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The myths of Australia's role in East Timorese independence

The Strategist - January 18, 2020

John McCarthy – Every country has its legends. They may be important to national self-esteem, but they're not necessarily good history.

Twenty years after the ballot in which the East Timorese decided their future, it's time to reflect on Australia's East Timor legend.

A first reflection is that the contents of the letter from Prime Minister John Howard delivered to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie in December 1998 were not radical. The letter suggested that Indonesia should consider granting East Timor autonomy with a built-in review mechanism for self-determination at a future date.

The letter was portrayed as a major change in policy. In January 1999, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer described it as 'a historic shift'. Howard and Downer each suggested that when the decision was taken in cabinet in late 1998 to send the letter, the other said: 'This is big.'

In fact, the letter's importance lay in consolidating existing ideas and presenting them at a very senior level. Because we said it was a major change – and some others agreed – it became one.

Downer later remarked that it represented a 30-degree turn in policy, not a 180-degree turn. Some in Jakarta thought so too. They were right. The substance of the change had been developed over the preceding two years.

When I arrived in Jakarta in early 1997, my sense of the East Timor issue was hardly original. A stable Indonesia and a working relationship with that country had to be the dominant Australian policy objectives.

But I didn't see these objectives as precluding criticism of the behaviour of the Indonesian military in East Timor or the suggestion that the East Timorese should have more say in managing their own affairs.

This view was widely shared in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; there was no Jakarta lobby arguing an exclusive Indonesian case.

President Suharto's position in 1997 was clear: he would not countenance independence or autonomy for East Timor.

Suharto regarded Foreign Minister Ali Alatas's ongoing, if sporadic, discussions with Portugal, the former colonial power in East Timor, as a diplomatic task aimed at containing international embarrassment – not as a path to any change of status for the province.

The difference in perceptions of the East Timor issue between the tenures of my predecessors and the beginning of my own time as Australian ambassador was that, by 1997, circumstances in Indonesia were changing. Suharto's reign was ending and fluidity had crept into Indonesian politics. The atmosphere was conducive to more active consideration between the embassy and Canberra of the autonomy options for East Timor.

The embassy had a detailed discussion on autonomy with UN Special Representative on East Timor Jamsheed Marker in Jakarta in March 1997.

In my first visit to East Timor in June 1997, several aspects of the situation were clear. Few in Indonesia other than the military understood the province because they hardly ever visited it. The East Timorese in local government were mainly self-serving and often thuggish. The complaints of the Catholic Church and human rights groups about the behaviour of the Indonesian military were mainly justified. The independence force, Falinitil, was a serious irritant rather than a real threat to Indonesian rule.

And unless East Timor could go in a different political direction, things weren't going to get better and could get worse.

The embassy didn't see independence as an option. But if there was to be peace in East Timor, it had to have wide-ranging autonomy. That would have to be negotiated between Jakarta and the East Timorese. Negotiations between Indonesia and Portugal wouldn't be enough.

Diplomat Bassim Blazey drafted a paper in July 1997 containing the elements of a politically plausible autonomy package. It informed future thinking on autonomy in the embassy and Canberra.

A year later the Indonesian polity had changed irrevocably.

The Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, crushing the economy and badly affecting national self-confidence. It eroded civil order and precipitated the resignation of Suharto on 22 May 1998. The brilliant but quixotic Vice President Habibie succeeded him.

On 9 June, Habibie said that Indonesia would offer East Timor wide-ranging autonomy if Portugal recognised it as part of Indonesia.

Three days later, colleagues and I again visited Dili. Pro-integration figures were calling for autonomy; those who had earlier argued for autonomy were now seeing it as a step towards self-determination; and students were calling for an immediate referendum. The centre of gravity of East Timorese aspirations had shifted.

Australia had to change its policy emphasis. With Habibie's 9 June comment, Indonesia had itself gone beyond Australia's own stated position on East Timor. The Labor Party had moved towards a clearer espousal of self-determination.

In July 1998, in a call with Xanana Gusmao, the captured Falintil leader who was being held in Jakarta's Cipinang prison, I discussed, among other things, the idea of autonomy followed by a referendum.

Also in July, I floated with Alatas the same concept and got nowhere. Downer came up the same month, posed the same idea and got the same answer.

