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Book Review: Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor

06 Sep 2021
Reviewed by Richard Broinowski AO

Australian foreign ministers are inclined to admonish other governments for not respecting human rights. They betray double standards by ignoring the sorry record of Australia’s own treatment of indigenous people and refugees.

Australian politicians frequently conflate human rights with the “rules-based system.” With its large-scale internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang Province, and its moves against democracy protests in Hong Kong, China is their current main target. But as the Chinese willing point out, these admonitions are selective.

The Chinese could add that Canberra tends to ignore human rights abuses in countries Australia wants to get on with. Its approach towards Indonesia’s treatment of West Papuans and East Timorese is an example. Australian relations with this very large Muslim neighbour are complex. Australians were early champions of Indonesian post-war independence from the Dutch. But along with the British, Australia was keen to oppose President Sukarno’s military resistance to the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah into the Federated Malay States in the mid-1960s. But Australia said nothing during the widespread slaughter of Indonesian Chinese during the anti-Communist purge of 1965-66, which led to Sukarno’s overthrow and the installation of President Suharto’s authoritarian regime and his rejection of political plurality.

Nor was Suharto’s approach to West New Guinea or East Timor ever challenged by Canberra. Both territories were taken over post-war by Indonesia from the Dutch and Portuguese respectively. West New Guinea remains an Indonesian province. But after much bloodshed, and after Timorese had voted overwhelmingly for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999, East Timor gained independence in a UN-sponsored referendum in 2002.

Australia’s selective blindness towards Indonesian actions in East Timor is convincingly described by Peter Job in his new book, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor. A Canberra-based academic, Job has had work experience of the situation.  As a 20-year-old activist in 1978, he operated a short-wave radio link in Darwin between the rebel Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor in Dili, its external headquarters in Mozambique, and its leader in New York, José Ramos Horta.

With comprehensive use of Foreign Affairs files accessed through the National Archives, Job begins his narrative by describing the policies of two Australian prime ministers toward East Timor. Gough Whitlam and Malcom Fraser held diametrically opposed world perspectives. Whitlam was a progressive social democrat who recognised China and took Australian troops out of Vietnam. His successor Fraser was a Cold War warrior who feared the global expansion of communism. Yet both saw East Timor through the same prism: as a small territorial irritant, best absorbed within Indonesia, despite differences in ethnicity, language, and religion.

The heavy-handed Indonesian military occupation of East Timor under a proxy provisional government in December 1975 was therefore not challenged by Canberra. But as Job suggests, alternatives were available to the Australian government and its diplomats. They could have expressed direct concern to Suharto at a time when he was sensitive to criticisms from Indonesia’s ASEAN partners about what was going on, especially after the anti-communist blood-letting that brought him to power. They could have taken the matter to the United Nations, or offered to mediate between Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, and the Indonesian occupying force.

None of this happened. In a conversation in 2018 about human rights in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation, Rawdon Dalrymple, Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta from 1981 to 1985, told Job:

It wasn’t anything that anyone was prepared to die in a ditch over. Remember that this was a time when the Australian government was aware of the importance of Indonesia and of the fact that the Suharto Government was firmly entrenched.  There was no disposition for it to be a casus belli or something that would really disrupt the Australian relationship.

And so it was decided. The fate of the East Timorese was a distraction, even as Australia’s disdain for them ran counter to Fraser’s international agenda of supporting international law, self-determination, opposition to the use of military force, and regard for human rights. Within Australia, Fraser and his foreign ministers, Andrew Peacock followed by Tony Street, attempted to deflect public and Parliamentary concern by denying the evidence of atrocities, saying they were exaggerated, or that Fretilin was committing greater crimes. At the United Nations, Australia supported Indonesia by opposing motions against the Indonesian occupation. As Job observes, Australia became an apologist for Indonesia.

Job asserts that the Dunn Report of 1977 should have blown Australian assertions out of the water. Jim Dunn was a military intelligence officer and diplomat who served as Australia’s Consul in Portuguese Timor in the early 1960s. Based on 200 interviews with Timorese refugees in Lisbon in January 1975, his report covered in excruciating detail the murder and rape of innocent civilians and the systematic destruction of their crops and livestock by Indonesian soldiers; also their use of counter-insurgency weapons and aircraft supplied principally by the United States, but by Australia too. Dunn’s report gained wide coverage through the ABC and Radio Australia, but there was no serious attempt to examine it in Canberra.

Out of curiosity, I contacted a former diplomatic colleague who had served in Jakarta during the Fraser administrations. What did he think in retrospect about the situation and Australia’s unwavering support for Indonesia, including from the embassy in Jakarta? His response was that Australian diplomats are paid to analyse and recommend what is best for Australia. Governments can add morals and domestic politics, or reject what diplomats say if they wish to, but they decide. He added somewhat defensively that Indonesian civilians in East Timor did some good things, including building hospitals and schools and infrastructure. He is basically right, but I was left unsatisfied. Diplomats also have a duty to avoid reputational damage to Australia, and to urge governments to oppose the flagrant abuse of human rights.

Australia partly balanced the ledger when it initiated and commanded Interfet, the International Force East Timor that averted a humanitarian and security crisis during the transition between Indonesia’s withdrawal and full independence of East Timor. But the call is line-ball. Officially, Australia still says nothing about human rights abuses in West New Guinea. Perhaps Peter Job will illuminate that situation in his next book.

This is a review of Peter Job, Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor (Melbourne University Press, 2021). ISBN: 9780522877601.

Richard Broinowski AO was an Australian diplomat for 34 years, serving mainly in East and Southeast Asia. His latest book, soon to be published by AIIA, concerns the Pol Pot years in Cambodia, and Australian’s initiative in getting the United Nations to supervise elections there in 1993. Richard is a former president of AIIA NSW.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.