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National Observer Home > No. 45 - Winter 2000 >Articles

New Directions in Australia's East Timor Policies

Dr. Sharif Shuja

Australian-Indonesian relations have often been governed by an asymmetry whereby Indonesia is not expected to reciprocate, with equal strength, Australia's emphasis on good relations. It is thought that we need Indonesian friendship more than they need ours. Indonesia has 210 million people; we have 19 million. We cannot threaten them; they could, theoretically, threaten us. On this basis, it has often been insisted that the need for good relations with Indonesia overrides the merits of particular issues. This is exemplified in the Timor issue, especially Indonesia's invasion in 1975.

Australia's relations with Indonesia were relatively untroubled during the early years of the 1970s. Then a variety of problems emerged or resurfaced. The foremost of these was Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor in 1975.1 On 7 December 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and seized the capital Dili. Jakarta then declared East Timor to be the 27th province of Indonesia, a claim which was never recognised by the United Nations. Additional tension was also created by Australian criticism of the Indonesian Government's record on human rights abuses throughout the occupation and of Indonesian army activities against Papuan rebels near the Irian Jaya-Papua New Guinea border.

From the outset, Indonesia conceded that it had no historical or legally valid territorial claim to East Timor. However, Indonesia also insisted that the absence of such a claim did not rule out the development of a political claim based on criteria related not to the colonial past but to the present and future, involving especially security considerations. Indonesia believed that an independent East Timor could become politically radical and this would involve security risks unacceptable to an Indonesia that in the mid-1960s barely escaped a communist takeover. In addition, it also had its doubts about the economic viability of the territory. Underlying these concerns were basic fears that the issue of an independent East Timor would restimulate secessionist feeling among the people of the Outer Islands. Furthermore, it also feared that a solution to the problem adverse to Indonesia would affect relations with Papua New Guinea, with which Indonesia shared a border.

Starting from these points of concern, Indonesia argued that a prolongation of the conflict would not be conducive to stability in South East Asia since it could create conditions for foreign intervention. Indonesia would therefore not allow this to happen at its doorstep. It followed from this reasoning that Indonesia could resort to any method to neutralise what it thought to be a potential threat to its internal stability. This became, as argued in 1986 by Barry Coldrey, "more imperative after Portugal and the United Nations declined to play a positive role in the decolonisation process in East Timor."2

During 1975 there was much diplomatic manoeuvring over East Timor. Portugal promised a development plan; an election was planned; and conferences were mooted between the Timorese political groupings. As the year passed, however, antagonisms grew and fighting occurred with Fretelin. To some Timorese it seemed that they should opt to join Indonesia and take advantage of such services as it could provide, along with economic support. Others assumed that the outcome should be independence - as in Angola or Mozambique.

Not surprisingly, many in Indonesia felt that to incorporate Timor would simply complete the defeat of the old European colonialists: the archipelago would be under one flag. It seemed a tidy solution. Others were more concerned about the responsibility of taking over a desperately poor territory, along with the issue of self-determination. Law and order, too, had to be considered, and the peace and stability of the region and - at a time when the communists were winning victories in Vietnam - the possibility that China or Russia might somehow secure influence in a weak newly-independent state.

In the event, at the end of 1975 Indonesia did move in, did set up an administration, did recruit teachers, doctors and bureaucrats, and made, initially at least, a serious effort to include the new twenty-seventh province in the process of development. However, prospects for an independent East Timor seemed to have died in 1976.

East Timor and the Australian Government

Both the Liberal-National Party Coalition and the Labor Party had to cope with the crisis in East Timor at different times. Despite bitter parliamentary debate, both Australian governments took basically the same view towards the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor. For both, the top priority was to maintain permanently friendly relations with Indonesia; no other issue was to be permitted to disrupt the relationship.3 Therefore, both Australian governments considered that East Timor should be part of Indonesia. They did not want this to be achieved by force, however, but considered that it should be by an act of genuine free choice. This was fine democratic theory and an impeccable policy in moral terms, but it is easy to be moral when one has little capacity and no will to take actual action: "the impotent are pure".

Both Australian governments were advised by the same officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and these officials stressed the need for good permanent relations with Indonesia. The same advice was being sent to the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Department from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.4

For Australia, the nature of Indonesia's ultimate leadership is of critical importance, and a stable and friendly Indonesia is indispensable to Canberra's security and welfare. Malcolm Booker, a senior career Australian diplomat who has been Australian ambassador to a number of countries, argued in 1976::5

"If it [Indonesia] acquired an aggressive or expansionist regime or if, because of its internal divisions, it fell under the control of a power hostile to Australia, we would be faced with problems beyond our own ability to solve."