In August, with Alatas's unenthusiastic permission, the deputy in the embassy, Les Rowe, sounded out East Timorese views on autonomy. Our missions where overseas Timorese were located were tasked to do the same. In those consultations, the concept of a long period of autonomy followed by an act of self-determination was frequently evinced.

Between September and December, Canberra developed in secrecy the contents of the letter to Habibie.

But by then such actions were far from novel. Howard gave them profile. Still, the really new factor in the East Timor conundrum was Habibie himself.

On 12 January, The Australian correspondent in Jakarta, Donald Greenlees, broke the story of our shift based on sources in Canberra. He amplified the story a day later from Indonesian sources in Jakarta. Downer publicly confirmed the shift on 12 January.

On 27 January, at the urging of Habibie, the Indonesian cabinet agreed that the issue of East Timor's future should be put to a consultative process in the province. The process by which Habibie arrived at that historic decision has been well documented.

His decision is commonly seen as having been catalysed by the Howard letter. However, it must be noted that not only did Australia not propose independence for East Timor – at least in the foreseeable future – but initially it didn't want it and at no time declared that it did.

The view in Canberra was that the proposals in the letter were as much about registering our own change of view as about causing Indonesia to change its policy.

Before the letter was delivered, a senior Canberra colleague went so far as to tell me over the phone (the invariable means of relaying truly sensitive information) that a rejection by Habibie of its proposals was expected; a few weeks later the letter would be passed to a member of the press gallery, thus laying bare the shift in Australian policy and placing us in a more comfortable political position. Indeed, I told both Habibie and Alatas that we would make our position public.

On 12 January, Downer said publicly that Australia's preference was for 'an arrangement by which East Timor would have a high degree of autonomy but remain legally part of Indonesia'. Until at least the end of February, ministers continued publicly to express this preference.We did not want an independent East Timor because of the province's perceived lack of viability and the risk that the example of its independence would encourage separatism elsewhere in the archipelago.

In my opinion, the government privately changed its collective mind during the course of incidents perpetrated in East Timor between late February and June, most notably the massacre of civilians in the town of Liquica at the hands of pro-integration militia. Part of this change was due to an increasingly horrified reaction among the Australian public to those incidents.

Given the level of violence and intimidation against pro-independence supporters, it would have been hard to see a vote against independence as being other than as a result of coercion. Under those circumstances, any other outcome would have lacked international credibility and denied Indonesia the very purpose of the referendum – diplomatic legitimacy. As a consequence, in Australia and elsewhere the policy would be seen as a failure.

But sensibly we spoke publicly only of ensuring that the referendum would be conducted without coercion to allow the East Timorese to exercise a genuine act of free choice.

Events might have taken a different course had we been dealing with an Indonesian government in a normal situation. Indonesia was going through its biggest upheaval since the mid-1960s. This was infinitely more important for it, and indeed, in terms of realpolitik, for Australia, than the single issue of East Timor.

Indonesia had only started to shed the vestiges of Suharto's authoritarian state six months before the Howard letter. It was drafting a new constitution, negotiating decentralisation with the provinces, and seeking to repair an economy still reeling from collapse and to cope with an exuberant young population impatient for political freedoms they had never experienced.

New political parties were being formed and old ones for the first time revelling in the possibilities of actually making a difference.

And given separatist issues in Papua and Aceh and sectarian conflict in Sulawesi and Maluku, the Indonesian government was concerned about not only separatism in East Timor, but the very integrity of the state.

While intellectually the Australian system understood the pressures on Indonesia, our expectations of Indonesia on East Timor didn't always reflect such an understanding.

The complexity and weight of all the matters before the Indonesian government contributed to the fact that, for many weeks after the cabinet decision on East Timor, thinking didn't progress on the form of consultation process, including on a United Nations role, the contents of the autonomy package to be put to the East Timorese, or security.

These demands on the government, together with the fact that management of East Timor had traditionally fallen to the military, meant that handling of the issue was left largely to them.

Initially, the military had let the Habibie proposal go through without open dissent, including from the six members of cabinet with military backgrounds. In a different, less turbulent period it's reasonable to suppose they would have vetoed it as they later delayed Habibie's acceptance of peacekeepers.

