Companion to East Timor - The Howard government

The Howard government

When the Howard government came to power in March 1996, it maintained the same policy as its predecessor. At this time, the Asian financial crisis had not yet occurred and President Suharto was still in power in Indonesia. When the Suharto regime cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1996, there were no official expressions of criticism or even disapproval from the new Foreign Minister; Alexander Downer declared that the military crackdown was an 'internal affair' and hoped it would 'settle down quickly.' Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said that Suharto was perhaps the world's greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century.

After Suharto resigned and B.J. Habibie became the new President of Indonesia, Howard wrote to Habibie suggesting a way to take the issue of East Timorese independence off the agenda. His letter did not signify any support for East Timorese self-determination but the exact opposite – it was designed to postpone it indefinitely. But Habibie, besieged by Indonesia's internal problems, announced that he would allow the East Timorese to vote on their own future – to choose either independence from Indonesia or autonomy within Indonesia.

In order to guarantee a victory for the autonomy proposal, the Indonesian military reacted by waging a war of terror through proxy forces known as the 'militias'. In order to ensure 'plausible denial', the military needed a foreign ally to provide diplomatic cover in the international arena. Such an ally would run the propaganda line that East Timorese society was not united on the question of independence, but divided between rival factions so hostile towards each other that only the presence of the military was preventing a civil war. The use of proxy forces was central to this strategy, but the problem was that every observer knew the militia were recruited, armed, trained, and organised by the military.

The Howard government filled this role of an ideal foreign ally. It claimed that the Indonesian military was a neutral arbiter, not the real source of repression and violence, and it worked to reduce international intervention in order to guarantee a victory for the autonomy proposal. But the Howard government was thwarted due to overwhelming pressure from an outraged public, a re-energised solidarity movement that campaigned in Australia and overseas, and a parliamentary opposition that kept the Howard government on the back foot. The government was also severely embarrassed by regular leaks of classified intelligence and diplomatic material.

When the ballot on independence was held, the outcome was a decisive rejection of the autonomy proposal. The East Timorese wanted independence, and had made their wishes clear. The Indonesian military tried to reverse the result of the ballot by force. They launched a campaign of forced deportation, driving approximately 250,000 people across the border into West Timor. They also destroyed approximately 80% of the infrastructure in East Timor. They attempted to round up foreign observers and remove them from East Timor, eliminating foreign eyewitnesses to their terror campaign. The Howard government mounted an evacuation operation known as Operation Spitfire, which fitted in with the Indonesian strategy. Between 6th and 14th September, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force planes evacuated 2,478 foreign observers, journalists and international and local staff to Darwin. The Howard government continued to make public statements that took the pressure off Indonesia. Alexander Downer, for instance, said, 'I get the impression that President Habibie, Mr Alatas, General Wiranto are all trying to do the right thing. And some of the commanders, clearly, are trying to do the right thing. But there have been and there still are some fairly wild elements within the Indonesian military.'

Finally, under the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage, the Howard government reversed its policy and worked with the international community to ensure that an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered East Timor.