Commentary on the ABC’s The Howard Years by James Dunn in View from the Wings: The second part of the ABC program, The Howard Years, provides a less than satisfactory account of the Government’s role in relation to East Timor. True, John Howard played a key role in sending that letter to President Habibie in December 1998, but the author's real aim, as I understood it, was not to prize East Timor loose from Indonesian occupation, but to suggest a referendum with a lead time of eight or ten years, which, it was hoped, would give Indonesia enough time to win hearts and minds, and East Timor's acceptance of an autonomy package.
In the letter the PM made clear his preference for East Timor to remain part of Indonesia. When the letter was being written, top generals of Indonesia’s powerful, and sinister Special Forces, Kopassus, had already organised a special militia force with the aim of sabotaging the strong East Timorese
desire to become independent, and take charge of their own destiny. This situation, I feel sure, was already known to Australia's intelligence agencies.
As for events in 1999 the ABC program ignored the important May meeting,
involving Indonesia, the UN and Portugal, which led to the sending in of
UNAMET, the special UN mission to arrange the referendum, or consultation as it was called (the vote, it might be remembered was not formally about the choice of independence, but whether East Timorese would accept continued Indonesian rule, with an autonomy package). At the May meeting there was pressure, including from persons like this writer, for a PKF component to be part of UNAMET, as many of us were already aware of the TNI plan to use violence in order to prevent the loss of the territory to Indonesia. That suggestion was opposed by TNI generals, and although it was favoured by Stanley Roth (US Assistant Secretary of State)
it did not get Australia's support. What the ABC's program does not bring
out was that the Howard Government’s was aware of the Indonesian military’s strategy, yet our refused to try and counter by giving the UN mission a peace-keeping component.
Howard does of course deserve credit for making Interfet available, but what the program does not bring out, was, on the other hand, the Australian Government’s move to discourage the investigation of war crimes, an investigation which was of critical importance to establishing the TNI's command responsibility for the killing and devastation actually carried out under direct TNI command in the two months prior to its departure. There was virtually no support for those of us who wanted to make use of the changed circumstances to expose the brutal culture of Indonesia's military, in order to encourage its comprehensive reform, and to offer a measure of justice to its victims.
In relation to the East Timor affair I fear that a feature of this program is that it skirts around the Indonesian military's role at that time, as most of such programs have done in relation to other events during the 24 years occupation of East Timor. A sorry outcome is that no action has been taken against a number of senior TNI officers who should long ago have been tried for serious crimes against humanity. Nor have there been any reparations for the TNI’s parting gesture, that organised campaign of destruction, launched within hours of the declaration of the plebiscite on 30 August 1999. Those traumatic experiences are the main cause of the unrest that still persists in the new nation.
In 2000-2002 the writer was UNTAET expert on crimes against humanity in East Timor)
Image: Former Australian Prime Minsiter John Winston Howard