Instead, in the face of criticism from the nationalist side of Indonesian politics, dismay from those within their number who had served in East Timor, and agitation from the pro-integration East Timorese, the military developed policies to frustrate the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and to traumatise the population with the intent of either preventing it from voting or forcing it to vote for autonomy rather than independence.

While we understood the role of the military and increasingly realised the nature of its agenda in the province, it's less clear that our system as a whole appreciated how powerless Habibie, Alatas and others were to do much about it.

And given the range of preoccupations of the government and the degree of ignorance about East Timor among most Indonesians, there was little understanding, even among senior Indonesian ministers, of what was going on.

On one occasion, when I rang Alatas after an incident in Dili on 17 April in which at least 12 people were killed, it was I who broke the news to him of the incident.

While I was satisfied two months before the ballot that about 70% of eligible voters would vote for independence, senior Indonesian ministers thought otherwise because pro-integration Timorese and soldiers on the ground had fed them false information.There also was mutual distrust between the military as a whole and the civilians in the cabinet – a point often made by Alatas. A day before I went to Dili for the referendum, a senior economic minister commented privately about the military: 'Get peacekeepers in as soon as possible. I don't trust these people.'

Another reflection is that Australia's national myth about our role in East Timor has obscured the role of others.

While it's true that we did more than any other country in stimulating UN involvement and we were the most active on security issues, others like the US, principally through its ambassador, J. Stapleton Roy, and its assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, Stanley O. Roth, were also forceful. And UNAMET, which did the heavy lifting on the ground in East Timor, was unequivocally an international operation.

Largely unsung, the unarmed UNAMET behaved with exemplary courage under constant harassment from militia in both the lead-up to the ballot and the days which followed.

Ten international UNAMET staff and two Australian military officers, embassy army attache Colonel Ken Brownrigg and Captain Noel Henderson – again, all unarmed – remained in Dili helping stranded foreigners, reporting on the destruction and paving the way for the International Force East Timor, better known as INTERFET. These people experienced the most dangerous period of all.

When INTERFET – an Australian-commanded and mostly Australian-armed force – deployed to East Timor, it became the object of sustained, and politically encouraged, hubris in Australia.

INTERFET's members expected to face combat and casualties and showed real professionalism. But they didn't meet serious armed resistance.

In the days before and after INTERFET's arrival, the Australian approach to the operation was seen internationally as jingoistic. And it was.

This disguised the fact that behind the scenes, our diplomatic system – particularly our mission in New York, and crucially Howard and Downer personally – was effective in convincing others of the importance of immediate action on the part of a wide group of countries. Because the APEC summit was convened in Auckland at the very time the destruction of East Timor was at its height, world leaders were given both the spur and the forum for effective action.

But Australians have tended to forget that an international effort in which Australia was the prime mover, rather than Australian actions per se, persuaded Indonesia to accept INTERFET.

The process was far from straightforward. In the initial days of havoc, the generals declined to countenance an international force to stop the carnage. Indeed, it was rumoured that on 8 September they threatened Habibie with a coup.

When a few months later I asked Habibie about that week, he said, possibly in the grips of his penchant for the dramatic: 'There could have been war.' He had been preparing the ground for an international force, but there had been enormous resistance from the military. When asked who in the military had resisted him, he replied: 'All of them.' When asked if they had threatened to force him out, he said: 'In a way.'

A final reflection is on the role of serendipity.

My best guess is no other Indonesian president but Habibie would have acted as he did. In a settled government used to prepared deliberation of issues, the military in the cabinet would probably have vetoed Habibie's proposal.

Had the result of the referendum been close, the last part of the agreed process, approval by the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly, might not have been granted on the alleged basis that the UN had been biased. This option was being discussed informally in Jakarta before the referendum.

We were fortunate in the timing of the APEC summit.

In late 1998, we had no idea where we would be in late 1999. We achieved a result which we had never expected and which we had forsworn as an Australian objective. Self-evidently our policy was not a considered process. It was a series of ad hoc decisions based on changing circumstances. The outcome was the right one. But to quote the Duke of Wellington on an earlier occasion, it was 'the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life'.

[John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India. Image: Department of Defence.]

Source: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-myths-of-australias-role-in-east-timorese-independence