Australia’s Unfinished Timor Business

Australian encouragement to the strongman and decades of denial

While successive Australian governments have continued to afford East Timor little importance, or respect, events there over the forty-five years since the Indonesian invasion continue to impact on Australian politics and society. Earlier this year, in a gross violation of justice, the former ASIS intelligence officer witness K was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty for revealing the Australian bugging of the East Timorese cabinet room during negotiations on seabed boundaries in early 2000. His lawyer, Bernard Collaery, awaits trial on similar charges. This is but the latest scandal in a long history of successive Australian governments’ appalling behaviour towards East Timor.

During the years 1974 to 1983, East Timor barely figured in the Australian political agenda or in the minds of most Australians. The disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain in much the same period produced far greater community outrage than did the suffering of the Timorese people. Media coverage of international events at the time was much more likely to focus on the invasions of Cambodia or Afghanistan, the revolution in Iran, or the fate of white-majority regimes in South Africa or Zimbabwe. 

The Indonesian invasion in December 1975 brought catastrophe to the small nation, with the Suharto regime’s attempts to quell Timorese resistance producing a prolonged conflict, severe human rights abuses and a large loss of life. From 1976 the Indonesian military campaign of ‘encirclement and annihilation’ targeted food stores, crops, livestock and agricultural facilities in areas controlled by the independence movement Fretilin. In the initial period after the invasion, these areas held the majority of the population. This campaign was accompanied by other widespread, systematic human rights violations, including torture, sexual violence, both targeted and indiscriminate killing, and detention. Indonesian military actions were facilitated by Western-supplied arms, including US OV-Broncos and Australian Nomad aircraft supplied through an Australian military aid program. Large numbers of people were forced from rural areas into Indonesian-controlled camps, where inadequate food, shelter and medical support and restrictions on movement caused starvation and disease. The result was an artificially caused famine, which took most of the lives lost during the occupation.1

Public understanding about Australia’s position during these years is based on two contentions: that Australia was not in a position to greatly influence these events, and that the course of action it took was the only one available. My research, based upon the examination of thousands of Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) documents relating to East Timor in this period, demonstrates that both these contentions are wrong. Before the invasion, there were clear policy alternatives available to both the Whitlam and Fraser governments that would likely have produced a different result. Moreover, an array of evidence suggests that Australia’s position was of crucial importance to the decision of the Suharto regime to invade East Timor and integrate it into Indonesia.

Little more than a month after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal put East Timorese independence on the agenda, then prime minister Gough Whitlam sent his private secretary Peter Wilenski to Jakarta to confer with Harry Tjan, a key figure in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the think tank and diplomatic wing of the Indonesian intelligence organisation OPSUS. According to another OPSUS figure, Jusuf Wanandi (aka Liam Bian Kie), Wilenski made it clear that Whitlam believed East Timor should be integrated into Indonesia.2 This account is confirmed by DFA documentation of the time. Then ambassador to Indonesia Robert Furlonger refers to the meeting in a 3 July 1974 letter to the first assistant secretary of the South Asian Division, Graham Feakes. He writes that ‘it was after talking with Wilenski that it occurred to Tjan that there might well be scope for more than a diplomatic initiative alone’ and that this led Tjan to discuss the matter with OPSUS head Ali Murtopo, who directed him to produce a paper for Suharto advocating an operation to force integration. Furlonger further cites Tjan as saying that, ‘Australia’s role could be to “neutralise” unfavourable opinion in other countries towards an Indonesian takeover’ and to ‘take initiatives…in the United Nations for the international formalisation of a transfer’. Furlonger comments that, ‘Tjan’s extreme frankness indicates that the Indonesians are confident that we would favour an independent Portuguese Timor as little as they do’ and that ‘Tjan appears to have gained this impression from Wilenski’.3 In a meeting between Whitlam and Tjan in Jakarta in 1979, Tjan claimed that before his discussion with Wilenski, Indonesia had not been greatly focused on the Timor issue but that Wilenski had led them to ‘greater consideration’ of it. Whitlam did not contest this assessment.4 Given subsequent events, there is every reason to believe the claims by Tjan and Wanandi that the meeting was a key factor both in the ensuing Australia–Indonesia collaboration regarding East Timor and in the decision by the Suharto regime to proceed with the course of action that it took.

