Appeasing Jakarta

Appeasing Jakarta

Australia's complicity in the East Timor tragedy

John Birmingham


I did not intend to write this essay. Originally I had something very different in mind, a high-toned review of the prospects for our relationship with that sprawling, problematic neighbour to the north. I had a thesis to run with: the idea that, despite Suharto’s downfall and the subsequent elections which swept his party from office, Indonesia was still run – if not ruled – by many of the same interests that thrived under the New Order regime, a network of political, corporate and military players whose welfare and even survival depended on smothering genuine reform. That premise remains an important part of this essay, but it slipped from the centre of my focus as I began to study East Timor, the broken axis around which the relationship turned, no matter how much foreign ministers in both countries might have wished otherwise.

East Timor was the prism through which we viewed Indonesia for a quarter of a century. Earlier instances of contention – Sukarno’s Confrontation and the awful bloodletting of Suharto’s ascension to the presidency – supplied uneasy background vision, supplemented by occasional reports of violence and repression in other parts of the archipelago. But it was East Timor which abided, in part because it rubbed at our conscience. Abandonment, betrayal, ineptitude and moral cowardice were all facets of the Australian response to an ill-considered and ultimately ruinous Indonesian adventure, which was less a matter of strategic urgency for Jakarta than a blind run at the main chance by a handful of the regime’s power players.You cannot understand the deeply problematic nature of the Canberra–Jakarta link without understanding the history of the East Timor conflict. Many of the pathologies afflicting the relationship today were gestated in the management of that crisis and its long, bitter aftermath.

According to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, the systemic failure of Australian policy is sheeted home to elected figures, but guilt lies deeper, within the machinery of government itself. While prominent individuals such as Whitlam, Fraser, Keating and Evans all have reason to examine their conscience, the agency which advised, guided and ultimately misled them all was the Department of Foreign Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade). It is arguable that in pursuing what it thought to be a hard-headed assessment of Australia’s best strategic interests, the Department in fact undermined those interests by creating a totally unsustainable paradigm for a relationship between a liberal democracy and a para-corporate military dictatorship. Because of the high costs of the democracies’ policy towards Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, the word appeasement carries quite terrible connotations today. But it is just a word. A useful one, in fact, for describing a pattern of responses over time. William Maley quotes Donald Watt’s modern definition of ‘purchasing peace for one’s own interests by sacrificing the interests of others’. There is probably no clearer summation of Australian policy towards Indonesia and Timor than those few words.

If it had worked, there might be an utilitarian argument that it was justifiable. But a quarter of a century has shown that there are unbearable costs to appeasing a regime like Suharto’s New Order. The long-simmering domestic resentment of Australia’s position on Timor evidenced a fundamental flaw in the approach of successive governments.They did not have the support of the Australian people for their policy, only an initial lack of interest in the subject. When the events of September 1999 forced the issue into the forefront of Australian public discourse, the total disconnection between public policy and public sentiment was exposed and a good deal of political energy had to be spent damping down bitterness and fury on both sides of the Arafura Sea. Jakarta’s resentment, its sense of betrayal, was entirely understandable, because it rightly considered Australia a friend who had turned on it. Australian anger, in one sense at least, was entirely unjustified, because the actions of the Indonesian armed forces and their militia proxies in Timor were simply an extension of a long-established strategy within the former Portuguese colony; a strategy opposed in only the weakest rhetorical sense by Australia, and effectively endorsed by our actions over the decades.

Appeasement of Jakarta did not work because the problem of East Timor was permanent and insoluble. It was assumed before the invasion in 1975 that the East Timorese would accept incorporation. When they resisted, involving Jakarta in a long and brutal counter-insurgency campaign, genuine power realists should have foreseen the ultimately futile and self-destructive endgame which would play itself out there. And some did. But other more significant Australian policy makers, many of whom prided themselves on the ‘hard-headed realism’ of their analysis and approach, deluded themselves.They chose to ignore dissonant information and analysis from within their own bureaucracy, preferring instead the consolations of wishful thinking. Foremost among their number are Gough Whitlam and Richard Woolcott.

This is not to say that Australia could necessarily have stopped the invasion. Indonesia’s takeover had the imprimatur of the United States. It is a moot point whether earlier diplomatic and political action might have headed off the disaster. Suharto himself was not attracted to the conquest and had to be led to it by a coterie of self-seeking palace confidants. Had Australia’s official position, which was sincerely sought out and respected by Jakarta, not been based on profound ignorance and the uninformed personal preferences of Prime Minister Whitlam, it is possible that with a major diplomatic effort in 1974 we could have altered the course of Indonesian behaviour. Voices within Canberra were certainly raised to that effect.

