R2P, Famine and Secret Documents: Remembering East Timor

By Clinton Fernandes

In the second half of the 1970s, Indonesia’s war against the people of East Timor caused the largest loss of life relative to population since the Holocaust. Reputable and widely used demographic techniques have shown that 30 per cent of East Timor’s population died during the war. What did the Australian Government know about the catastrophe in East Timor? Early warning of impending catastrophe and the political will to act on the warnings are key components of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This is a principle in international politics that refers to a state’s responsibility to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as from incitement of such conduct. States remain primarily responsible for protecting their citizens, but the R2P principle envisages that a broad range of policy measures be open to the international community where states have manifestly failed to exercise this primary responsibility.

The overwhelming majority of the deaths in East Timor occurred due to starvation in a military-induced famine between 1977 and 1979. While former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is justifiably criticised for his diplomacy in the lead-up to the Indonesian invasion, it was his successor, Malcolm Fraser, who was Prime Minister during this genocidal period. Fraser and his Government made a concerted effort to reduce support for East Timor and increase support for Indonesia, which was committing war crimes of genocidal proportions. His Government ordered the interdiction of supply boats carrying humanitarian aid from Darwin to East Timor; the surveillance and arrest of activists who tried to communicate by radio from the Northern Territory; and the denial of a visitor’s visa to José Ramos-Horta and other East Timorese independence campaigners. An Australian Parliamentarian who supported the East Timorese, Ken Fry, was targeted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which monitored the telecommunications, bank accounts and other activities of East Timor activists. In addition, the Criminal Investigation Division of the Commonwealth Police (forerunner to the Australian Federal Policeinvestigated the ACT branch of the Australia East Timor Association, of which Fry was patron.

Fraser and his Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, ensured that Australia became the only Western country to officially recognise Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. While both were keen to recognise Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor, there was considerable opposition from the Australian public. Informed that Indonesia planned to integrate East Timor on its independence day, 17 August 1976, the Australian Government requested that Indonesia bring the date forward by one month. It stressed to the Indonesians that the Australian Parliament was scheduled to reassemble on 17 August, and any announcement on that day would embarrass the Fraser Government. Accordingly, Indonesia announced the integration on 17 July 1976, during the Australian Parliamentary recess.

Fraser’s visit to Jakarta in October 1976 presented him with a challenge; his Indonesian hosts were keen to have him state publicly that Australia supported their takeover of East Timor. Indeed, the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia informed Fraser beforehand that President Suharto would want him to speak about the East Timor question as a first priority. When Fraser arrived in Jakarta, the Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament specifically invited him to comment on East Timor. But Fraser was all too aware of the Australian electorate’s hostility to the takeover. Thus, in his public statements on East Timor he repeated that Australia’s position was well known and had been explained many times in Parliament by the Foreign Minister.

At his meeting with Suharto, Fraser asked for understanding of Australia’s difficulties in formally accepting integration, and for time to overcome these difficulties. So concerned was the Fraser Government about the Australian public’s hostility to any recognition of Indonesia’s takeover that the Department of Foreign Affairs avoided getting formal legal advice on the question of de facto recognition of the incorporation of East Timor in Indonesia. It feared getting an embarrassing answer, which would make it difficult to sustain the declared policy of the Australian Government.

By 1978, however, policymakers assessed that the political conditions would permit de facto recognition. A Cabinet paper dated 17 January 1978 recommended that the government should announce that it fully accepted the reality that East Timor was part of Indonesia and that all future government action would be based on that proposition. The Fraser Government believed that it could get away with this because the volume of letters being received by the Government about Timor had dropped substantially over the previous six months. The Government’s internal analysis showed that it was receiving only about seven letters a month, and that newspaper and television interest in the matter was declining. Consequently, on 20 January 1978, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock announced Australia’s de facto recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty. This was followed by de jure recognition with the opening of negotiations on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap in February 1979.

East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation has since provided ample evidence to demonstrate that the Indonesian military used napalm and targeted agricultural areas and livestock in flagrant disregard of the laws of war. Illness and food shortages forced civilians to leave the hills and surrender to Indonesian forces. The surrendering population was first detained in transit camps and later dispatched to resettlement camps. Transit camps were located in close proximity to the local military bases. Their function was to identify members of the resistance and to gain intelligence on the rest of the resistance in the mountains.Torture and rape were common during the interrogation process. People identified as members of the resistance were either executed immediately or interrogated at greater length and then executed. Female relatives of resistance leaders were often made the sexual slaves of Indonesian military officers.

Torture and rape were common during the interrogation process. People identified as members of the resistance were either executed immediately or interrogated at greater length and then executed.