The Suharto regime was initially divided on East Timor. Foreign Minister Adam Malik was fearful an Indonesian intervention would undermine Indonesia’s position in the international arena, damage relations with Western governments and impede Indonesia’s ambitions in the Non-Aligned Movement, in which it sought a leading role. In a meeting with him in Jakarta in June 1974, he even provided Fretilin representative JoséRamos Horta with a letter that stated Indonesia would accept an independent East Timor. Nevertheless, Whitlam pursued his advocacy in two subsequent meetings with Suharto, in Yogyakarta and Wonosobo in September 1974, and in Townsville in April 1975. In both he emphasised that East Timor’s independence would not be welcomed by Australia and that it would be potentially destabilising to the region. 

After the Yogyakarta meeting, OPSUS head Murtopo told the Australian ambassador to Portugal that the meeting had helped the Indonesians ‘crystallise their own thinking’ from an uncertain position to one favouring incorporation. After the Townsville meeting a ‘senior foreign Indonesian affairs official’ told journalist Michael Richardson that Murtopo regarded the meeting as a ‘green light’ to integration. During the same period DFA developed its links with OPSUS, which provided the Australian embassy in Jakarta with extensive and detailed briefings as its plans unfolded to undermine the Timorese independence process, including by subversion and violence. These elicited no protest or expression of concern from the Whitlam government, giving tacit Australian approval for these interventions. Whitlam’s actions were effectively an intervention in Indonesian factional politics in support of OPSUS hardliners pushing integration by force, and undermining those in the Indonesian foreign ministry, including Malik, who initially argued for acceptance of an independent East Timor.5

The Fraser government, which came to power in late 1975, was quick to adopt the position of its predecessor. Like Whitlam before him, Fraser considered good relations with Suharto’s New Order to be crucial to Australia’s foreign policy agenda. Despite the massacre of upwards of 500,000 people that accompanied it, the coming to power of the pro-Western Suharto regime had been welcomed by Australia as bringing a certain kind of stability to Indonesia after the uncertain period under Sukarno, ending Confrontation over Malaysia and violently repressing the Indonesian Communist Party. With the unification of Vietnam and the coming to power of Marxist governments in Laos and Cambodia in 1975, the anti-communist ASEAN grouping was seen as vital to Australia’s regional security agenda. Indonesia, as the largest and closest ASEAN nation, was considered to be the key to establishing links with ASEAN, as well as of vital strategic importance in itself. At the time of the invasion on 7 December 1975, foreign minister Andrew Peacock declined to directly criticise the Indonesian action, instead regretting ‘the course which events in East Timor have taken’, while emphasising ‘the gravity of the problems posed for the Indonesian government’.6 This was a distortion of the events that had led to the invasion, omitting the extensive clandestine Indonesian operations that had destabilised the decolonisation process, including the covert illegal and lethal Indonesian military intervention that had preceded the invasion itself.

The following years of Indonesian occupation and violent subjection of the Timorese people were accompanied by a narrative of denial by the Australian government, aimed at protecting the Suharto regime from scrutiny and allowing the regime to continue its repression of East Timor largely unimpeded. While evolving over time in response to unfolding events, this narrative contained a number of key elements: present the situation as a matter of the past that Australia, while acting honourably, had been powerless to prevent; distort the historical narrative to omit Indonesian subversion of the decolonisation process and covert military intervention to make the invasion appear to be a response to a dangerous and destabilised situation not of Indonesia’s making; deny evidence of abuses and seek to discredit those claiming otherwise; and, when the latter became difficult, dispute the cause to instead blame underdevelopment under the Portuguese, as well as supposedly irresponsible Timorese actions for the suffering of the Timorese people that was becoming apparent to the world.7

The Fraser government propagated versions of this narrative throughout its years in power. It denied evidence of human rights abuses and mass starvation, casting the domestic Australian East Timor support movement as irresponsible and emotive. It worked consistently in the United Nations, lobbying on a country-to-country basis in consultation with its Indonesian partners to deny evidence of abuses, temper concerns, head off inquires and attempt to remove the matter from the UN agenda. It did the same elsewhere, such as at the Inter-Parliamentary Union and at Commonwealth forums. 