Unfortunately, a systemic failure of analysis marked the earliest Australian engagement with this issue, and with the foundation laid it continued to warp Australian policy in the years to follow. It still does. East Timor has gained its freedom, but the wider relationship with Indonesia has been severely damaged and attempts to reconstitute it on the basis of a failed paradigm can only lead to further disappointment. This paradigm – that Australia’s strategic interests are served by a partnership with Jakarta no matter what sort of regime holds power there – has woven a spell over generations of Australian policy players, both bureaucratic and political. It was never an unchallenged view. But those who held it managed to convince themselves and others that they were the realists and their opponents the dreamers. The reality was exactly the opposite.


By the second half of the 1990s, Indonesia could best be characterised as a crumbling dictatorship, formerly useful as a geopolitical chess piece in the game against communism.With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, its comfortable position had been eroded, often by its own clumsiness, as in the 1991 massacre at Santa Cruz in East Timor.Three decades of enormously corrupt economic practice had created and exacerbated internal contradictions and fractures along class, ethnic, religious, regional and institutional lines. Such contradictions now see the republic struggling to hold together after the twin blows of the Asian economic meltdown and the disastrous miscalculations of the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia or Indonesian Armed Forces) in East Timor. Indonesia’s armed forces were never an unfettered power. The New Order was not a pure military dictatorship, more a heavily militarised corporate state. But the TNI, and especially the Army, were a central pillar of the regime.The system rested on their willingness and ability to employ overwhelming violence in pursuit of political ends. The free election that put Wahid in power did not remove the pathologies of the old system; rather it simply introduced new forces and actors contending for control of the state.With no history of managing such chaotic energies which are the lot of democracy, with a shattered economy and beset by the centrifugal forces of micro-nationalism unleashed by Suharto’s downfall, there is no guarantee that Indonesia as we know it will survive the next decade.

Right now, the institution with the best chance of maintaining the unity of the republic is the military, disgraced and sometimes divided against itself. It appears to have learned nothing from East Timor, where its barbarism created the separatist feeling it was trying to suppress. A time may come very soon when Australia will have to face the prospect of dealing with yet another repressive, military-backed regime in Jakarta. If we are not to walk the trail of tears yet again, the story of Timor can provide a rough map of the pitfalls to be avoided. For all the talk of hardheaded diplomats weighing a moral choice against a pragmatic course in 1975, the major question was not moral at all. It was simply: Is this course of action sustainable? It is not really a matter of hindsight to say no. Many advisors predicted the future with telling and ultimately tragic accuracy all those years ago, as this essay will describe. The failure of our foreign policy elite was not ethical, but intellectual. It only became a moral issue when the deficiencies of Australian policy were exposed but ignored for the easier course of appeasement.

There is a marvellous and appropriate comment by George Orwell. Reflecting on W.H. Auden’s contemplation of ‘necessary murders’ in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell wrote that such amorality was only really possible, ‘if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled’. This was the basis of both Australia’s moral failure in East Timor and its wider relationship with the New Order regime. We turned away because the truth was too awful to bear. There were times when I found the research of this essay an unpleasant task. Perhaps because I am a new father, the first-hand accounts of atrocities committed by Indonesian forces against women and children were occasionally impossible to read. They made me nauseous and dizzy. I wondered how policy officers in Canberra were able to read them and live with themselves. The answer, very plainly, was that they convinced themselves of the correctness of their own fantasy, that a reasonably benign Indonesian dictatorship would eventually develop out of soft authoritarianism into a friendly, non-threatening political and economic partner. Evidence to the contrary was nothing but egregious nonsense peddled by anti-Indonesian radicals. It was a policy of wilful blindness, made possible only because we were always somewhere else when the trigger was pulled.

Because of this I have included a fairly long, narrative opening, where the results of self-delusion in both Canberra and Jakarta can be measured in blood, not rhetoric or theory. It is always advisable when politicians of any stripe begin to speak of geopolitics in reassuring generalities to remember that somebody, somewhere is trying to outrun a bullet.


This is an extract from John Birmingham's Quarterly Essay, Appeasing Jakarta: Australia's complicity in the East Timor tragedy. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


John Birmingham’s books include the cult memoir He Died with a Felafel in His HandLeviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney and the fiction series Weapons of Choice. He is the author of two Quarterly Essays, Appeasing Jakarta – Australia’s Complicity in the East Timor Tragedy and A Time for War – Australia as a Military Power. He is a regular contributor to the Monthly.


Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics
Waleed Aly, Scott Stephens
How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy