Whitlam, Timor, And The Great Men Of History Myth


Since former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s death, a lot has been written about him. Much of it has ranged from the adulatory to the awe-stricken, particularly from people who are on the left-wing side of the political spectrum. Leftists, liberals, and social democrats have sometimes tempered their praise with perfunctory reservations about the wisdom of his economic policies. The praise culminated in the worshipful response to Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Whitlam.

I imagine the reason Whitlam’s record on East Timor has generally been ignored is because most Australians have never grappled with our own role in the devastation of East Timor. To my knowledge, the only public commentator with a major platform who has seriously considered Whitlam’s record on East Timor is Antony Loewenstein.

It may be that some thought it inappropriate to criticise a man after he died. If Whitlam were a private citizen, I could accept this argument. However, Whitlam was a Prime Minister. Hagiography after death cannot be allowed to obscure the political record. There are two more important reasons why we should honestly recount Whitlam’s record on East Timor. Firstly, because it is important to the victims in East Timor to remember Australia’s role in the invasion and slaughter. Secondly, because East Timor is deeply revealing about the nature of politics in Australia.

Let us begin with the historical context. Suharto swept to power in Indonesia in 1965 by massacring perhaps half a million communists and communist sympathisers. Or, as a delighted Prime Minister Harold Holt said, “With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.” This euphorically received event was described by a CIA analyst as “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”

Whitlam has been described by some as the most progressive prime minister in Australian history. So how did he respond to the dictator who presided over slaughter comparable to that of Mao, Hitler and Stalin?

As Tony Burke observed, Whitlam visited Indonesia in 1973. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Whitlam explained that Suharto had brought “peace and development” to Indonesia, and that he had fully restored “the principles of harmony and justice, democracy and freedom embodied in [the]constitution of 1945”. Burke comments that “there were still more than 100,000 political prisoners being held by the regime – yet Australia was more concerned with the reopening of the Indonesian economy to western corporations.”

It was not just empty words. Australia increased its military aid to Indonesia four-fold from 1972 to 1974. Undoubtedly, this was used to restore even more justice and freedom to Indonesia, and soon East Timor too.

As Indonesia’s impending invasion became clear, the Australian government had to decide how to respond. In August 1975, our ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott wrote an important cablegram explaining what he thought our policy should be. Firstly, Woolcott recognised that

Australia has been singled out by the Indonesians in their planning discussions as the country (along with China) that will be the most vocal in the event of Indonesian intervention in Portuguese Timor. They know that reaction in Australia-unlike other ASEAN countries and New Zealand-will probably be their main problem.

Our policies should be

based on disengaging ourselves as far as possible from the Timor question; getting Australians presently there out of Timor; leave events to take their course; and if and when Indonesia does intervene act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show privately understanding to Indonesia of their problems.

There were important reasons to support Indonesia, after, all. The Department of Minerals and Energy “might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border and… this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia by closing the present gap than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.”

In another cable a few days earlier, Woolcott explained that

in the final analysis we need to make a pragmatic, practical, hard-headed assessment of our real long-term interests. There is no doubt in my mind that our relations with Indonesia in the long-term are more important to us than the future of Portuguese Timor, especially when the situation in the latter is as confused as it is, and the Portuguese seem to be losing control of the situation. I know I am suggesting that our principles should be tempered by the proximity of Indonesia and its importance to us and by the relative unimportance of Portuguese Timor but, in my view, this is where our national interest lies.

Whitlam noted in the margin in response to this: “Woo1cott is right”.

Now online, we can also read some of Whitlam’s letters to the Indonesian dictator. One letter from February 1975 goes back and forth, with seemingly contradictory messages. However, a few points stand out. Firstly, Whitlam notes that he agreed with Suharto that East Timor “should become part of Indonesia”. He claimed to want this to happen through the “properly expressed wishes of its people”.

He then considers the possibility of “unilateral action”. Whitlam explained further that

the widespread support here for an internationally acceptable act of self-determination in Portuguese Timor, and the great sensitivity of Australian Parliamentary and public opinion to any suggestion of a possible resort to unilateral action. I should like, if I may, to impress this sensitivity upon you. I am sure you will understand that no Australian Government could allow it to be thought, whether beforehand or afterwards, that it supported such action. A primary concern of any Australian Government, and certainly of my own, is the preservation and promotion of the close and mutually advantageous relationship between our two countries which has been and will remain so important to succeeding Governments in this country.

So if Indonesia did invade, public opinion would be upset. But the important thing to remember is that the “primary concern” of Australian governments was preserving and promoting close relations between Indonesia and Australia.

In April 1975, Whitlam met with Suharto, and their conversation was summarised. Whitlam complained that the Australian public was over-reacting to reports that Indonesia was going to invade East Timor. And again, he explained the importance he attached to Indonesian-Australian relations. He reiterated his support for East Timor becoming part of Indonesia.

Whitlam apparently also was disappointed in the people of East Timor: he “could not help feeling that the majority of the people of Portuguese Timor had no sense of politics, and that in time they would come to recognise their ethnic kinship with their Indonesian neighbours.” Whitlam then complained about “Communist elements” and other troublemakers who were trying to “bring about tensions” and “embarrass the Government on the issue of Portuguese Timor”.