In early 1977 former diplomat James Dunn produced a report, largely verified since, documenting severe human rights abuses and a high loss of life, based on the testimony of Timorese refugees. The Australian government dismissed and argued against his claims, and Peacock said in parliament that the report risked a ‘misunderstanding between the two countries’. When Dunn took his report to Europe and the United States, DFA lobbied against him in the countries he visited, belittling his claims as ‘hearsay’ and claiming, in a context in which its own conception of the situation was based on little more than Indonesian briefings, that its investigations had produced no such evidence.8 In late 1978 a group of ambassadors visiting East Timor reported a very dire humanitarian situation, including women and children ‘emaciated and in pitiful condition’. In response, the Australian government expanded its narrative, attributing the suffering to the long-standing underdevelopment of the territory exacerbated by the irresponsible actions of Timorese themselves, rather than to the Indonesian campaign of encirclement and annihilation that was at that time deliberately destroying rural food resources and forcing people into camps.9

Lobbying for the interests of the Suharto regime regarding East Timor continued under subsequent governments. Prime Minister Bob Hawke came to power in March 1983. Like his predecessors, he viewed relations with Indonesia as key to his international policy agenda, one dominated by engagement with the region, the primacy of the US alliance, and support for a rules-based international order, particularly regarding trade.10 He worked to strengthen ties with the United States, support ANZUS and dampen ALP foreign-policy radicalism, such as moves towards nuclear disarmament and criticism of US foreign policy.11 The Hawke government initiated moves to resolve the Cambodian conflict, support international disarmament and liberalise world trade. It claimed a human rights agenda as its own, asserting that Australia was ‘one of the most active countries in human rights…with a record second to none’.12 Hawke’s first foreign minister, Bill Hayden, contended that he brought to his portfolio the concept that the Australian national interest included a ‘moral duty’ to address human rights, world poverty, arms control and conflict resolution.13 This agenda, however, did not extend to the East Timorese.

In opposition under Fraser, ALP National Conference resolutions in 1977, 1979 and 1982 had supported East Timorese self-determination, opposed Australian military aid to Indonesia and committed Labor to upholding UN resolutions on East Timor.14 Once they took government, however, Hawke and Hayden dedicated themselves to reversing Labor policy and improving relations with their large neighbour. The narrative of denial regarding the ongoing repression of the Timorese people continued. Hawke visited Jakarta soon after his election, praising the Suharto government for improving conditions in East Timor and describing the Indonesian invasion as ‘a matter of the past’. A parliamentary delegation to East Timor was led by diplomat-turned-politician Bill Morrison, who as defence minister in the Whitlam government had taken a strongly pro-Indonesian position regarding East Timor. The delegation’s official report rejected claims of human rights abuses and was supportive of the Suharto government, although this was challenged by a dissenting report by ALP senator and delegation member Gordon McIntosh.15 The Hawke government used the official report to reverse policy on East Timor, change the ALP platform, and attempt to neutralise the Timor issue. While de jure recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor had been quietly granted by the Fraser government in 1979, Hawke made this explicit in an interview to mark Indonesia’s National Day on 17 August 1985. His government refused applications by East Timorese asylum seekers for refugee status.16 Negotiations on the Timor Gap, originally instituted by the Fraser government, were reinvigorated.