This has been acknowledged by successive Australian governments, and considerable effort has been expended, on the whole successfully, in maintaining good relations with Indonesia. In the recent period there has been some discussion as to whether these efforts have been sufficient or whether a different approach should be adopted. Mr. Booker, however, said that in the 1970s "we have no alternative but to maintain workable relationships with whatever regime comes to power in Indonesia."6

The important question for Australian governments was: What if the East Timorese wanted to be independent? And, if Indonesia did use force (as occurred), what could Australia really do about it? Naturally, we could protest, but at a certain stage we would have to do something positive, and who in Australia wanted to engage in hostilities with Indonesia? It would not have helped the East Timorese, and would have damaged relations with Indonesia for a long time to come. The Department of Foreign Affairs summed up Australia's position on East Timor in 1974 as follows:7

"Mr. Gough Whitlam is understood to have indicated that Australia felt an independent Timor would be an unviable state, and a potential threat to the stability of the area. But he is also thought to have made clear that the people of the colony should have the ultimate decision on their own future."

The Australian government under Mr. Whitlam, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta maintained that Indonesia was the linchpin of the South East Asian security system because it is a strong, oil-producing state with entrenched anti-communist leaders. Despite Australian government policy, and at odds with it, some opinion leaders developed a determined opposition to the Indonesian involvement with, and annexation of, East Timor. More-over, most of that opposition was concentrated in the Labor Party. Some critics simply opposed the Indonesian military regime and all its works. In some Australian academic and trade union circles there was consistent criticism of the alleged politically repressive nature of the Suharto Government and of its development policies, constructed around massive infusions of foreign capital.

Then in late 1975 in Australia the Liberal-National Party returned to office, with Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister and Andrew Peacock as Minister for Foreign Affairs. From Jakarta, meanwhile, Australia's Ambassador Richard Woolcott was urging acceptance of the political realities in Timor. The United States considered the matter minor; A.S.E.A.N. leaders supported Indonesia; and there was little criticism of Indonesia's action within the Third World. Then in January 1978, Australia granted de jure recognition of Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor.

Despite Australia's de jure recognition of the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor, Australia's political relationship with Indonesia in the early 1980s remained bedevilled by the Timor issue. The Australian Government tried to maintain good relations with Indonesia, but the Australian media and some pressure groups were determined not to allow the matter of East Timor to rest, and continued criticism of Indonesia. The invasion roused strong anti-Indonesian sentiments in the Australian press, which held Jakarta responsible for the deaths of five Australian journalists who had travelled to the border region between (then) Portuguese Timor and Indonesian Timor to cover the war. The constant criticism in the Australian media was greatly resented in Indonesia, whose government argued that by their invasion of East Timor they had saved Australia from the prospect of having a "Cuba on the doorstep". They were irritated by what they saw as Australian interference in their internal affairs.

Of course, part of the problem is that many Australians who know little of either Indonesian (or Asian) culture or contemporary history often seek to impose their own standards on what is a very different society to their own. Conversely, many Indonesians, even at high government levels, also find aspects of Australian society hard to understand. The Australian government professes friendship to Indonesia; yet Radio Australia broadcasts in Bahasa Indonesian material that is often critical of the Indonesian government, which the local Indonesian media could not do. The Australian government tries to avoid controversy by saying that Radio Australia is a semi-independent statutory authority which may have policy attitudes different from those of the Australian government of the day. The Indonesians find it hard also to accept that the democratic Australian government has almost no control over the print media.

For thirty years Australia had been able to base its foreign policy on the assumption of a stable political environment in the Indonesian archipelago. More recently it had, in addition, been able to anticipate a growing and mutually beneficial economic relationship with an "Indonesian tiger" economy moving inexorably up the list of Australia's most important economic partners.

In commenting on the previous government's position, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in a speech to the Australia-Asia Institute in Sydney on 1 March 1999 noted:8

"Successive Australian governments endorsed Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor because Australia did not want to see the balkanisation of Indonesia with the granting of independence fanning separatist sentiment elsewhere in the archipelago."

