John Birmingham has been roundly criticised by several reviewers for not being in possession of all the facts that formed Australian policy on East Timor from 1974 to 1999. Essentially, such critics argue that behind-the-scenes debates were much more complex and subtle than Birmingham’s account. In his essay, Birmingham mainly relies on the Howard government’s recent release of official documents from the 1970s (dealing with the period of the Whitlam government), and on the far more limited official material available on the 1998–99 period (most of it leaked by the intelligence community).
In relation to the mid-1970s period, the broad outline of the policy debate has, in fact, been known for over twenty years. In 1980, Richard Walsh and the late George Munster published their extraordinary book of leaked Foreign Affairs and Defence documents (Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1968–1975). The book included a highly revealing selection of documents dealing with Australian policy towards Indonesia and East Timor during the government of Gough Whitlam. Indeed, the revelations contained in this book were so embarrassing that Whitlam’s successor, Malcolm Fraser, had it suppressed by taking legal action in the courts. I would argue that there was more involved in this censorship than the usual official obsession with hiding unpleasant secrets for as long as possible (although this was a major element in the court case).
Contrary to popular portrayals of Australian policy, I have long believed that unlocking the secret history of Australia’s complicity in the East Timor tragedy should more properly focus on Fraser’s government, not on Whitlam’s. The latter was a Labor Prime Minister and this probably explains the obsession that many Australians have had with his role in the Timor tragedy. The East Timor support movement was, of course, based mainly on the left of politics (although not exclusively, as Michael Hodgman and John Dowd demonstrate). This has resulted in too much attention being focused on Whitlam, and far too little on his successor. After all, the most trenchant critics often come from within the family, although it has suited the conservative side of politics to point to Whitlam’s East Timor policies to justify their own amoral and predictably unsuccessful policies.
Indeed, I would argue that Malcolm Fraser’s determination to protect Whitlam’s secrets by suppressing the Walsh/Munster book in 1980 actually reveals more about his desire to cover up his own vastly greater culpability in the East Timor events than anything else. This is a point entirely missed in Birmingham’s otherwise broadly accurate portrayal of official Australian policy. That he missed this critical element probably arises more from the absence of official records than lack of diligence, but there is still plenty of evidence for those who want to review the public record. The problem also arises because of Fraser’s continuing silence on the subject, in contrast to Whitlam’s increasingly bombastic and ever more unconvincing defence of his own shabby role. In light of Fraser’s overall positive record of supporting anti-racist and humanitarian causes, his Timor policy remains (like Whitlam’s) an enigma, which (if uncorrected) will inevitably result in history judging him harshly.
Whitlam’s role has, of course, been widely analysed and properly criticised. Indeed, Fraser’s suppression of the Walsh/Munster documents did not come soon enough to prevent the truth about Whitlam and his key bureaucratic advisor (Richard Woolcott, Australian Ambassador to Jakarta) coming out. Enough copies of the book had already found their way into the public arena before the court ordered its withdrawal. Although the suppression of the book included an effective gag on media reporting, the Walsh/Munster documents have been widely discussed (including in my own 1992 book co-authored with Robert Domm: East Timor: A Western Made Tragedy). In fact, the Walsh/Munster collection includes many of those on which Birmingham relies so heavily, especially the infamous Woolcott cable of August 1975 and the much more accurate predictions of the Defence Department’s Bill Pritchett of the following October. Although the selection of 1970s documents released by the Howard government in the aftermath of the 1999 independence referendum adds to our knowledge, the essentials have been well known and much analysed over the last twenty years. In this sense, Birmingham’s polemic merely refines an already well established and powerful critique of Australian foreign policy that long ago laid bare the foolishness and futility of Woolcott’s advice, and Whitlam’s intellectual and policy bankruptcy in following it.
Where I much more seriously depart from Birmingham’s account is that it seems to me he has fallen into the trap identified by Labor’s current shadow Foreign Minister, Laurie Brereton. In criticising the Howard government’s highly selective release of the Timor files in 2000, Brereton rightly highlighted Howard’s deliberate policy to protect the reputation of Malcolm Fraser by refusing to open the records of his administration. By choosing to restrict his analysis to the 1974–75 and 1998–99 periods, Birmingham effectively misses Fraser’s complicity in the genocide of East Timor between 1975 and 1978 (when the population was reduced by approximately one-third, and the policies of cultural extermination were devised and first implemented).