Within East Timor, the severe deprivation of the early years of occupation was replaced by a period of Indonesian consolidation and control, punctuated by continued resistance, both military and political, by elements of the Timorese population. Although considerably reduced from its initial strength, Falantil, the military wing of Fretilin, continued operations, such as an attack in Dili that killed eighty-four Indonesian troops on 31 December 1988.17 The armed resistance was increasingly supplemented by a rising clandestine youth movement, which organised protests targeting the international community. The Indonesian military responded with a series of offensives and a pattern of human rights abuses. These included the massacres of several hundred civilians in the village of Kraras, Viqueque municipality, in August and September 1983, and arbitrary killings, disappearances, arrests, torture and imprisonment.18 

After Gareth Evans became foreign minister in 1988, he worked with Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas to negotiate a Timor Gap Treaty, based upon a zone of cooperation defined by the Timor Trough and much closer to East Timor than to Australia.19 Unveiled with much fanfare in December 1989, the treaty was immediately challenged by Portugal, which argued before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that it violated Portugal’s rights as the administering power. The ICJ eventually ruled that it could not make a decision as Indonesia had not provided consent to arbitration at the ICJ.20 

On 12 November 1991, 200 or more Timorese young people were killed by the Indonesian military while protesting in Dili. The event became known as the Santa Cruz massacre and proved a turning point in the independence struggle. The incident varied from previous atrocities in that international observers were present, including the British journalist Max Stahl, who captured the event on film, smuggling it out of the country to be broadcast around the world. International concern about East Timor increased considerably, with Portugal holding a day of mourning a week later and the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) established soon after in the United States. Similar organisations were soon formed elsewhere, including in the Philippines, Portugal, Ireland, Germany and Australia.21

After Santa Cruz, Hawke signalled a less forgiving approach towards Jakarta, and suggested that policy could be reversed.22 However, foreign minister Evans was in Jakarta expressing Australian concerns about the incident when Paul Keating ousted Hawke as prime minister in a leadership challenge on 20 December 1991.23

Keating identified three convictions that shaped his foreign policy agenda: that Australia’s economic success depended on how it related externally; that its future lay comprehensively in Asia; and that the times gave Australia an unprecedented opportunity in the world and the region.24 This vision placed the Indonesian relationship at the heart of his international outlook. Keating accused Hawke of having neglected Indonesia25 and sought to ‘develop the full potential’ of the relationship.26 Keating took unconcealed pride in the strong personal relationship he developed with Suharto, making Indonesia the destination of his first foreign visit as prime minister, returning five more times during his four years in office and establishing a ministerial forum that led to thirty-five ministerial visits between the two countries in three years. He worked to position Indonesia in a triumvirate of key relationships, together with the United States and Japan. Keating described the defence relationship as ‘developing well’ during his prime ministership, touting Australian training of the Indonesian military as a positive indication of this.27 Among the issues of cooperation between the two countries during this period was that of Cambodia, with Evans’ forthright efforts to produce a regionally supported peace plan assisted by Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, who worked proactively in support of the Australian proposals. In December 1995 the two countries signed the Agreement on Maintaining Security, which would come to an end with the Australian intervention in East Timor in 1999.28 

Keating later noted that both Australia and Indonesia were ‘careful to avoid’ human rights issues in their interactions.29 As under Hawke, however, the Keating government spruiked its human rights credentials internationally. Evans touted the concept of Australia as a ‘good international citizen’, a term that implied a commitment to multilateral diplomacy on issues such as arms control, disarmament, environmental protection, human rights, and opposition to racism and apartheid.30 Evans has described Australia in this period as ‘probably more active than any other country in the world’ on human rights, citing 534 cases that Australia raised with ninety countries in 1993 alone.31 

