The Freedom Flotilla Will Go Down In History


When I heard the shadow foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop comment recently on the Freedom Flotilla sailing peacefully to West Papua, I experienced a moment of déjà vu. In Bishop’s opinion, "If this Freedom Flotilla breaches Indonesia's territorial sovereignty, Indonesia is entitled to use whatever means it wishes to protect it.”

In 1992 I sailed on the Lusitania Peace Ship to East Timor, which had similar objectives to the Freedom Flotilla, and was blocked by warships, a military plane, three helicopters, and threats to “shoot us out of the water”. The rhetoric at that time was similar to that which is being promulgated at present. We were insulted and threatened in what were obvious canards.

Nevertheless youthful volunteers came from France, Guinea-Bissau in Africa, Japan, Germany, Canada, Cape Verde, China, Indonesia, Holland, Austria, Vietnam, Italy, Brazil, India, Sweden, the United States of America, Britain, Australia and Portugal. Some of the volunteers on board had not been born when Indonesia invaded East Timor.

Reports from 2 March 1992 quote Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Philip Flood, as saying, “Australia will not sacrifice good relations with Jakarta”. He threatened to take “appropriate measures” if “they [the peace mission members]act illegally”. Apparently it didn’t occur to Flood to suggest to the Indonesian dictator Suharto that it would be unwise from public relations point-of-view to sink a civilian ship.

We wanted to alert the world to the parlous situation in East Timor by walking from Dili port to the Santa Cruz cemetery to place flowers on the graves of victims of the Santa Cruz massacre.

To have the guts to protest without being armed is a frightening affair. Twenty-one years ago, on 10 March at 11am, a RAAF plane flew over us. At 2.40pm an Indonesian Caribou aircraft swooped us twice. At 5pm two more aircraft made two more sweeps. Next morning, 11 March, I woke at 4am to see the outline of eight warships and a frigate following us. When the sun came up one student rubbed his eyes and exclaimed, “I’ve never seen a more exciting sunrise”.

The parallels between the present Flotilla and the Lusitania are obvious. One sincerely hopes for as good an outcome. After negotiations our captain turned his ship. He instructed us to make our way to the stern where we threw our wreaths and flowers. At no time had anyone on the Lusitania made so much as a rude gesture towards the bullying warships. As we sailed back to Australia many voiced their pleasure to have taken part. I overheard a Japanese girl and a German youth promising to work all the harder for freedom for the Timorese from Javanese oppression.

I heard a report that thousands of Timorese had flooded into Dili to welcome the Lusitania. The boost to Timorese morale had clearly rattled the occupying army. We had struck a blow against the dictatorship’s capacity to rely on propaganda. It also helped to instil immense pride both in Portugal and East Timor and among the passengers who returned to their homelands to great acclaim.

When I went to the South Melbourne Market to replenish my empty refrigerator I was not allowed to pay for a single item. All kinds of articles including a silk shirt were pressed on me. I was with one of my nephews and when I protested he wisely counselled me, “I think you should just accept, Shirley”.

Another consequence of the Lusitania which I hope will be repeated for the Flotilla was that even school children knew the truth about East Timor after we returned.

For the West Papuan Flotilla the truth is again very simple: money is the root of all evil. The same morning as Bishop made her comments, news broke that America has agreed to sell Apache helicopters worth $500 million to Indonesia. Who is likely to invade Indonesia? Tonga? Tasmania?

I don’t know anything about Julie Bishop except her chosen field of work, but I don’t believe for a moment that she can be as ignorant of the plight of the subjugated citizens of West Papua as her comments suggest. She is backed up by Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who is quoted as referring to the protestors as “fringe activists” in several reports.

As far as my experience as an activist is concerned, Carr is guilty of tautology.

Perhaps the brave souls manning the flotilla are aware that Australian foreign aid to Indonesia is $647 Million – a 350 per cent increase over seven years. Australia also provides military and other hardware above this amount. Indonesia’s expenditure on military is $8 billion – a 300 per cent increase over the same seven years.

Australia gives more foreign aid to Indonesia than the whole of Africa and the Middle East combined. Australia’s aid to Indonesia has increased while aid in all other areas including Pacific neighbours has been cut.

In other words, Australian taxpayer dollars could be helping to finance the purchase of Apache attack helicopters for the Indonesian military – the same military that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in occupied West Papua.

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