Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Whitlam's Indonesia leadership was far from 'visionary'

Whitlam's Indonesia leadership was far from 'visionary'

It is certainly fitting to examine Gough Whitlam's foreign policy record and considerable achievements. However, in seeking to whitewash the controversy over Whitlam's role leading up to Indonesia's brutal invasion of East Timor in December 1975, Gary Hogan's piece does us all a great disservice.

I concede that it would have been a difficult task to dissuade Indonesia from this course by mid-1975, and that a more principled policy may have led to some cooling in bilateral relations. But what Hogan offers us is bad history and an even worse ethics.

In my most recent book, Ethics and Global SecurityI and my co-authors argue that ethics is not an optional add-on to questions of international security. Rather, bad ethical choices will cause more insecurity, for more people, and create lasting damage that future generations are forced to repair. This is surely true of East Timor.

In my ANU doctoral research, published as In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety, I wondered what might have been different had key policymakers, including Whitlam, worried more about this. To their lasting credit, some, like former Foreign Affairs head Alan Renouf and former Secretary of the Department of Defence Bill Pritchett, did so.

Here I will simply address two of Hogan's most misleading claims, then consider — using the historical record — what might have been done to avert the tragedy. How it reflects on Whitlam, readers can decide for themselves. [fold]

First, Hogan's claim that: 'Armchair strategists have accused Whitlam of giving Suharto a sly wink during their meetings, virtually assuring him of Australia's acquiescence in the event of East Timor's annexation by force. The written record does not support this.'

I assure readers that the record does in fact confirm this. There is an official record of the meeting published by DFAT in its collection of documents about the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor, along with statements Whitlam made to parliament after the civil war and a private message he sent to Soeharto saying that 'nothing he had said earlier should be interpreted as a veto on Indonesian action in the changed circumstances'.

Hogan continues: 'But if it did, there were understandable contemporary factors at play...Early indications were that Fretilin would kill more East Timorese than Indonesia ever might.'

This is the first time in almost 30 years of study that I have heard such a claim, which is grossly misleading. What we have is the evidence of the fighting during the August civil war and Fretilin's conduct after they won, which showed no evidence of widespread repression or reprisals. The brief war was brutal and some crimes were certainly committed, leaving a bitter legacy with the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT). 

Yet apparently, Indonesia would not kill large numbers, says Hogan: 'Neither Whitlam nor Ford, perhaps not even Suharto, had any way of predicting how stubborn Falantil's resistance would be, or how brutally oppressive Indonesia would become as a colonising power.'

What everyone knew is that Indonesia's military and Suharto initiated the massacres of Indonesian communists and leftists in 1965 (I have read Keith Shann's cables sent from our Jakarta embassy in October-November of that year), and drove and directed the violence. It was widely predicted during 1975 that similar violence would be visited on the Timorese if Indonesia invaded, as the war crime at Balibo and the massacres in Dili during the invasion would attest. Prior to the invasion, The Age even published a cartoon by Bruce Petty: a line of Indonesian tanks labelled '1966 massacre of PKI' headed in the direction of a sign saying 'East Timor'. Earlier that year our Lisbon ambassador, Frank Cooper, cabled Canberra about Portugal's concerns about Indonesian intervention because 'they foresee a bloodbath in Timor unless there can be some supervision of Indonesian actions on the ground'. And Bill Pritchett's briefs for the Defence Minister certainly warned of a long guerrilla war.

Hogan's other misleading claim is this: 'In addition to the threat of chaos under Fretilin, the active support of communist regimes around Asia was an article of Chinese Communist Party policy in 1975. At the height of the Cold War, communist rule in Dili was as inimical to Australia's interests as it was intolerable to Jakarta.'

It was well known that Fretilin was split between social democrats and a small group of Marxists, and that the moderates were far more dominant, charismatic and effective. The historical record shows that Fretilin's leadership made many efforts to reach out to the Australians and the Indonesians (as did the UDT, something its leader Joao Carrascalao confirmed to me personally many years later, when I asked him about his meetings with Indonesia's intelligence chief Ali Moertopo). 

Could things have been different? What we know is that Alan Renouf first drafted a policy for Whitlam prior to the Prime Minister's 1974 visit to Indonesia that supported East Timor's self-determination, yet promised we would work with Indonesia to prevent the new state from threatening its stability. Whitlam changed the policy on the run. The next year, Renouf tried to raise the same points privately with Indonesia, but Whitlam had already cut the ground from under him. How much bloodshed and horror, and how much damage to Indonesia's international reputation, may have been averted had Renouf's policy worked?

Let the words of Nobel Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta highlight the tragedy here. In February 1975, UDT and Fretilin had jointly cabled Canberra begging for Australia to support talks between themselves, Australia and Indonesia 'for cooperation towards peace stability SEA (Southeast Asia)'. This request was ignored by Whitlam. Years later , in his book Funu, Horta despaired at how 'all our assurances of friendship, co-operation, membership of ASEAN, a foreign policy that was tantamount to Finlandisation of East Timor—all fell on deaf ears. In retrospect, I cannot see what assurances and concessions we could have offered to buy our own survival.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bobby Graham.

You may also be interested in