Suharto – naturally – said that “Indonesia appreciated the understanding shown by Australia towards Indonesia’s goal of integrating Portuguese Timor into Indonesia”.

This was an important green light. Not just because we gave Indonesia arms that were used for the invasion and occupation, but because we could have been the “main problem” for the invasion, and prevented it.

This has been strikingly revealed by another declassified cablegram. It reports that “until Mr Whitlam’s visit to Djakarta they had been undecided about Timor. However the Prime Minister’s support for the idea of incorporation into Indonesia had helped them to crystallise their own thinking and they were now firmly convinced of the wisdom of this course.”

Let me state that again. Indonesia wasn’t sure about invading East Timor, until Gough Whitlam made it clear that Australia would support it.

The results of Australia’s crucial green light were grim, if predictable, given his earlier record of slaughter.

Mark Aarons reviewed the 2006 report of East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. He grimly notes that

The report details a series of Indonesian mass killings; concludes that Jakarta made a conscious decision to use starvation against the civilian population, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 and as many as 180,000 out of a population of about 650,000; and finds that arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual slavery, deportations and public executions were routine. These are surely among the worst of the many mass crimes of the modern period.

The Commission found that “Indonesia’s invasion was a clear violation of international law regulating the use of armed force. Put bluntly, it was a grab for land and resources, and an act of naked aggression.”

It also made the scathing finding about Australia’s role in all this:

Most damning of all, perhaps, is the Commission’s conclusion that successive Australian governments provided economic and military assistance to Indonesia and advocated the Indonesian position in international forums. These constituted, in effect, material and moral assistance, without which Indonesian policy might not have been as successful in either its military operations in East Timor, or in its international diplomacy.

Whitlam’s record on East Timor was terrible. Yet it was roughly the same as later Australian governments, which became increasingly supportive of the Indonesian occupation, formed closer ties with the Indonesian military, and negotiated with Indonesia to plunder East Timor’s resources by sharing them out among themselves.

It wasn’t until 1999 that an Australian government decided to stop supporting Indonesia’s brutal rule in East Timor. Indonesia held a referendum in East Timor on the question of independence. The people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence. The Indonesian military responded with a campaign of state terrorism to reverse the result.

As usual, the Australian government shamelessly provided diplomatic cover. For example, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer explained on September 5 that “I get the impression that President Habibe, Mr Alatas, General Wiranto are all trying to do the right thing and some of the commanders are clearly trying to do the right thing.”

As East Timor specialist Clinton Fernandes has repeatedly documented, what made a difference and forced a complete turnaround in Australian government policy was public outrage. The escalating protests – including forms of industrial actions by various unions – grew, in anger and scope, and drew in various sections of Australia.

This response was rapid, Fernandes observes, but “it did not arise spontaneously. Activists were tapping into a wellspring of support created by more than 24 years of grassroots activism.” The US, which had previously supported Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, switched to support Australia. The US suspended US military assistance, and on 12 September gave a warning to Indonesia at the Security Council that it “faced the point of no return in international relations” if it didn’t let in a peace-keeping force. Later that day, Indonesia capitulated.

What this shows is that we could have ended the atrocities anytime, if we wanted to. The Indonesian government was right: Australia could have been the “big problem” in the invasion and occupation of East Timor. We decided not to be. As a result, perhaps 28 per cent of the population of East Timor was wiped out – with the diplomatic cover of Australia, and even with the use of Australian weaponry.

Australia’s shameful record on East Timor continues. Clinton Fernandes has repeatedly been rebuffed trying to read documents relating to what Australia knew about the slaughter in East Timor. Because it might embarrass Indonesia.

There’s Australia raiding the offices of a lawyer representing East Timor. As Senator John Madigan notes, “Since 2002, Australia has effectively stolen $4 billion dollars from the Timorese people in the form of oil and gas revenue derived from fields which lie between our two nations in the Timor Sea.”

As mentioned, this was among the reasons we supported the invasion of East Timor in the first place. Happily, as East Timor is a tiny, poor country, we don’t need Indonesia to occupy it: we can just bully it into getting our way.

When Richard Woolcott defended our policy on East Timor, he explained its “relative unimportance”. I imagine there are progressives who reason similarly when discussing the record and legacy of Whitlam.

The question of East Timor is important, and revealing for Australians who want to understand how Australian politicians really think and behave. It is revealing for those who think our policy makers are idealistic. Anyone who advocates Australia getting involved in “humanitarian interventions” will have to square their advocacy with Australia supporting the slaughter of over a quarter of East Timor’s population, because of their “relative unimportance”, and economic and political advantages we gained, even as the slaughter continued.

The history is important, because it includes a valuable lesson. Few would argue Howard was a more idealistic Prime Minister than Whitlam. But it was Howard who ended Australia’s support for Indonesia’s occupation. Not Whitlam.

Those who say we don’t have leaders like Whitlam anymore have the truth backwards. The good that Whitlam did was because of social movements and activists who did the important work. Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from us. Howard did the right thing, because we made him do the right thing.

The tedious and unglamorous work of activists is slow, but 24 years finally brought it a real triumph – a triumph that we should understand, and remember. If we want Australia to do better, and behave more justly, we have to make it happen.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).