Companion to East Timor - Public outrage

Public outrage

Below are a few photos of demonstrations in Melbourne, reproduced courtesy of Takver under CC-nc-sa 3.0, followed by my account of public outrage in Sydney. Similar events occurred elsewhere. More Melbourne photos are here.

In the days leading up to the ballot, activists in Sydney had been discussing what the likely outcomes would be. They had little doubt that the ballot – despite the intimidation and other forms of Indonesian interference – would deliver a resounding victory to the East Timorese claim to independence. All activists were sure about that. The question was, what would happen immediately afterwards? Opinion was divided on this point.

Some warned that a pro-independence victory would result in a repetition of the events of 1975; foreign observers would be expelled and the leaders of the domestic resistance would be hunted down and killed. Max Lane and Jon Lamb from the group Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET) were convinced that the military would try to reverse the ballot results. Many other activists shared their view, believing that a massive reign of terror in East Timor was highly likely, unless there was a significant popular reaction in the Western countries. Not all activists believed this prediction; a large number felt that a clear-cut vote for independence would be too hard to overturn. They assumed that Indonesia did not possess either the audacity or the political clout required to carry out a Carthaginian solution.

These discussions were not occurring for purely speculative or conversational reasons. They were a basis for future action. In particular, activists were trying to settle a practical question in the short term: what should they do in Australia and elsewhere on the weekend, when the results of the ballot would be announced? Since they were unable to agree on whether a crackdown would occur in East Timor, they decided to hold an event with a flexible theme. If there was no crackdown, the event would be a celebration. If there was a crackdown, the event would become a protest and would try to activate the broader community.

A concert was held on the night before the results were announced. It was organised by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and Sydney's Harbourside Brasserie. Known as the 'Big Drum-up for East Timor', it was to feature a range of musicians, including Indonesian percussionist Deva Permana and the band Night Flight to Venus. According to Phil Davey, an organiser with the CFMEU, money from the concert would support East Timorese communities until Christmas.

The ballot results were announced the next morning. As expected, the outcome was a decisive rejection of the autonomy proposal. The East Timorese wanted independence, and had made their wishes clear. Activists in Australia and overseas were jubilant. But joy soon turned to fear, then despair, and finally rage as the Indonesian military began to implement a plan to reverse the result. By Sunday, most UNAMET offices had come under attack and were being forced to close down. Australia commenced Operation Spitfire, evacuating UNAMET staff, journalists and foreign observers to Darwin. The evacuation allowed Indonesia to act without foreign witnesses, permitting it to manoeuvre without restrictions.

The Australian public was outraged at what it saw and demanded an immediate deployment of troops. Kerry Myers, Letters Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that the public response 'was quite overwhelming:

Readers were shocked, angered, saddened, appalled by the terrible, terrible story. But what was almost palpable was the frustration and impotence expressed by so many. Correspondents wanted something, anything, done to relieve the suffering they were exposed to through daily news reports from Dili.

And there appeared nothing much they could do at all. Letters attacked the government, specifically the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, for what the writers saw as hand-wringing inaction… And as the week wore on there was the chilling realisation that there was to be no rescue for the East Timorese.

Alexander Downer later recalled that 'people were ringing up, crying over the phone, we had more calls on that issue than I've ever had in my life on anything.'

The public was doing much more than 'ringing up' and 'crying over the phone'; the union movement swung into action, dramatically increasing the pressure on the government. In Sydney, the first serious protest action occurred on Monday 6 September, when activists in the international solidarity movement and several hundred trade unionists protested outside the Sydney office of Garuda airlinesThey demanded the withdrawal of Indonesian troops and the insertion of a peacekeeping force. At the conclusion of this protest, the ASIET representatives suggested that a broad organising committee be set up urgently with the aim of holding a mass public rally on Saturday 11 September. Steve Dixon, an experienced organiser with the CFMEU, and Tony Vicente, another CFMEU organiser with strong ties to the Portuguese and Timorese communities in Sydney, agreed immediately and offered to hold the meeting at the union's office in the city.

