Australia's Role in East Timor

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Australia's Role in East Timor

Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review

In our July issue the author examined Australian relations with Asia. Now in the second part he concentrates on Australia's role in one small troubled country in the last quarter century.

AUSTRALIAN-Indonesian relations have often been governed by an asymmetry whereby Indonesia is not expected to reciprocate, with equal strength, Australia's emphasis on good relations with them. It is thought that we need Indonesian friendship more than they need ours. Indonesia has 212 million people; we have 18 million. We cannot threaten them; they could, theoretically, threaten us. On this basis, it has often been insisted that the need for good relations with Indonesia overrides the merits of particular issues. This will be exemplified in the Timor issue, especially Indonesia's invasion in 1975.

Australia's relations with Indonesia were relatively untroubled during the early years of the 1 970s. Then a variety of problems emerged or resurfaced. The foremost of these was Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor in 1975. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and seized the capital Dili. Jakarta then declared East Timor to be the 27th province of Indonesia, a claim which was maintained until recently, though never recognised by the UN. Additional tension was also created by Australian criticism of the Indonesian Government's record on human rights abuses throughout the occupation and of Indonesian army activities against Papuan rebels near the Irian Jaya-Papua New Guinea (PNG) border.

From the outset, Indonesia insisted that it had no historical or legally valid territorial claim to East Timor. However, Indonesia also insisted that the absence of such a claim did not rule out the development of a political claim based on criteria related not to the colonial past but to the present and future, especially involving security considerations. Indonesia believed that an independent East Timor could become politically radical and this would involve security risks unacceptable to an Indonesia that in the mid-1960s barely escaped a communist takeover. In addition, it also had its doubts about the economic viability of the territory. Underlying these concerns were basic fears that the issue of an independent East Timor would restimulate secessionist feeling among the people of the Outer Islands. Furthermore, it also feared that a solution to the problem adverse to Indonesia would affect relations with PNG with which Indonesia shared a border.

Starting from these points of concern, Indonesia argued that a prolongation of the conflict would not be conducive to stability in South East Asia since it could create conditions for foreign intervention. Indonesia would therefore not allow this to happen at its doorstep. It followed from this reasoning that Indonesia could resort to any method to neutralise what it thought to be a potential threat to its internal stability. This became, as argued in 1986 in Australian Foreign Policy by Barry Coldrey, 'more imperative after Portugal and the United Nations declined to play a positive role in the decolonisation process in East Timor'.

During 1975 there was much diplomatic manoeuvring over East Timor. Portugal, which had been the colonial ruler until that year, promised a development plan; an election was planned; and conferences were mooted between the Timorese political groupings. As the year passed, however, the antagonism between the UDT and Fretilin grew and fighting occurred between these groups. To some Timorese it seemed that they should opt to join Indonesia and take advantage of such services as it could provide, along with economic support. Others assumed that the outcome should be independence - as in Angola or Mozambique.

Not surprisingly, many in Indonesia felt that to incorporate Timor would simply complete the defeat of the old European colonialists: the archipelago under one flag. It seemed a tidy solution. Others were more concerned about the responsibility of taking over a desperately poor territory, along with the issue of self-determination. …

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