In this part of the film Roger East is eating fish and chips wrapped in a newspaper that has a photograph of Indonesian president Suharto and Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam. The film uses an exact copy of the original newspaper.
Whitlam was in power at the time of Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution. Labor had come to power in the 1972 elections, and Australia-Indonesia relations were running smoothly at the official level by this time. Whitlam, an erudite and cosmopolitan figure who spoke of the need for Australia to be "at home in Asia", supported Indonesian claims to sovereignty over East Timor. He argued that an independent East Timor "would be an unviable state and a potential threat to the area."1
Australian public opinion, which was hostile to this policy, had to be neutralized. In 1974, then-foreign minister Willesee wrote to Whitlam arguing against the Australian Labor Party's own proposal to organize a parliamentary delegation to East Timor because it would see immediately that the population supported independence under Fretilin's leadership:
"On the return of the delegation to Australia we could expect public statements which could reflect the anti-Indonesian impressions members might have gained in Portuguese Timor. These will make the conduct of our relations with Indonesia more difficult than the problem of Portuguese Timor in itself might otherwise make them. ... A visit by a joint Parliamentary delegation would be the most substantial external incursion ... in recent years. Would it not encourage others?"2
Privately, Australian officials acknowledged that "Fretilin's claims ha[d] to be taken very seriously. Its credentials as the legitimate representative of the people of Portuguese Timor are potentially strong in an international debate; as indeed they are within Portuguese Timor."3
Whitlam discussed the future of East Timor with Suharto on two occasions: 5th to 8th September 1974 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and 4th April 1975 in Townsville, Australia. Suharto requested an authoritative statement on Timor from Whitlam. Later, Major-General Ali Murtopo, the head of Indonesia's covert special operations project for East Timor, told the Australian Ambassador to Portugal, "until Mr Whitlam's visit to Djakarta, they had been undecided about Timor. However the Prime Minister's support for the idea of incorporation into Indonesia had helped them to crystallise their own thinking."4
There were plenty of alternatives available: more than a year before Indonesia's invasion, Bill Pritchett, a senior official in the Department of Defence, argued that Australia should support self-determination for East Timor despite Indonesia's objections. He did this not for some idealistic notion of having to defend the rights of the East Timorese but for realistic reasons, namely that it would not be possible to conceal Indonesian military brutalities from the Australian public, nor to conduct a good working relationship with Indonesia in the face of sustained public condemnation. The Department of Foreign Affairs should grasp the nettle, he argued.
Pritchett presented a number of well-argued alternatives that would have satisfied policymakers, activists and the East Timorese leadership too:
- Ensure a decolonization process under UN auspices to internationalize the issue.
- Recognize FRETILIN, UDT and APODETI, and insist on their inclusion as representatives of the East Timorese people in any decolonization process.
- Ensure an internationally supervised referendum on independence at any time after the 1974 coup in Portugal.
- Work to ensure that a condition of East Timorese independence was a security treaty with Indonesia (and/or Australia), thus quelling Indonesian concerns about instability.
His advice was ignored in favour of a supposedly pragmatic, hard-headed and tough-minded strategy of better relations with the Indonesian military. But Australian diplomats were thoroughly compromised by Indonesia's strategists, who made a mockery of their supposed expertise in foreign policy. They were given confidential briefings about Indonesian military plans, such that every briefing made them more and more compromised:
"As the advance notification was steadily fed to Canberra, day by day, and no objection was raised, it would have become harder and harder for Canberra to call a halt or make any protest. In effect, the steady flow of information created a form of blackmail: an objection at any point raised the threat of previous compliance being revealed."5
Indeed, the only people they were tough-minded towards were the families of the victims, not their Indonesian counterparts.
The CAVR notes that after Whitlam left office he "campaigned privately on behalf of Indonesia. Following a visit to Timor-Leste in 1982, on which he reported directly to President Suharto, he was instrumental in having Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes removed as the head of the Catholic Church in Timor and later that year he appeared before the UN Special Committee on Decolonization and petitioned it to have the question of Timor-Leste removed from the UN agenda."6
1 N. Meaney 1985, Australia and the World: A Documentary History from 1870 to the 1970s, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, p 772.
2 W. Way 2000, Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor 1974-1976, Melbourne University Press, p 144.
3 W. Way 2000, p 464.
4 W. Way 2000, p 119.
5 D. Ball and H. McDonald 2000, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, Allen and Unwin, p 67.
6 Chega 2005 Final Report Part 7.1 Self-Determination.