03 January 2010
Timor aid stoked tensions with Indonesia
Radio Australia's Linda Mottram, ABC January 1, 2010, 9:15 am Secret cabinet documents from 1979 have confirmed the high tensions between Australia and Indonesia over East Timor, as the Fraser government balanced how best to give aid while famine spread across the occupied territory.
Indonesia's sensitivities over East Timor were in no way new, but sympathies in Australia for the tiny territory's independence movement only inflamed them.
East Timorese exiles demonstrated alongside Australian supporters from time to time, including in Perth in November 1979, specifically over the issue of famine in East Timor and food aid.
"What seemed to be upsetting most of the Timorese was that aid sent to Indonesia for East Timor was being sold rather than distributed to those in need," the ABC's Jim Bonner reported from the Perth protest.
"All that Red Cross help, they put them in the shop and sell them - foods and medicines, everything. And we've got [a] witness, [an] eyewitness," said one of the exiles at the protest.
For the Suharto regime, despite Australia being the only other country to recognise Indonesia's violent 1975 annexation of East Timor, Australia was not to be trusted.
The head of the Indonesia Program at Melbourne University, Professor Arief Budiman, remembers the attitudes.
"When East Timor wanted to be independent, many Indonesians did not agree," he told Radio Australia.
"They were thinking that East Timor was encouraged by Australia to destabilise Indonesia because Australia was afraid Indonesia would become a country that was too strong."
About the time of the demonstration in Perth, cabinet documents released by the National Archives of Australia show the Fraser government was considering the issue of aid to East Timor.
"In November (1979), cabinet was told that 200,000 East Timorese needed urgent food and medical aid," Dr Jim Stokes, historical consultant to the National Archives of Australia, said.
Cabinet was also told that beyond those 200,000, many more were suffering various stages of malnutrition.
The submission was presented by the acting foreign minister, Michael MacKellar, and said the famine was caused by civil war and Indonesian military operations in the preceding four years.
The military's tactics had been violent and destructive and drove many East Timorese into the jungle.
An aid effort that was underway was plagued by administrative problems and high costs, a story that was reported from Jakarta by the ABC's Warwick Beutler.
"The failure of the Indonesian Red Cross to spend the money is something of a mystery, with conflicting stories being told by the Indonesians and the Australian embassy," his report said.
Mr Beutler had also interviewed Indonesia's then foreign minister, Dr Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, about the extent of starvation in the two years since Indonesia had issued an amnesty and East Timorese who had fled to the hills steadily filed back to government camps.
"Now within the limited means, we did what we could but it was obvious even at that time that we needed outside assistance," Dr Mochtar said.
But Indonesia considered Australian media coverage of the situation in East Timor, particularly criticisms of Indonesia, to be a very big problem.
The November 1979 Cabinet submission on the situation describes a fiery response from Dr Mochtar on the issue.
"Foreign minister Mochtar had given the Australian embassy in Jakarta a dressing down over what he called sensational reporting, complaining that Australia was noisy and sanctimonious," Dr Stokes said.
Dr Mochtar went further and said he was seriously considering whether Indonesia could do without Australian aid, despite what he had told the ABC in his interview.
He went on to announce that Australian aid for East Timor would be welcomed if offered, but he would not ask for it, the cabinet submission records.
And so Australia proceeded to offer an additional $2 million in 1979, though it trod carefully about how it was delivered.
"Cabinet decided that aid should be channelled through the Red Cross, which had good relations with Jakarta, rather than the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, which Jakarta regarded as actively pro-Fretilin," Dr Stokes said.
Professor Budiman said Indonesia's reactions to Australia were excessive.
"The differences between Australia and Indonesia could be solved if there [was a] personal approach and open negotiations to put the boundary where Australia can intervene and where Indonesia would play its role," he said.
"I think because of the situation at the time maybe, [it was] the political rhetoric.
"Also, Suharto was not really a diplomatic person. He was a military man, so he reacted too strong, I think, to Australia.
"There was no genuine negotiations to solve the problem peacefully. This has something to do with the military mind of Suharto."