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National Observer Home > No. 63 - Summer 2005 > Book Reviews

Book Review: Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor

by Clinton Fernandes
Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2004, pages 138.

Reluctant Saviour is written by Clinton Fernandes, who is described as "a historian based in Melbourne", and concerns Australia's role in regard to the independence movement in East Timor.

Unfortunately the book does not live up to its promise, and views events relating to East Timor from the point of view of leftish propaganda. Perhaps this is not surprising, in that the book has been praised by the eccentric leftist, Noam Chomsky, who said of the author's work "His in-depth account is challenging and instructive."

It will be recalled that the taking over of East Timor by Indonesia was supported by the government of Mr. Gough Whitlam, and then by the government of Mr. Malcolm Fraser. It appears that these governments had in mind on the one hand the fact that East Timor was not economically viable and on the other hand the desirability that Indonesia should be under the control of a central government and not split up into a number of small states with unpredictable and potentially inimical policies.

However the cause of East Timorese independence was taken up by those on the political left, who by dint of a continuing campaign were able to accumulate some more moderate allies. Eventually, of course, the campaign of the left prevailed, being supported by inter alia an Australian government with changed views.

The original view of the Whitlam and Fraser governments was not unreasonable at that time, and it would be useful to have an unprejudiced analysis of the East Timor problem. But unfortunately Reluctant Saviour is not in this category, but is written with a strong political bias. Fernandes’ final paragraph contains the revealing statement as to how Australians should see Indonesians: "they should see them as fellow workers who face a harder, more brutal version of the exploitation they themselves endure". (This is the thirteenth stroke of the clock indeed, casting doubt on all that has preceded it.)

Fernandes suggests that "activists" should target Indonesians responsible for deaths during the fighting involved in the East Timor rebellion and ascertain their travel arrangements and co-ordinate "citizen-initiated arrests". He goes on: "It is also clear that senior Australian personnel collaborated with the Indonesians in the atrocities committed during the 24-year occupation of East Timor. Activists can use the existing legal system to take steps against them also." Financial damages paid out would be used for the relief of East Timorese "and for other progressive causes".

A reading of Reluctant Saviour underlines the doctrinaire and politically extreme attitudes of many of those who supported the East Timorese rebellion against Indonesia. Many of these activists have been moved by hostility toward capitalist systems and by an apparent hatred of Indonesia in particular, in view especially of President Suharto's suppression of powerful Indonesian communist elements many years ago.

R.M. Pearce

National Observer No. 63 - Summer 2005