Although Birmingham makes some broad references to the policies pursued by Fraser (and for that matter, his Labor successors), the detail actually matters. For a start, it should never be forgotten that Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister at the time of the Indonesian invasion (7 December 1975). True, he was only in caretaker mode, but was elected with a massive majority six days later. Once in office as the legitimate Prime Minister, Fraser not only followed Whitlam’s lead but also introduced key elements to Australia’s Timor policy that were far nastier than Labor’s. For example, it was Fraser who effectively cut off the resistance from the outside world. Prior to the invasion, Fretilin had put in place a rudimentary network, both for internal and external communications. Using simple Single Side Band radios, the resistance planned to keep in touch both with its units operating throughout the rugged interior of the country and with the rest of the world. The effectiveness of this decision is illustrated by the radio reports made by Fretilin’s Alarico Fernandes even as the invasion was in its first hours. Fernandes’s accounts of Indonesian atrocities on 7 December were broadcast by the Australian media, thus threatening to keep the world’s attention on the war that was then raging in and around Dili.
History records that the Fraser government and its senior bureaucrats fell over themselves to stop the two-way communications. At first, Telecom received Fernandes’s transmissions as legitimate communications, logging them and passing them to the nominated recipients (as had been the case for some weeks prior to the invasion). Soon after the election on 13 December 1975, the government stepped in and ordered Telecom to cut the link. Just as the first wave of mass killings started, the only alternative version to Indonesia’s claim of ‘peaceful incorporation’ was officially silenced. This was no accident, nor was it done in ignorance of the facts. Indeed, Australia’s signals intelligence agency, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) was closely monitoring both the Fretilin and Indonesian Army radio traffic. The resulting intelligence landed on the desks of both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence. This confirmed the basic accuracy of Fretilin’s claims of the campaign of mass killings, rape, torture and brutality aimed at the civilian population that was engulfing East Timor in December 1975 and January 1976.
The determination of the Fraser government to follow Woolcott’s August 1975 advice to ‘minimise the public impact’ of Indonesia’s aggression (to quote his cable) is illustrated by what happened next. When supporters of Timorese independence – led by Denis Freney and other communists, myself included – bought new transmitters and re-established contact with the resistance, the Fraser government threw a vast array of forces into the battle to re-silence the voice beaming the truth out of the country. DSD, ASIO, the Commonwealth and State (Special Branch) police forces and the Department of Communications were all detailed to collect intelligence on our activities and break up the network we had established in order to cut off the information flow. Telephones were tapped around the country, radio experts and sophisticated electronic equipment were dispatched to the Northern Territory to track down the radios and their operators, and close physical surveillance was employed in the government operation to silence the resistance. Code breakers were brought in, both to break the rudimentary codes we had established to communicate among ourselves and (more importantly) those used by Fretilin for passing secret information from the interior to their leaders who had been sent out of the country prior to the invasion.
These official operations were not simply the usual manifestation of Cold War anti-communism, and even less were they straightforward domestic law enforcement. They were directed from the very top of both the government and the foreign affairs and intelligence bureaucracies precisely to assist the Indonesian government to achieve its goal of destroying the East Timorese resistance, free from the prying eyes of the outside world. In this they were successful. Despite several arrests of those involved in the underground radio operation, it was kept going for several years after the invasion (and even revived intermittently during the 1980s). However, the legitimacy of the information passed through this clandestine channel was invariably questioned, both by the media and the wider international community. Jakarta’s genocidal policies went largely unreported for the crucial three years during which the worst mass killings occurred. The news that was reported was almost always qualified, thus diminishing the veracity of the claims.
The Fraser government’s insistence on silencing the voice of the resistance was matched by its diplomatic role. While ostensibly joining with the rest of the world in deploring the use of force and calling for a peaceful resolution, Australia actively aided Jakarta in many ways, most notably to isolate the victims. An early indication of the Fraser government’s determination to assist Suharto involved undermining the UN’s pathetic efforts to intervene. In late December 1975, the UN dispatched Italian diplomat Winspeare Gucciardi on a fact-finding mission to East Timor. The diplomat was given a ‘guided tour’ by the Indonesian military, which predictably prevented Gucciardi from crossing the frontline to visit the resistance. Gucciardi responded to Jakarta’s determination to frustrate his mission by approaching the Fraser government and requesting assistance. Fretilin had illustrated the importance of its radio link by broadcasting an invitation for Gucciardi to visit them by flying into the country to specially prepared airfields, the precise locations of which would be held back until the mission was about to take off, or even until it was in the air.
