Australia and East Timor: invasion and independence
28 Jan 2020|

Australia had a part in East Timor’s march to tragedy and a key role in its salvation.

Cruel ironies and strange mirror effects mark Australia’s performance in the lead-up to Indonesia’s invasion, in 1974–75, and East Timor’s independence vote in 1999.

Before the invasion, Australia’s diplomats and intelligence services delivered a professional triumph: Canberra knew more about Jakarta’s debates and thinking than some of President Suharto’s own cabinet ministers. Australia had full knowledge. In effect, Jakarta consulted Canberra every step of the way. A diplomatic and intelligence tour de force, however, delivered tragedy.

Two decades later, Canberra’s diplomatic initiative in support of its core policy—that East Timor should remain in Indonesia—suffered a spectacular crash. Yet this time the law of unintended consequences delivered triumph.

Canberra’s policy bookends—from invasion to independence—are on show with the release of the Howard government cabinet records for 1998 and 1999 by the National Archives of Australia.

The start of the story is in Australia and the Indonesian incorporation of Portuguese Timor, 1974–1976, an 900-page book of cables, reports and submissions, showing a strong prime minister, Gough Whitlam, imposing his will while the Foreign Affairs Department agonised and fretted. This is documentary history as a great novel: vivid characters both driven and driving, the fall to disaster as hubris turns to nemesis.

The cables flash from officialise to passionate prose. Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, wrote that Canberra had to decide between ‘Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realism’. Australia’s ambassador in Portugal, Frank Cooper, skewered the cost to Australia of sacrificing East Timor to Indonesia: ‘The question many people will ask is not whether we can live with it but whether we can live with ourselves.’

In a meeting with Suharto in September 1974, Whitlam departed from his cautious brief to declare that East Timor should integrate with Indonesia. The Australian record of the meeting quoted Whitlam: ‘Portuguese Timor was too small to be independent. It was economically unviable. Independence would be unwelcome to Indonesia, to Australia and to other countries in the region …’

Whitlam, the report notes, offered two basic thoughts: ‘First, he believed that Portuguese Timor should become part of Indonesia. Second, this should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the people of Portuguese Timor. The Prime Minister emphasized that this was not yet Government policy but that it was likely to become that.’

Suharto responded that East Timor could become ‘a thorn in the eye of Australia and a thorn in Indonesia’s back’. His invasion ensured the truth of his prediction.

The head of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, wrote that Whitlam changed Australia’s position by adopting a two-pronged policy when the two points were irreconcilable: ‘Whitlam certainly did not want any more mini-states close to Australia in Southeast Asia or the South Pacific. Hence, he did not want an independent East Timor; a merger with Indonesia was the only answer.’

A month later, the major general in charge of Indonesian special operations claimed that until Whitlam’s visit to Jakarta, ‘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.’

So, one parallel between the eras of invasion and independence is the role of a strong Australian prime minister who shifts Jakarta’s thinking not quite in the way intended.

Another parallel is that from Whitlam to John Howard, Australian policy was that East Timor should be Indonesian.

Speaking at a briefing on the release of the 1998–1999 archives, the treasurer in the Howard government, Peter Costello, reflected: ‘Australia connived in that invasion, both sides of politics, and that was the bipartisan position in Australia for a very long period of time.’

In December 1998, Howard wrote to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, suggesting Indonesia consider offering autonomy to East Timor.

As Donald Greenlees comments, the letter was a high-risk bid to help legitimise Indonesia’s rule: ‘Yet it was one of the most decisive interventions in the history of one of Australia’s most important relationships. Despite attempts by some of those involved to retrospectively claim it was a success, it failed on its own terms. We should not forget what went wrong.’

No formal submission went to cabinet on the Howard letter. The issue was carried by Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, as Australia sought to shift, not overturn, existing policy. When Habibie responded by calling what became the UN vote on 30 August 1999, Canberra found itself heading into crisis as its strategic aims were juggled then realigned.

The archive papers show cabinet working on oral reports from Howard on his contacts and phone conversations with Habibie and other world leaders.

The crisis wind kept blowing cabinet into new territory.

On 16 August, cabinet agreed to offer the UN a maximum of 30 military liaison officers and a second rotation of 50 civilian police, with police costs coming out of a $20 million contingency aid fund.

By 11 October, with Australia mounting its biggest military operation since Vietnam, cabinet set the military contribution at 6,500 personnel with a budget of $550 million.

John McCarthy, Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta at the time, says ‘serendipity’ delivered the right outcome: ‘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 Timor bookends are a cautionary story about the limits of diplomacy and intelligence, and the capacity of leaders to shape events.

Triumph based on serendipity is a nerve-jangling way to do strategy.