By Stephen de Tarczynski MELBOURNE, Jan 28 (IPS) - Recently declassified government records from 1978 are a further indictment of Australia’s complicity in Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of East Timor.
"I think it was a case, and we’ve had plenty of them in our history, of a high level of moral blindness on the part of all of us. In the community, in parliament, in government, in opposition. It’s not a lone case," former Australian government minister, Fred Chaney, told the Australian Broadcasting Commission upon release of cabinet records showing that Australia bowed to pressure from Indonesia and oil companies keen to extract the Timor Sea’s resources.
The 1978 cabinet records show the machinations behind Australia’s change in policy to recognise East Timor, occupied from 1975, as part of Indonesia for the first time.
Consisting of senior ministers, cabinet is the key decision-making body of the Australian government. Its records are made available to the public after 30 years, although some material remains off limits "to protect Australia’s defence, security or international relations", according to the National Archives of Australia, which released the records on Jan.1.
The archives demonstrate the Malcolm Fraser-led government’s willingness to ignore East Timorese rights and public sentiment in Australia.
"The question of East Timor still remains an emotive issue for a number of members of parliament and in certain sections of the media and public. It must therefore be expected that the extension of full recognition [of East Timor as part of Indonesia] will result in some sharp criticism of the government," said Andrew Peacock, Australia’s then-foreign minister, in a submission to cabinet in October 1978 in which he outlined the actions required to finalise a seabed boundary between Australia and Timor in order for the area’s resources to be drilled.
In 2005, East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation estimated that the conflict-related death toll among Timorese during the 25-year occupation was as high as 183,000.
Thirty years ago, a "gap" - subsequently known as the Timor Gap - still existed in Australia’s seabed boundary adjacent to East Timor. Despite ratifying bilateral agreements with Indonesia in 1973, the Timor Gap resulted from Australia’s refusal to accede to the insistence of East Timor’s colonial ruler, Portugal, that the seabed boundary between Australia and its colony be placed midway between the two.
Australia’s hard-nosed approach to getting the maximum reward from resources in the Timor Sea is evident in one of the agreements with Indonesia.
In 1972, Australia negotiated with its northern neighbour that the boundary be established two-thirds of the way towards the Indonesian territory of West Timor, after Canberra successfully argued that it be based upon the Timor Trough - a deep underwater trench which runs parallel to Timor - which Australia insisted marked the division between two continental shelves.
The full-scale1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor - colonial administrators left East Timor after the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal - which followed the discovery of major oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea a year earlier, meant that Portugal was no longer an effective impediment to closing the Timor Gap.
Although Australian governments publicly opposed the way in which East Timor was annexed by Indonesia, the 1978 records are not the first to demonstrate Australian acquiescence in the brutal occupation.
Secret cables from 1974, released in 2000, show that Gough Whitlam, then Australia’s prime minister, was supportive of an Indonesian takeover yet keen for the East Timorese to decide their own fate, albeit for the sake of appearance.
"I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia which would make people more critical of Indonesia," Whitlam told Indonesian president Suharto.
Australian public opinion was on the side of East Timor, especially since Australian soldiers battling the Japanese in Timor during the Second World War had received considerable support from the locals, but also because of the deaths of five Australian-based journalists at the hands of Indonesian forces in the East Timorese town of Balibo almost two months prior to the invasion.
And as the 1978 Cabinet records attest, Peacock was similarly wary of public views when he outlined his approach for conducting negotiations with Indonesia on closing the Timor Gap.
He suggested that a "low-key public announcement, confined to statement of the fact that the first step towards final agreement had been taken, but preparedness to acknowledge under questioning that this amounted to de jure recognition of the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia" was the best way to acknowledge Indonesian sovereignty over the entire Timor island.
Such legal recognition "did not alter Australia’s attitude to the way this had been brought about," reported Peacock.
Although aware that the policy shift would have international legal implications - a United Nations Security Council Resolution two weeks after the invasion called on Indonesia to withdraw its forces - Peacock announced Australia’s new position on Dec.15, 1978.
Despite privately acknowledging Portugal’s continuing claim to sovereignty over East Timor, Peacock told Cabinet that "the fact remains that Indonesia is clearly the only government which is in a position both to conclude and to enforce an agreement with us" on a seabed boundary in the Timor Gap.
His submission also reveals that the Australian government was under pressure at the time to conclude delimitation in the area.
"Indonesia has been for some time exerting pressure to commence negotiations. The government is being subjected to growing pressure from exploration companies with permits in the East Timor area to clarify the legal status of these permits," reported Peacock.
The foreign minister suggested quick action on the part of Australia so as to avoid "a further irritant in the Australian-Indonesian relationship."
A subsequent submission to Cabinet by Peacock in December highlighted Australia’s declining standing in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, who viewed Australia as "a selfish, introverted nation oblivious to the consequences of the region’s dynamic, externally oriented process of economic growth".