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Don't mention the war: Why Canberra suppresses the story of East Timor

WA Today - November 24, 2019

Michael Koziol – Newspapers, it is often said, represent a first draft of history. They are necessarily fast, loose and often incomplete. But actual histories, written years later by scholars, ought to be impeccable, comprehensive and considered. Especially when they concern a nation's ultimate commitment: sending troops to war.

Military operations are shrouded in secrecy when they occur, with good reason. But later, Australia commissions official accounts of its armed encounters, entrusted to historians charged with telling the story warts and all, and granted the requisite access to archives, documents and personnel.

Revelations that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is waging a war of its own against the publication of an official history of our involvement in the East Timor conflict have alarmed – but not necessarily surprised – the country's most esteemed military historians.

When Peter Edwards set out to write the official history of Australia's involvement in South-East Asian conflicts after World War II, he faced an uphill battle to include one of the key chapters – the Indonesian confrontation with Malaysia between 1963 and 1966.

Edwards had been appointed in the last days of the Fraser government but by the time he arrived in Canberra, Bob Hawke was prime minister. The new government was wary of damaging its relationship with Jakarta, but Edwards was insistent: an official account of the period – while obviously focused on Vietnam – could not ignore the Confrontation.

"It took quite a lot of time to convince the authorities that that was the case," Edwards says. "Quite clearly, there were a lot of sensitivities within the political and military establishment about anything to do with Indonesia."

This remains true. As The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age revealed, several sources close to the East Timor project say DFAT is concerned about embarrassing Australian bureaucrats and angering Indonesia, including fears its publication may affect co-operation against people smuggling.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer said he had been told DFAT wanted to cut nine chapters exploring the context of the 1999 East Timor conflict – crucial material which he believes should be published.

"I think [Foreign Minister] Marise Payne should intervene and ensure the publication of the full book goes ahead," Downer said. "Ultimately, this is the minister's decision."

Meanwhile, Edwards and two other official historians – David Horner and Robert O'Neill – have written to Payne calling for the unvarnished volume on East Timor to be released.

O'Neill authored the official history of Australia's involvement in the Korean War. In 2004, Horner was commissioned to write and edit what eventually became a six-volume official history of Australia's peacekeeping operations since World War II, involving 30,000 personnel in 50 operations – but not East Timor.

In their letter to Payne, the trio warned: "Australia stands to lose much more from the perception that its official histories may be censored by departmental officials for reasons of assumed diplomatic sensitivity than from maintaining the century-old tradition of well researched, comprehensive and balanced histories, free of official or political censorship."

Edwards says this compact is long established and well understood. If a government can't abide a fully-fledged history of a conflict at that time, it doesn't commission one. But once such a project is sanctioned, the historians involved are left to tell the full story.

"Governments have always operated on this basis: they won't hold back any material except under very strict conditions. If they feel they can't do that, they don't commit themselves to having an official history until such time as they can," says Edwards.

"That's why this situation is disturbing, because they said 'yes you can do the official history of the Timor conflict', but now seem to be trying to hold back material."

The man appointed to helm the latest official history series, covering operations in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, is the respected military historian Craig Stockings. He served in East Timor himself as part of the INTERFET deployment in 1999 and 2000.

In 2007, his doctoral thesis on the army cadet movement won the coveted C.E.W. Bean Prize for Military History. He became a senior lecturer and later an associate professor of history at the University of NSW in Canberra. Edwards – who helped choose Stockings as the official historian for this project – describes him as a skilled and credible historian in whom the government should have "full confidence".

Stockings is not afraid to tell it like it is. In a book chapter he penned in 2017, while working on the East Timor volume, Stockings detailed the difficulty historians had in convincing the government to permit an official account of the Timor conflict.

Stockings wrote that Horner "never stopped arguing" for Timor to be included in his own peacekeeping series, to no avail. "Horner was never told why these operations were excluded, other than that they were continuing," Stockings wrote.

"When the Australian commitments to East Timor temporarily concluded in 2006, he went back to the government and asked again that East Timor be included... He did not ask for extra money. Nonetheless, he was again denied without explanation."

For his part, Downer doesn't recall being involved in any discussions about a Timor history at the time. But he says it would have been reasonable for the government to say "no" because it would have likely derailed the Lombok treaty being negotiated with Indonesia. "I can understand that in 2006 but not in 2019," he says.

While launching the second volume of his peacekeeping series in 2011, Horner said it was a "national disgrace" that Australia was not telling the story of its role in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The book was launched by then foreign minister Kevin Rudd, who flagged his support for a new history series.

It wasn't until mid-2015 under Tony Abbott that the process was ticked off by cabinet, with a serious $12.6 million commitment. Even in that approval, however, Stockings noted with curiosity the division between the Middle East histories and the separate Timor volume.

"Political considerations were first and foremost – historical considerations a distant second," he wrote in 2017.

Stockings also predicted the difficulties that would lie ahead. This was partly due to the "significant mismatch between the public narrative of events in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the true historical record", he wrote.

"There are reputations and legacies in play here that may not welcome a robust investigation and publication of the historical record and, possibly, also institutional sensitivities at stake. Contemporary political and diplomatic considerations may find a searching study of the recent past inconvenient. These are my challenges."

Stockings went on to say that he and his team would not "self-censor" their account. "We will include the good with the bad – frictions and mistakes belong to the historical record as much as triumphs. We will write it as we see it, and as the evidence trail indicates.

"If this outlook adds complications in five years' time, we will deal with it in five years' time."

That turned out to be prescient. But complications have turned into serious roadblocks. The draft history has sat with bureaucrats for more than a year, and the requested changes have been so severe that Stockings – according to sources – threatened to resign.

As a result of reports in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age, phone calls have been made by senior politicians from the Timor era which may lead to a ministerial intervention to ensure the volume is released uncensored, and sooner rather than later. Marise Payne declined an interview for this story.

Former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans, now chancellor of the Australian National University, says his old department has a culture of hyper-sensitivity around such issues, particularly when it concerns its own.

"The department is very edgy about some of the decisions that key departmental people made in those early days, and the kind of advice the department was giving that doesn't look all that flash in retrospect," he said.

Evans should know: he was heavily criticised for being too close to Indonesian dictator Suharto in the 1990s, painted as an apologist for Indonesian war crimes and accused of providing cover for its occupation of East Timor.

Independence was never really an option for East Timor during his time, Evans says. "What everyone was hoping to achieve was significant autonomy. That's what the East Timorese leaders thought was the only game in town."

Evans says no one could have realistically predicted that in a few years, the Asian financial crisis, Suharto's resignation and the installation of B.J. Habibie would lead to a referendum on East Timorese independence.

Like Downer, Evans says the full history of the conflict – including its long run-up – should be told with no holds barred.

"Prima facie, I find it pretty intolerable that the department is resisting this, unless there are some grounds for supposing that it's academically unsound," Evans says."However embarrassing errors of judgment and performance may be, you only learn from your past mistakes. That's what these history volumes are all about."

Source: https://www.watoday.com.au/politics/federal/don-t-mention-the-war-why-canberra-suppresses-the-story-of-east-timor-20191121-p53cnr.html