The situation in East Timor and evidence of gross abuses occurring there was a distraction for the Keating-Evans foreign policy agenda as it built close relations with the Suharto government. The Australian government’s attempt to project itself as a supporter of human rights and international norms would be undermined by public recognition of the plight of the East Timorese, so the government worked to neutralise the Timor issue as much as possible. Keating claims to have discussed East Timor with Suharto regularly, urging the abandonment of ‘the military approach’ in favour of an acknowledgement of Timorese cultural identity. In public, however, he was largely dismissive of claims of systemic human rights abuses. He described Santa Cruz as ‘a lapse of control by individual security forces on the ground’ and contended he was ‘not prepared to make [the Indonesian relationship] subject to this one issue’.32

Good relations with Indonesia remained a key policy plank under the Howard government, elected in March 1996. In the government’s 1997 foreign affairs and trade white paper In the National Interest concepts such as good international citizenship and human rights were replaced with an emphasis on what the white paper called the national interest.33 Howard’s government demonstrated far less commitment to the concept of an international rules-based order, revealing its disdain for the concept of universal human rights by voting against or abstaining from voting on a number of UN instruments designed to make governments more accountable.34

It is thus rather ironic that Howard described his government’s role as ‘a story of immense achievement of great strength and enormous pride’ in ‘bringing to the people of East Timor the freedom’ to vote for independence in August 1999.35 Closer examination provides a different perspective. The well-known 1998 letter from Howard to President Habibie aimed to head off independence rather than facilitate it, advocating Indonesian commitment to East Timorese autonomy in the longer term. The late 1990s, particularly 1999 itself, saw truly shocking carnage, a final wave of abuses organised and perpetrated by the Indonesian military. In his book Reluctant Saviour, Clinton Fernandes demonstrates that the extent of deaths and the destruction of East Timorese property and infrastructure happened in 1999 significantly because the Australian government had accepted Indonesian promises of security for the vote in the face of clear evidence of great danger to the Timorese people. The Howard government, like its predecessors, provided diplomatic cover for Indonesia in the international arena in this period, denying or minimising atrocities and defending the Indonesian military. In the lead-up to the vote Australia argued in public forums that the Indonesian military could be trusted, despite the years of brutal repression of the Timorese. In 1999 this was done for the specific purpose of reducing the prospect of international intervention.36


Over succeeding Australian governments, Australian policy towards East Timor failed in three ways. First, it failed in its own terms: the contention that supporting the regime’s repression of East Timor would improve Australia’s relations with Indonesia. Ultimately it did the opposite, increasing Australian public suspicion of Indonesia and causing ongoing tensions between the two countries. Second, it was a failure of trust, with the Australian government propagating a false narrative regarding East Timor both domestically and internationally. Finally, and most importantly, it was a failure of conception and morality—a failure to recognise the legitimacy of Timorese aspirations to independence and the importance of the welfare of the Timorese.

Australia, as a close neighbour of East Timor and as a democracy, was regarded as an authority on the situation by much of the international community. It used this position to lobby for the Suharto regime, blunting international attention to the dire circumstances unfolding in the territory and curtailing longer-term action to resolve the situation. It also delayed shorter-term action to relieve suffering, such as the intercession of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the height of the humanitarian crisis in the late 1970s. Many of the people who facilitated the cover-up of these atrocities considered their position to be moderate and responsible. The strength of the narrative of denial, and the fact that it was perpetuated by leading politicians, government officials, journalists and academics, provided a veneer of normality to the cover-up. Denial and acceptance of massive human rights abuses close to our shores became normalised, and opposing this position was depicted as radicalised, irresponsible and unrealistic. This is not a phenomenon singular to Australian Timor policy. It continues today in relation to such issues as Australia’s treatment of refugees. 

Neither the Australian government nor the Australian people have come to terms with the key role Australia played in allowing these abuses to continue. The Indonesian violation of East Timor and the very high death toll it entailed should be regarded as one of the watershed events in our region.

Australian malevolence towards the Timorese did not, of course, end with independence. The bugging of the Timorese cabinet room and the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars of resources that should have gone to the Timorese people remains a national Australian shame. Australia is in need of a public discussion regarding the legacy of its actions and policies towards East Timor. An apology to the people of Timor-Leste by the Australian parliament would be a highly appropriate action, but only in concert with recompense, not only for the stolen revenues of the Timor Sea but also for Australians’ role in facilitating the catastrophe inflicted upon the Timorese people. 