Many Timorese advocates of independence did not give up, however. Some continued guerrilla warfare; refugees in Australia and elsewhere provided support and arms;9 and individuals and institutions around the world argued their case and secured publicity for their efforts. The U.N. General Assembly continued until 1982 to support their claims. In the following years the Indonesian army, provoked by guerrilla attacks, dominated the administration; many wrongs were committed on both sides, and Indonesia came to be widely criticised. 10

The currency and economic crisis of 1997-98 altered this strategic assessment. And since the fall of Suharto, the Australian government has taken an activist approach. In mid-1998 John Howard wrote to President B.J. Habibie suggesting that long-term prospects for reconciliation would be best served by undertaking an act of self-determination at some future time, following a period of autonomy for East Timor. President Habibie in mid-1998 offered East Timor "special status" with wide autonomy, though still within Indonesia. At the beginning of 1999, while rejecting a referendum as had been proposed, in a personal intervention he announced that, whatever the result, Indonesia wished to free itself of the Timor problem by the year 2000. B.J. Habibie should be given credit for having the political courage to take the decision which his predecessor could never bring himself to do.

The process initially ran into trouble with the emergence of militias which were committed to opposing the independence movement and started conducting a campaign of intimidation which revived memories of de-stabilisation in the mid-1970s. But Australia envisaged "some international confidence-building and administrative presence". By an agreement between Indonesia and Portugal signed at the United Nations on 5 May 1999, an international force of monitors, police advisers and military liaison officers supervised voting in East Timor on 30 August 1999.

The shooting began, after the referendum, by the anti-independence militias. The Indonesian authorities failed to overcome the situation, and the Security Council condemned the violence and gave approval for a peacekeeping force led by Australia. Many East Timorese fled into the mountains. Others were rounded up by the Indonesian army and trucked out to West Timor. Unknown numbers were killed. Hundreds of homes were burnt. East Timorese resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta observed:11

"There are tens of thousands of displaced right now. If they are not killed by Indonesian troops, they will die of starvation and lack of medical care. We are facing an imminent, extraordinary human catastrophe right under the eyes of the U.N. Security Council, and they are not acting promptly to stop the killing."

Initially, Canberra showed a distinct reluctance to push for an armed, multinational peace-keeping presence on the ground in East Timor following the plebiscite, despite overtures from the United States to set up such a force. Independence movement spokesman Jose Ramos Horta had already made it plain that "an East Timorese state would be looking to Australia to guarantee its security".12

In the event, in late 1999 Australia did move in and did send Australian troops to East Timor as peacekeeping forces with the aim of restoring peace and stability. And John Howard made a one-day tour of East Timor on 28 November 1999, becoming the first Australian Prime Minister to visit combat soldiers since the Vietnam War in 1966.

Major Problems and Opportunities

For all these reasons, East Timor is set to remain a major fixture on Australia's foreign policy map for some time to come. There will also be an issue of financial assistance, with Canberra having to foot the lion's share of the external support an independent but impoverished East Timor requires. As well, there is the fallout in our relations with Indonesia to deal with.

Various governments and non-governmental organisations now are coming forward with humanitarian aid, that could well be seen as emergency help only. An independent East Timor adds to the number of mini-states requiring more or less permanent subsidisation of one kind or another - and the usual assessment of the economic prospects for East Timor is bleak indeed. There are these days so many calls that potential donors must all be constantly reviewing their commitments and priorities. How will East Timor rate in the competition for attention? Who may feel a particular obligation? Is it healthy if such states are able to play a part in regional institutions, or in the United Nations? Will refugees or expatriates,who may be well educated and have experience and skills, choose to return to East Timor? Will other immigrants be attracted to East Timor?

A sudden transition to independence and democracy may create more problems than it solves. The East Timorese simply do not have the skills or resources to take control of their own affairs in such a short period without a risk to the very independence and freedom they have fought so long to achieve. In theory, Indonesia may wash its hands of East Timor entirely as many in the Jakarta elite are now arguing. But a policy of studied indifference or benign neglect is hardly a promising formula for a constructive relationship with a new East Timorese state. The reality is that Indonesia cannot quarantine itself from events in East Timor. Continuing political instability among the East Timorese would inevitably spread into adjacent Indonesian West Timor and probably beyond. The two most likely sources of instability, as argued by the Australian National University academic, Alan Dupont, are "divisions within the indigenous East Timorese population, and between the East Timorese and the Javanese and Buginese migrant communities that have established themselves in the province over the past two decades".13

There is also a risk that East Timor, like many of the micro island states of the Pacific and the Caribbean, may be come a haven for criminal elements trafficking in drugs, illegal migrants and a conduit for money laundering activities. For all these reasons and more, Indonesia must now begin to craft the elements of a new long-term policy of engagement with East Timor that protects its vital national interests but allows an independent East Timor sufficient geo-political space to pursue its own affairs free from coercion or undue outside influences.

Indonesia needs first to take concrete steps to ameliorate the distrust and hostility that have built up over twenty-five years of Indonesian occupation of the province. Indonesia has a unique understanding of East Timor and is well placed to contribute to its future economic and political growth. A bilateral framework agreement addressing areas for future cooperation would be seen as a positive gesture by East Timor and a tangible sign that Indonesia is prepared to consider a mutually beneficial partnership for the 21st century.

