01 January 2009

Why Fraser Gave Up On East Timor

The Sydney Morning Herald 1 January 2008 Phillip Hudson - THE Fraser government's controversial decision formally to recognise Jakarta's takeover of East Timor was based on the belief that the occupation was "irreversible" and made because influential Indonesians were losing patience with Australia's stand against it.

Cabinet documents released today by the National Archives of Australia under the 30-year rule, reveal the then foreign affairs minister, Andrew Peacock, pushed for the policy change, telling his ministerial colleagues Asia saw Australia as "irritating, uncertain and unpredictable" and he was concerned about severe trade and security consequences.

Two years before, the government had rejected the push to give de jure recognition to Indonesia over East Timor but at its first cabinet meeting in Canberra in January 1978, Mr Peacock told his colleagues he was worried the relationship with Indonesia was deteriorating and "time is running out for us".

Mr Peacock, who was agitated about Australia's poor image in South-East Asia, told ministers that Indonesia's then president Soeharto would be "especially pleased" with the decision, which would allow Australia to negotiate the seabed boundary between the countries in the Timor Sea.

Mr Peacock said the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and Mr Soeharto were developing a close friendship and there was a risk this bond could weaken "if adjustments are not made to our Timor policy".

But while he said it would be supported by the "silent majority" and the issue was "fading as an international one", Mr Peacock was concerned about a backlash from what he described as small vocal anti-Indonesian groups. He gave cabinet a detailed explanation how the government should "try to avoid" directly saying Australia "recognised" Indonesian control. Ministers were urged to use terms such as "full", "formal" or "definitive" acceptance. If pressed, they should explain that Australia recognised "the fact that East Timor was part of Indonesia but not the means by which it was brought about".

Speaking to the Herald this week, Mr Peacock said it was a "no-win situation in those days" but he still believed "we were taking the right decision at the time".

"It was putting pressure on the Soeharto-Fraser relationship which is an important consideration," he said. "It was a difficulty but I learnt to live with it. I wouldn't allow myself to be torn up. That was my job."

Mr Peacock, who now lives in the US, said he had personally protested about the occupation to Mr Soeharto "but there came a time for us after more than two years when the situation was still the same and you had to face certain realities. There was a fundamental question: who was in control? The correct answer was the Indonesian government. It forced the hand somewhat."

In his submission to cabinet, Mr Peacock said senior Indonesians were disappointed that Australia continued to dwell on the 1975 invasion and had not "looked to the future".

"There are signs that the patience and understanding of a growing group of influential Indonesians in the government are running out and I believe the point has been reached where our continued refusal to accept fully and formally the reality of the situation in East Timor could damage the relationship," he wrote. "The balance of our international interests lies in accepting the fact that the integration of East Timor into Indonesia is irreversible."

Indonesian troops killed five Australian journalists in Balibo in 1975, but according to the documents released today, by 1978, the Fraser government was increasingly concerned about maintaining good relations with not just Indonesia but throughout South-East Asia.

In December, cabinet was shown a report by diplomatic heads in South-East Asia that said Australia was "seen in some [Association of South-East Asian Nations] quarters as being in their view a selfish, introverted nation" and that Asian leaders were reluctant to visit because they feared a hostile media reception.

Cabinet instructed Mr Peacock to talk to the ABC chairman about Radio Australia's "inaccurate" reporting in East Timor, which was irritating Indonesian sensitivities and "damaging to the relationship". On a visit to Indonesia, the defence minister, Jim Killen, told his hosts "with some personal feeling" that the media were beyond government control. He told cabinet relations with Indonesia were "certainly strained" by East Timor.

Officials raised concerns that 72 per cent of Qantas flights then passed through Indonesian air space and it would be a considerable cost and inconvenience if relations soured.

Successive Australian governments maintained the Peacock policy until December 1998 when the then prime minister, John Howard, wrote to B. J. Habibie, then Indonesian president, saying Australia was backing self-determination for East Timor. Mr Habibie then gave East Timor a choice of independence or autonomy. Australian-led United Nations forces took control of East Timor and it became a country in 2002.

Images added by ETLJB: The murder of Joaquim Bernardino Guterres by Indonesian police. Go here to see the whole series of images of this brutal cold-blooded murder.

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