn't really have the strength within the Indonesian military to close it down''. Which explanation do we put our money on? Neither.

In an AFP/AAP-sourced article in The Australian on February 24, 1999, Downer was quoted as saying, ''We don't want to see the Balkanisation of East Timor,'' and in May 1999 he told Paul Kelly of The Australian that ''as many as one in three East Timorese want to stay with Indonesia''.

On September 24, 1999, James Dunn, the former Australian consul in Dili, told the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee that the militia were getting orders from the TNI as part of an intentional and carefully worked out strategy. Dunn was supported by the respected former Australian ambassador to Indonesia who had the courage to say that Australia had all along known that the militia were trained and controlled by the TNI under the active authority of the then head of the Indonesian armed forces, General Wiranto. This was conveyed to journalist Lindsay Murdoch and reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 20, 2000.

A leaked Defence Intelligence Organisation report published in The Bulletin as part of a story by John Lyons on November 30, 1999, pulled no punches in naming Wiranto as the puppeteer of the TNI and its militia. Writing in The Age a few days earlier, Paul Daley said, ''Intelligence and military sources say they can already paint a picture of systematic killing and then attempted cover-up by the Indonesian military and police and militias ...''


In 1998 an Australian aid worker in East Timor, Lansell Taudevin, was asked by the Australian government to report on the unravelling situation. He reported that the majority of East Timorese appeared to favour independence and that the TNI was running the militia and involved in murder and mayhem. In March 1999 his mandate was withdrawn and his contract with AusAID cancelled. He took the matter to court and eventually won an out-of-court settlement.

Laurie Brereton, shadow minister for foreign affairs, accused Downer in Parliament on November 24, 1999, of lying over the issue. In his defence, Downer said, ''We have had a large number of sources of information. Different analysts have written different things and put forward different ideas and advice.'' The moves which Downer and Howard eventually made in the face of concerted domestic and international pressure should have occurred months earlier. Their prevarication in the face of fear, the fear which has so long marked Australia's relations with Indonesia and led to the existence of the appeasing Jakarta lobby, caused suffering, injury, rape and death. And there was the belief that it would be easier to deal with Indonesia over seabed oil reserves than an independent East Timor.

On September 6, 1999, against a background of unprecedented cruelty and violence, Australian defence minister John Moore said Australia would commit troops to East Timor only if Indonesia invited Australia to do so. On the same day Radio Australia reported that the TNI had given up any pretence of not backing the militia and were openly attacking independence supporters.

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First published in The Canberra Times on Jluy 16, 2008.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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