The meeting took place that evening. It was attended by approximately 60 people representing many interested groups: the Australia East Timor Association, ASIET, various trade unions, Church groups and others. Everyone present recognised that the 11 September protest was critical and agreed to work around the clock to make it as large and uncompromising as possible. As ASIET's Jon Lamb later said, 'We just went all out to build September 11 and it exploded from there.' Steve Dixon vowed to 'have somebody handing out leaflets at every street corner in Sydney.'

Sleep deprivation and fatigue were ever-present features of activist life during this crucial week. Many people worked non-stop, setting up campaigning stalls in as many places as possible and handing out leaflets in preparation for the 11 September rally. The funds for these activities were largely supplied by the CFMEU, which was the largest and best-funded group in the movement. Amnesty International organised a vigil at the Martin Place amphitheatre.

Churches were also mobilising their congregations. Every night that week, a public mass was held outside the United Nations offices on York Street. All the while, public awareness was building as a result of the saturation coverage the issue was getting in the mainstream media.

On Wednesday 8 September, a very sizeable rally was held in the city1. Approximately 4000 workers, mainly CFMEU members at building sites in the city, walked off the job and attended this rally. The CFMEU was joined by a number of other unions. Garbage workers – with the full support of Randwick Council – refused to pick up garbage from the Indonesian Consulate. Printing workers refused to handle paper products made in Indonesia. The Australian Nurses Federation declared its support for all the ongoing actions and announced that it had placed several of its members on stand-by to go to East Timor if required. There was no shortage of volunteers in the nursing community for this task. The Australian Education Union had urged public schools to observe two minutes silence at midday on Tuesday 7 September. It increased the tempo of its campaign, propelled by the years of activism of some of its members. The NSW and ACT Independent Education Union resolved to support the CFMEU and other unions in their actions.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) prevented the loading of cargo on all Indonesia-bound ships. The Bunga Teratia III was delayed in Port Botany until its owner agreed not to transport 16 cargo containers bound for Indonesia. In Newcastle, the Cape Horn was prevented from loading produce bound for Indonesia. In Brisbane, the Chekiang was not allowed to leave until 30 containers headed for Indonesia were unloaded. In Melbourne, $22 million worth of products were left stranded. In Adelaide, the MUA took 20 containers to a warehouse and refused to release them until East Timor was free. The International Transport Workers Federation called on its 500 affiliates around the world to follow the MUA's example and 'organise appropriate protest action against Indonesian commercial interests including air and sea traffic coming from or bound for Indonesian ports and airports.'

At a special ACTU meeting, unions were urged to place bans on all Indonesian government and commercial interests in Australia. In Melbourne, rank-and-file anger had taken the union leadership by surprise; Leigh Hubbard, secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, said that 'a lot of these members are ahead of the leadership on this one.' At Melbourne airport, passengers travelling to Indonesia were prevented from boarding a Garuda Airlines flight due to depart at 11 a.m. Their path had been blocked by construction workers at the airport terminal, who gave them leaflets which apologised for the blockade but explained why it was taking place. Subsequently, the CFMEU's Victorian leadership signalled its intention to take similar action against other Garuda flights until the violence in East Timor ended. It also informed Qantas that it would oppose any attempt to take on displaced Garuda passengers.

The Australian Services Union declared that it was also imposing bans on Garuda Airlines. The Transport Workers Union banned the loading of all Indonesian bound freight at Melbourne airport. This occurred despite threats from employers. For instance, Qantas staff in Melbourne were warned that they could be prosecuted under the Workplace Relations Act and the Trade Practices Act if they refused to handle or delayed the handling of Garuda freight. Staff responded by intensifying their actions. ACTU President Martin Ferguson criticized the unions and told them not to undertake these actions. They defied him.

Defiance was spreading throughout the union movement. The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, which also represents postal workers, imposed national bans on all mail, telecommunication services and fault repairs to the Indonesian Consulate and to Indonesian businesses. The Australian Workers Union stepped up the pressure, telling BP, Caltex and Shell not to order Indonesian oil because its members would refuse to process it. This was significant because of the union's strategic location: one-third of Australia's crude oil imports came from Indonesia. The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia agreed to support any campaign to stop the violence. It called for all state and federal instrumentalities, including the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and the Sydney Paralympic Organising Committee, and all companies manufacturing in Indonesia, to suspend production contracts immediately.

