A Narrative of Denial
Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor
Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2021
Paperback. 368pp. RRP $39.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, June 2021
By limiting his work to covering the Whitlam and Fraser prime ministerships, Peter Job has comprehensively explored every facet of government policy, action (and inaction), manipulation of publicly disclosed accounts, deliberate withholding of information, ignoring intelligence reports and sacrificing a nation’s people. Quite a litany of political malfeasance!
Whitlam, committed to an independent and outward-looking foreign policy, in 1973, unsuccessfully lobbied Suharto to have Australia become part of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was his anticolonialistic views that saw him support integration with Indonesia and work against decolonisation, self-determination, and possible independence for East Timor. Fraser regarded Indonesia as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, the Suharto Government was determining Australia’s policy and the relationship was not to be upset at virtually any price.
At numerous points during the period examined, there was ample evidence available to the governments to ‘reconstruct’ policy and change their stance. There were government members who sought such changes but were conveniently not heard in the pursuit of a tunnel-vision goal that withstood all attempts to undergo even the smallest deviation. The government manipulated its stance so that it acquiesced to the Indonesian desire to absorb East Timor, but at the same time professed to be forthright in upholding the international norms on Human Rights. Australia, due to its proximity to East Timor, was regarded as the ‘world expert’ on that country and its affairs, and, as a result, was able to thwart moves to have East Timor and its future discussed in the United Nations General Assembly.
The Australian Government used every method to track down and confiscate radio receivers tuned to the Fretlin broadcasts from East Timor. Any reports from church missions or private individuals were labelled as ‘biased’ and untrue representations of actual circumstances. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) worked non-stop to abet the stream of misinformation fed to the Australian public.
The ‘crunch’ came on 16th September 1972 with the murder of the ‘Balibo Five’ by the invading Indonesian forces, who claimed the journalist identified themselves with the Fretlin in the civil war and, sadly, ‘should not have been where they were’. Lawyer Bernard Collaery established, from British National Archives, that DFA were aware Indonesian intelligence regarded the visit of the five journalists as a ‘hurdle to get over’ as any camera footage being viewed internationally would have created massive problems for the Indonesia. A cable from the Jakarta Embassy on 18th September made it clear the incident ‘could have serious consequences and inflame Australian public opinion if it appears that Australian casualties are the result of Indonesian intervention’. The official Whitlam Government line was that the operations in Balibo was a Timorese Popular Democratic Association and Timorese Democratic Union affair – the lie conveying to Indonesia that it could do whatever it liked with impunity and without incurring any Australian sanction.
Even when Indonesia finally conceded and allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to enter East Timor, aid was being confiscated by the Indonesian forces, and by charter, the ICRC was unable to comment on any aspect of the political situation or observed abuses. Massive famine was being created by herding the local population off their farming land and then claiming they were incompetent farmers and managers. In May 1979, Prime Minister Fraser personally responded in Parliament to a question on what efforts had Australia made to press the Suharto regime to ease the suffering of the Timorese people: ‘It is my understanding that Indonesia will be going to very significant lengths to advance the cause and wellbeing of the people . . . I cannot say that I see anything constructive or anything that could be achieved from the thrust of the honourable gentleman’s question.’
Sadly, it is obvious to any reader that this work could not have been given any other title. Job has produced a formidable and challenging work that has been extensively researched and is extremely thought-provoking.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.