1 Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade, e Reconciliac̦ão Timor Leste (CAVR), Chega, Dili: CAVR, 2013, pp 219–27, 242–6, 1747–9.

2 Jusuf Wanandi, Shades of Grey: A Political Memoir of Modern Indonesia, Jakarta: Equinox Publishing, 2012, p 195.

3 NAA: A11443 [1], letter from Feakes to Furlonger, Indonesia, Clandestine Operation in Portuguese Timor, 3 July 1974.

4 NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, xxxi, letter from Alexander to Hogue, 16 October 1979.

5 Peter Job, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor, Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2021, chapter 1.

6 Job, A Narrative of Denial, p. 75.

7 Job, A Narrative of Denial, chapter 3.

8 Job, A Narrative of Denial, chapter 5.

9 Job, A Narrative of Denial, chapter 6.

10 Alan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942, Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2017, p. 159.

11 James Richardson, The Foreign Policy of the Hawke-Keating Governments: An Interim Review, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU, 1997, pp 3–4.

12 Alison Pert, Australia as a Good International Citizen, Sydney: The Federation Press, 2014, pp 127, 138.

13 Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment, p. 160.

14 Job, A Narrative of Denial, p. 120.

15 Clinton Fernandes, ‘Deceit, Dissent and the Verdict of History’, in Peter Job et al. (eds), New Research on Timor-Leste 2017: Proceedings of the 2017 Timor-Leste Studies Association Conference, vol. 1, Hawthorn, Vic: Swinburne Institute of Technology, 2018, pp 222–6.

16 James Cotton, East Timor, Australia and the Regional Order, London: Routledge Curzon, 2004, pp 7–14.

17 John Taylor, East Timor: The Price of Freedom, Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, 1999, p. 211.

18 CAVR, Chega, pp 258, 969–75, 493–530.

19 Paul Cleary, Shakedown: Australia’s Grab for Timor Oil, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2007, pp 38–40.

20 Cotton, East Timor, Australia and the Regional Order, p. 14. 

21 CAVR, Chega, pp 265–7, 725–8.

22 Cotton, East Timor, Australia and the Regional Order, p. 43.

23 Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment, p. 204.

24 Paul Keating, Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2000, p. 15.

25 Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment, p. 196.

26 Keating, Engagement, p. 123.

27 Keating, Engagement, pp 133–8.

28 Keating, Engagement, pp 144–5, 157.

29 Keating, Engagement, p. 138.

30 Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment, pp 213–16.

31 Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, Australia’s Foreign Relations in the World of the 1990s, Melbourne: Scribe, 1995, pp 154–6.

32 Keating, Engagement, pp 129–30.

33 Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment, pp 231–2.

34 Pert, Australia as a Good International Citizen, pp 155–6.

35 John Howard, transcript of speech by prime minister given at the official launch of the Millennium Forum, Sydney, 30 November 1999.

36 Clinton Fernandes, Reluctant Saviour: Australia and the Independence of East Timor, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2004.

About the author

Peter Job

Peter Job has a PhD in International and Political Studies from the University of New South Wales in Canberra. His book, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor, was published by Melbourne University Press in June 2021.

More articles by Peter Job

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This article concerning the truth of the story of Timor Leste’s path to independence is so disappointing. Neither major party has any right to be considered as a responsible world citizen concerning human rights or actions for justice and care of the new nation of Timor Leste. Thankfully many grass roots and caring citizens and Churches throughout Australia have worked to support and meet the needs of the people of Timor Leste and still do so today. I particularly think of Jim Collins and the work he encouraged in our town of Bega, NSW to assist the people of Natarbora / Barique. The cruel actions of our Government continues today with its attitude to refugees and lack of climate action, injustice in the courts. Support for Covid vaccinations is needed now and grassroots support for this nation is needed more than ever.

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