The Greens were a highly visible part of the campaign. Their support attracted the approval of many previously apolitical people, who were also full of praise for the union movement's work.

This response in the broader community was rapid, but it did not arise spontaneously. Activists were tapping into a wellspring of support created by more than 24 years of grassroots activism. The consequence of years of grassroots activism was paying dividends – a large cross-section of the public was showing its support for the East Timorese. I observed members of the NSW Police Service in civilian attire attending evening vigils in the city along with their families. Some of them were posted to The Rocks local area command, and had been policing the demonstrators a few hours earlier. At Sydney's international airport, Garuda's check-in desk became the site of protests and blockades.

High school and university students walked out of classes and marched to Sydney Town Hall. University lecturer Dr Peter Slezak, a cognitive scientist and
philosopher, organised a large rally on the campus of the University of
New South Wales on 14 September.

Dr Mengistu Amberber, Dr Clinton Fernandes and Dr Peter Slezak.

Many workers held emergency meetings and then walked off the job to join them. At building sites around Sydney, CFMEU organisers accompanied by East Timorese speakers addressed workers and told them about the major rally the next day. Building workers voted to charge themselves a $5 minimum levy in support of the cause.

The major rally on Saturday 11 September was held at the Archibold Fountain at Hyde Park. It was attended by approximately 15,000 people. ASIET's Max Lane chaired the rally. Years ago he had been forced to leave DFAT for translating the works of banned Indonesian writer Pramodeya Ananta Toer. Now, his uncompromising speech received massive crowd support. The rally turned into a march through Sydney's central business district. This rally had an unusual feature – members of the public were coming out of the shops to join the procession. The 15,000 marchers were drawing more and more people carrying shopping bags. These newcomers joined in the chanting and began handing over their loose change to rally marshals. It is difficult to estimate how many people ultimately marched through Sydney that afternoon. From one of my predetermined observation points in Park Street, I was able to count in groups of about one hundred – an easy task, because at that point people move in rows of seven to ten2. I stopped counting when the figure exceeded 20,000, although thousands of people were still to pass that point. Perhaps 30,000 people eventually took part, but the figure may be slightly higher.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of these demonstrations is that they increased in size from a few hundred at the start of the week to more than 30,000 by the end of the week in Sydney alone. The forward trajectory of protest was replicated in other cities around Australia. These protests had the quality of deep anger and frustration, as the Howard government's policy of support for the Indonesian military was finally exposed.

Public demonstrations were escalating into even larger and angrier rallies, and had begun attracting the fury of the trade unions. Unlike other protests, where people march and then go back to work, this time there would be no going back and letting life go on uninterrupted. These were decisive events that involved the combined weight of organised working people.

Policymakers were alarmed that the Australian public was starting to ask why the US response was so feeble. They were contrasting this with the promptness that always characterised Australian military deployments in support of US objectives. Policymakers were worried that public support for the US alliance would be lost.

In the US, the Clinton administration became aware of the Australian public's considerable bitterness and dismay. The Australian public's 'questioning of the Australian-US alliance shook the administration.'3 Confronted by this kind of anger, the Australian government was finally forced to abandon its defence of the Indonesian military. Recognising the precariousness of its own position in the electorate, the government finally did what it could have done months ago – ensure that the US exerted pressure on Indonesia to allow peacekeepers in. The problem was that for the whole of 1999, the government had lobbied to keep peacekeepers out. It now worked frantically to allow international forces to enter East Timor in order to prevent a political crisis in Australia. Contrary to Howard and Downer's earlier claims, repeated even today when asked why peacekeepers weren't sent in before the ballot, four days of diplomatic pressure is all it took for Indonesia to agree to foreign troops. Union action continued even after the Howard government had succumbed to public fury.

1This section draws on interviews with key activists in the Sydney-based solidarity movement and trade unions. Except where otherwise indicated, I was an eyewitness to all the union events and strike actions described here. Some of these have been described elsewhere.

2I am indebted to Bob Gould, the late Sydney-based bookseller, activist and writer, for giving me this tip.

3G. Alcorn, How We Swayed the US Heart, The Age, 14 September 1999.