Secondly, Indonesia could reassert its regional leadership by encouraging other Southeast Asian states to invest in East Timor and by sponsoring an independent East Timor's membership in the region's key economic, political and security forums.

East Timor's transition to independence also poses a major challenge for Australia's defence, foreign and economic policy. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has made it clear that Australia shares many of Indonesia's anxieties about the future direction of an independent East Timor. The greatest risk to Australia is that independence for East Timor will actually complicate bilateral relations with Indonesia and pose a new set of political, economic and security problems. On the other hand, a prosperous and friendly East Timor which enjoys good relations with Indonesia is very much in Australia's national interests. It is to this end that Australia's defence and foreign and trade policies should now be directed.

Soeharto's fall has made Indonesia a more democratic state. The Indonesian election on 20 October 1999 and the smooth handing over of the presidency to Abdurrahman Wahid is a case in point. This development is in Australia's long-term interests. But continuing domestic instability, such as instability in the province of Aceh, and the prospect of further ethnic cleansing in Indonesia will present some difficult choices for Australia. Tension between the two countries remains heightened in view of Australia's deployment of the U.N.-sanctioned international force in East Timor.

New Approach

Australia's strategic position in relation to Indonesia has strengthened since the collapse in the Indonesian economy in 1997-98. This collapse put Australia in a position of relatively increased economic strength. An additional reason why Australia's support for an independent East Timor grew may be found in commercial considerations. Timor has the potential to be a big money earner for Australian businesses, particularly for the oil industry. While previously Australia was required to go through Indonesia and cooperate in a joint venture exploitation of Timorese society and resources, particularly oil, Australia foresaw that the opportunity to deal directly with the Timorese would create a situation in which Australian businesses may operate more advantageously. If this is the case, the Australian business community has much to gain from recent events, because they mean that East Timor will now be dealt with directly by Australian commercial interests, which will not have to share the spoils of economic success with their Indonesian counterparts.

As a respected diplomatic actor and middle power in the region, Australia must be prepared to help shoulder the economic burden of reconstructing the East Timorese economy. The cost may be considerable in the first few years of independence, but Australia will eventually reap a more than matching political and commercial dividend. In this respect, Australia should use its good offices to ensure that the international community shares in the task of building a vibrant democracy and a viable economy in East Timor.

1. The western half of the island of Timor was a province of Indonesia; the eastern half had been a Portuguese territory since the sixteenth century. In 1975 East Timor (which is distant only 580 kilometres from Darwin) had a population of 610,000. Australia had established close links with Portuguese Timor; Dili, the capital of East Timor, was a tourist centre, and trade and investment were encouraged.

2. Barry M. Coldrey, "Australian Foreign Policy", Melbourne: Dove Communications, 1986, page 157.

3. For details see, Colin Brown (ed.), "Indonesia: Dealing with a Neighbour", Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996, pages 1-186.

4. Barry M. Coldrey, op. cit., page 158.

5. Malcolm Booker, "The Last Domino: Aspects of Australia's Foreign Relations", Sydney: Collins, 1976, page 211

6. Ibid., page 213.

7. Ibid.

8. A.R. Downer, Speech to the Australia-Asia Institute, Sydney, 1 March 1999

9. Ross Cottrill, "East Timor in Context", New Zealand International Review, July/August 1999, page 9; Roger Peren, "East Timor: Questions, Questions", New Zealand International Review, September/October 1999, page 11.

10. Amnesty International reports indicate that human rights violations are widespread not only in East Timor but throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They are part of a pattern of systematic human rights violations which have unfolded over more than a quarter of a century. For some useful discussions of these issues, see for example, Amnesty International, "Indonesia and East Timor", London, l994; Jim Aubrey (ed.), "Free East Timor", Sydney: Random House Australia Pty. Ltd., 1998; M. Turner (ed.), "Telling East Timor: Personal Testimonies, 1942-1992", Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1991, pages 110-111 and 121; P. Carey and G.C. Bentley (eds.), "East Timor at the Crossroads: The Forging of a Nation", New York: Social Science Research Council, 1995, pages 109-119.

11. "East Timor in Turmoil", Horizons, Melbourne, vol. 8 no. 2, Spring 1999, page 4.

12. "The Bulletin", 31 August 1999, page 27.

13. Alan Dupont, "Indonesia, Australia and the Problem of East Timor", Australia and Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, Newsletter, Canberra, April 1999, page 2.




National Observer No. 45 - Winter 2000