The UN diplomat apparently thought this central to his mission and asked Canberra to provide a plane to allow him to complete his task. The Fraser government flatly turned him down, citing ‘safety’ concerns. Gucciardi was forced to abandon his mission without consulting the other major party to the conflict. The Fraser government had not only failed to strongly support the UN mission, but had effectively isolated the resistance from the international community and silenced the legitimate voice of East Timor. The troublesome radio link had almost put Fretilin in the middle of a diplomatic peace initiative under UN auspices. An on-the-ground visit would have exposed Jakarta’s lies about the warm welcome its army had received, and the lack of opposition to integration except from a few ‘communist’ malcontents in the hills. (In fact, two-thirds of the population – about 400,000 people from mainly peasant families – had put themselves under the protection of Fretilin, a fact that both the Fraser and Suharto governments wanted suppressed.)
Fraser’s co-operation with Suharto on these (and many other) matters was vital in the following three years. It enabled the Indonesian Army to undertake its murderous work without the nuisance of the international opprobrium that followed the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre and the killings and destruction both before and after the 1999 act of self-determination. In light of the scale of the killings and civilian suffering between December 1975 and December 1978 (when the resistance briefly collapsed) both Santa Cruz and the 1999 events must be viewed as minor incidents in the era of Indonesian occupation.
The complicity and guilt of the Fraser government and its senior bureaucrats, I would argue, is thereby far greater than either Whitlam’s or Fraser’s Labor (and Liberal) successors. The government’s intelligence services listened in while an act of genocide on the scale of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ occurred right on Australia’s doorstep. It should be recalled that one in three Jews died under Hitler, while at least one in three East Timorese died under Suharto, perhaps more. These deaths resulted not only from mass killings, but from a famine deliberately induced by the Indonesians and as a result of counter-insurgency operations that were supported both by Western equipment (particularly purpose-designed planes and helicopters) and specialist anti-guerrilla training (provided mainly by the United States at that time, later by Australia, too). The campaign of killings was accompanied by a deliberate policy of cultural genocide, involving forcible population relocations (into what were, essentially, concentration camps), repression of traditional languages and culture and the ‘Indonesianisation’ of the territory, especially the economy and education. Like the Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt governments before it, the Fraser government actively hid the truth both from Australians and the rest of the world and prevented any action that could have at least ameliorated the suffering.
There is no doubt the truth was known to the government. Former intelligence officers have confided to me that throughout these crucial three years the radio traffic of both sides of the war (the Indonesian Army and Fretilin) was recorded, transcribed, decoded (where necessary) and passed up the chain of command until it landed on the responsible ministers’ desks. Little wonder, then, that Alexander Downer was reluctant to release the secret files of the Fraser years. Until all the files (including the top-secret signals intelligence reports) are available for public scrutiny and analysis, the full extent of Australia’s appeasement of Indonesia and complicity in the East Timor tragedy will, in fact, not be known. What is known is that Fraser waited until the resistance briefly collapsed in late 1978 and then hastily extended de jure recognition to Jakarta’s forcible incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia, something that our closest Western allies refused to do. Australia’s diplomats then engaged in a campaign to assist Suharto to have the East Timor issue removed from the international agenda, especially at the UN. This campaign almost succeeded, with the active assistance of Fraser’s predecessor, Gough Whitlam, who travelled to the UN to argue the case for Indonesia.
There is a compelling case that the Fraser years (especially the period from December 1975 to December 1978) are the most crucial in uncovering the deeper motivations that subsequently led a string of governments (of both sides) to continue the discredited Whitlam/Fraser policies that have shamed Australia internationally (and worse, to ourselves). That John Birmingham missed this critical point reduces his otherwise well-intentioned and well-written polemic to the bookends of the story.
Mark Aarons is the author (with Robert Domm) of East Timor: AWestern Made Tragedy and, most recently, War CriminalsWelcome.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY