In March 1999, after a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer tried to explain to the press why he was opposed to an international peacekeeping presence in East Timor. He said:
We hope that there won’t be a need for a peacekeeping force because if you need a peacekeeping force, you need a peace to keep and peace first has to be negotiated and we hope that when the peace is negotiated it will be a peaceful peace that won’t require a peacekeeping force.
As verbal gymnastics go, this manoeuvre was the Triple Weasel. But Downer was merely reflecting the policy of the Howard Government at the time, which was to preserve Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor. When the Indonesian military launched a campaign of State-sponsored terror against the East Timorese population, Downer said:
I get the impression that President Habibie, [Foreign Minister] Alatas [and]General Wiranto are all trying to do the right thing. And some of the commanders, clearly, are trying to do the right thing. But there have been and there still are some fairly wild elements within the Indonesian military.
The Howard Government sent in aircraft to evacuate foreign observers, ensuring there would be no witnesses to the ethnic cleansing. However, its efforts were foiled by a tidal wave of public outrage: massive protests escalated rapidly, drawing in the union movement.
Rank and file militancy took the union leadership by surprise. As Leigh Hubbard, then Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council put it, ‘a lot of the members are ahead of the leadership on this one.’ It’s worth contrasting the speed and fury of these public protests with other expressions of public sentiment.
In May 2000, approximately 200,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a Sunday morning in support of Aboriginal Reconciliation. Having done so, they reported back to work on Monday morning, thus signalling their unwillingness to interrupt the flow of everyday life.
Over the weekend of 15 “17 February 2003, hundreds of thousands of people protested around Australia before the invasion of Iraq. Having made their point, they reported back to work on Monday morning, once again signalling their unwillingness to interrupt the flow of everyday life.
Protests with a weak forward trajectory can be contained, and are not a serious threat to the status quo. In the case of East Timor, however, people were not going back to work on Monday. They were walking out of workplaces and into the streets. I have described the dynamics of this in my book Reluctant Saviour (Scribe, 2004).
As for the Howard Government, in 1999, it was forced to reverse its policy, beg the international community for diplomatic assistance and deploy troops to East Timor.
Lately, however, there have been claims that Australia is being targeted by terrorists not because of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, but because of the liberation of East Timor. The star witness here is one Osama bin Laden, who has alleged that Australian forces ‘landed on East Timor which is part of the Islamic world.’
Bin Laden’s comments were cited by former Australian Attorney-General Daryl Williams, who has rejected claims that his Government’s support for the US has made Australia a terrorist target. In an address at Murdoch University in Perth, Williams said that terrorists ‘do not agree with our values and our way of life.’ Osama bin Laden, he pointed out, had made ‘a reference to our troops in East Timor as part of a œcrusader force. ’
US intelligence official Michael Scheuer made reference to the same statement. Scheuer, who led the CIA’s (as yet) unsuccessful Bin Laden Unit, said on Lateline in August 2005 that ‘in the Islamic mind, the Americans and the Australians in the UN ripped a part of an Islamic country away from its owner, if you will.’
In an interview with 3AW in August, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello reminded us that terrorists
don’t like our way of life, don’t like our society and in their own twisted minds oppose it. There was a statement for example by Osama bin Laden that he wanted to punish Australia for what it did in East Timor
This hallucinatory claim would be come as a surprise to most Indonesians who unlike bin Laden have access to a map. Indeed, some of their Cabinet ministers were members of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals who argued that Timor had nothing in common with the rest of Indonesia. Even Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah spokesmen have said very little about the liberation of East Timor.
It is convenient but erroneous to claim that Islam is the villain in these matters; the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was conducted by generals of the Christian faith. And these Christian generals were given diplomatic and military support by Australia, the US and the UK throughout the 1975 invasion and the subsequent 24-year occupation.
The occupation resulted in the deaths of one third of the Timorese population the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust. Furthermore, Australia and the US supported Indonesia, the most populous Islamic State in the world, during the reign of President Suharto. They continued to support Indonesia during and after the slaughter in East Timor, whose largely animist population had sheltered under the protection of the Catholic Church.
Simultaneously, the US launched major covert wars in Central America not against Islam but against the Catholic Church, which had taken the side of the poor after centuries of serving the rich. The issue was not Islam, or the Catholic Church, or religion in general. The issue was disobedience to imperial dictates.
The then Director-General of ASIO (and now Australian Ambassador to the US), Dennis Richardson, acknowledged that bin Laden’s statements were sheer opportunism in an address to the Sydney Institute last year:
Bin Laden’s first known reference to East Timor in November 2001 was designed to strike a chord in South East Asia, especially Indonesia, and his subsequent references to Afghanistan and Iraq must be seen in terms of al-Qaeda propaganda and recruitment purposes.
Attempts to link Terrorism and Timor should be seen for what they are: a rhetorical ploy to justify the subjugation of Iraq. Bin Laden is not the only one capable of opportunism.
Dr Clinton Fernandes is a historian and author of Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the independence of East Timor (Scribe, 2004). He is currently a Visiting Fellow in International Relations at the Australian National University. These are his views.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.