Why Sydney Is Screaming: Australia's Sense of Loss in East Timor Goes Back Decades

By Roberts, Melissa | Newsweek International, September 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Why Sydney Is Screaming: Australia's Sense of Loss in East Timor Goes Back Decades


Roberts, Melissa, Newsweek International


FREE EAST TIMOR is splashed in red paint over a Sydney overpass. Ordinary Australians are flooding the Indonesian Embassy with messages of protest against the bloodshed. Workers are laying siege to all things Indonesian, blockading its embassy, refusing to load its ships, grounding flights of its national airline, Garuda. When members of the East Timorese community in Sydney marched to the offices of Garuda last week, they were quickly joined by 2,000 shoppers and office workers. "We've got some responsibility," said Libby Anderson, 55, a financial officer who joined the march. "It's just horrendous to think genocide is happening on our doorstep."

Again. Bound together by Roman Catholicism and proximity, East Timorese fought alongside Australians in World War II, and Australia still suffers pangs of guilt for what followed. In 1974, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam suggested that the Portuguese colony was rightfully part of largely Muslim Indonesia. In retrospect, it appeared that Whitlam had given Indonesia a green light to seize East Timor the next year, after Portugal pulled out. Australia stood by during the bloody invasion, offering only a haven to East Timorese activists like Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, many of whom operate out of Sydney today. Cardinal Edward Clancy, head of the Catholic Church in Australia, last week called on his government to send peacekeepers, for to "do nothing" would "leave a scar on our reputation and history that will never heal."

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says Australia now faces its toughest foreign conundrum since the Vietnam War. Against sentiment for East Timor it must balance strategically critical ties to Indonesia, a huge archipelago standing between Australia and the rest of the world.

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