The transit camps were not equipped to care for the welfare of the detainees. Often they were little more than huts made from palm thatch with no toilets. In many cases, the only shelter in the camps was under trees. No medical care was available. Since the detainees’ food sources had been destroyed and they had walked for days in order to surrender, they were already in a weakened state when they arrived at the transit camps. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and tuberculosis were rife in the camps, and many died as a result. Detainees were forbidden to grow or search for food themselves but were given a small amount of food on arrival. This food was often distributed after extorting family heirlooms, jewellery, traditional beads or sexual favours. In some cases, the detainees went into protein shock after eating the food, resulting in chills, fever, bronchial spasms, acute emphysema, vomiting and diarrhoea.

After a period of approximately three months (the exact duration in each camp depended on the prevailing policy there), the detainees were dispatched to resettlement camps. Sometimes detainees were not sent anywhere; the same transit camps were re-designated as resettlement camps. By late 1979, there were approximately 300,000 to 370,000 people in the camps. Once again, there were severe restrictions on movement as well as inadequate food, medicine, sanitation and shelter. The result was a famine in which about 100,000 East Timorese died.

What did the Fraser Government know about the catastrophe in East Timor? I have been seeking 37-year-old documents written by officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) about the situation in East Timor. The Archives Act 1983 (Cth) provides for the declassification of government documents after 30 years. But DFAT is refusing to make them publicly available, claiming that their release would compromise Australia’s security, defence and/or international relations. The case to declassify the documents comes before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the second half of 2012.

But DFAT is refusing to make them publicly available, claiming that their release would compromise Australia’s security, defence and/or international relations.

The documents would show in stark detail what Australia’s diplomats knew, and whether they aided and abetted the famine. We already know from other sources that Australian Ambassador Tom Critchley visited East Timor along with 10 other foreign ambassadors from 6–8 September 1978. The ambassadors were briefed that approximately 125,000 people had come down from the mountains, and that as many as a quarter of them were suffering from cholera, malaria, tuberculosis and advanced malnutrition. Ambassador Critchley reported in confidence that the visit had been carefully controlled by the Indonesian authorities, who were clearly anxious that the tragic plight of many of the refugees seen should not be blamed on their administration. Many ambassadors came away shocked by the condition of the refugees, and one ambassador said that the children in one camp reminded him of victims of an African famine.

Research has also established that other diplomats from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta visited East Timor soon afterwards: the Third Secretary visited in December 1978, the Embassy Counsellor visited from 27–29 January 1979, the Third Secretary visited again in the second half of 1979, the Defence Attache visited in January 1980, the Australian Ambassador and others, including the Embassy Counsellor, visited in May 1980. Their reports and associated documentation have not been fully declassified, although under the 30-year rule, they ought to be, along with relevant Cabinet records, records of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the records of the Department of Defence and other government agencies. In Opposition, Labor frontbencher Nicola Roxon had campaigned for open and accountable government, arguing that Commonwealth information should be protected only when there is a legitimate reason for doing so. Now, however, she is the Attorney-General, and has agreed to DFAT’s request for a certificate shielding its officials from public scrutiny and cross-examination of their claims as to why the documents should remain classified even after 35 years.

The documents would show in stark detail what Australia’s diplomats knew, and whether they aided and abetted the famine.

Under Malcolm Fraser’s Government, Australia became the only Western country to officially recognise Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Fraser had enormous leverage over the Suharto regime but he never exercised it. Under Suharto’s kleptocratic, rapacious administration, Indonesia was in debt; about 20 per cent of its revenue went to paying its existing debt. Furthermore, it was a regime whose internal legitimacy depended on having destroyed the Communist Party of Indonesia, which meant that the regime was unable to switch sides and start making friendly overtures to the Soviet Union. It had nowhere else to go.

The Australian Government should the release the records of all government departments that deal with the Fraser Government’s knowledge of the atrocities committed in the early years of Indonesia’s occupation.

In 2012, nearly 40 years later, public scrutiny of the historical record should not stop with the Whitlam Government.The Australian Government should the release the records of all government departments that deal with the Fraser Government’s knowledge of the atrocities committed in the early years of Indonesia’s occupation, as well as all records relating to the Fraser Government’s de facto and de jure recognition of the Indonesian take-over. Then we will know how much early warning the Australian Government had of the catastrophe, and how this influenced the political will to act in line with the Responsibility to Protect principle.

Dr Clinton Fernandes is an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. He has written widely on the independence of East Timor, and Australian-Indonesian relations. His principal research area is international relations and strategy, and he recently took part in an international Fact-Finding Mission on the elections in Malaysia.

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