05 January 2010

Archives reveal Australia-Indonesia tension over East Timor

Updated January 5, 2010 10:49:21 Secret Cabinet documents from 1979 released by the Australian National Archives on January 1 confirm high tension between Australia and Indonesia over East Timor, as famine spread in the Indonesian-occupied territory. Indonesia's then-foreign minister is revealed to have accused Australia of being noisy and sanctimonious over the situation, as the Fraser Cabinet faced growing pressure to do more to help an estimated 200-thousand starving East Timorese.

Presenter: Linda Mottram, Canberra correspondent
Speakers: Professor Arief Budiman, Indonesia Program, Melbourne University; Dr Jim Stokes, historical consultant, National Archives Australia

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MOTTRAM: Indonesia's sensitivities over East Timor were in no way new. Sympathies in Australia for the tiny territory's independence movement only inflamed them.

SFX: 'Indonesia out of East Timor, Indonesia out of East Timor...'

MOTTRAM: The ABC's Jim Bonner reported in November 1979 on a demonstration in Perth airing some of the concerns of East Timorese exiles.

BONNER: 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.

SFX: 'All that Red Cross help they put them in the shop and sell them, foods and medicines, everything and we got witness, eye witness.'

MOTTRAM: For the Suharto regime, despite Australia being the only other country to recognise Indonesia's violent 1975 annexation of East Timor, Australia wasn't to be trusted. Professor Arief Budiman is head of the Indonesia Program at Melbourne University and remembers the attitudes.

BUDIMAN: When East Timor wanted to be independent, many Indonesians did not agree. They were thinking that East Timor was encouraged by Australia to destabilise Indonesia because Australia was afraid Indonesia become a country that was too strong.

MOTTRAM: At around the time of the demonstration in Perth, Cabinet documents show the Fraser government in Canberra was considering that issue of aid to East Timor. And it was causing particular angst in the Australia-Indonesia relationship at that time. Dr Jim Stokes is historical consultant to the National Archives.

STOKES: In November Cabinet was told that 200,000 East Timorese needed urgent food and medical aid.

MOTTRAM: 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 described the causes of the famine as civil war and Indonesian military operations during the previous four years. The aid effort that was underway was plagued by administrative problems and high costs. The ABC's Warwick Beutler covered the story from Jakarta.

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.

MOTTRAM: Warwick Beutler had also interviewed Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Dr Mochtar Kusuukatmadja, about the extent of starvation, in the two years since Indonesia had issued an amnesty and East Timorese who'd fled to the hills steadily filed back to government camps.

MOCHTAR: Now within the limited means we did what we could but it was obvious even at that time that we needed outside assistance.

MOTTRAM: But Indonesia considered Australian media coverage of the situation in East Timor, particularly criticisms of Indonesia, were a very big problem. The November 1979 Cabinet submission on the situation describes a firey response from Dr Mochtar on the issue. Jim Stokes again.

STOKES: 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.

MOTTRAM: Dr Mochtar went further and said he was seriously considering whether Indonesia could do without Australian aid, despite what he'd told the ABC in his interview. He had gone on to announce that Australian aid for East Timor would be welcomed if offered, but he wouldn't ask for it, the Cabinet submission records. And so Australia proceeded to offer an additional two million dollars in 1979, though it trod carefully about how it was delivered, says Dr Jim Stokes.

STOKES: Cabinet agreed to provide an additional $2 million in aid to be channelled through the Red Cross, which had good relations with Jakarta, whereas the Australian Council for Overseas Aid was regarded in Jakarta as actively pro-Fretilin.

MOTTRAM: The Cabinet was clearly trying to work around Indonesia's sensitivities, which Arief Budiman says were excessive.

BUDIMAN: The difference between Australia and Indonesia could be solved if there is a personal approach and open negotiations to kind of put the boundary where Australia can intervene and where Indonesia would play its role. Also Suharto was not a very 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.


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