Companion to East Timor - International Solidarity - Phase Five

International Solidarity – Phase Five

Phase Five was a period of confusion and retreat for the Indonesian diplomatic effort: its economy appeared to be collapsing, its president was forced to resign, pro-democracy protestors had gained momentum, and the solidarity movement for East Timor was invigorated. Experiencing political and psychological dislocation, Indonesia finally agreed to hold a ballot on independence. The presence of foreign observers on the ground ensured that the population, although heavily intimidated, still managed to express its views at the polling booths. These observers – and the international publicity they generated through their back-linkages into the transnational solidarity movement outside the territory – were perhaps the most serious obstacle in the path of the Indonesian authorities.

In November 1996, the Asian financial crisis had not yet occurred. President Suharto was still in power, and the Australian government's opposition to East Timor's independence was resolute. Several delegates from Australia travelled to Malaysia that month to attend an international conference on East Timor. The conference was disrupted when 200 thugs from the Malaysian ruling party's youth organisation (United Malays National Organisation Youth) stormed in and began attacking the delegates. Malaysian police stood by, allowing the delegates to be hit and jostled for about 20 minutes before intervening.

The Australian government's response was revealing. John Howard first claimed that the conference was banned and that the delegates, not the Malaysian government, had acted illegally by attending a banned conference: 'When you are in another country, if you are told that something is not permitted, well you have to take notice of that or expect certain consequences.' However, the conference delegates had not broken any Malaysian laws. Melbourne Catholic Bishop Hilton Deakin, a conference delegate, said he was 'advised, and advised constantly by the legal advisers attached to the conference, that we were observing all the laws.' While the Indonesian government had been known to pressure other ASEAN governments to discourage international activism on East Timor, the Howard government needed no pressure. It was simply acting within the parameters of pre-existing Australian policy. In criticising the delegates, not the government-backed mob that attacked them, Howard was signalling his government's intention to fortify Keating's support for Indonesia's control of East Timor.

B.J. Habibie taking the oath of office as President of the Republic of Indonesia.
Source: Office of B.J. Habibie/Wikimedia Commons.

After Suharto resigned as President on 21 May 1998, his successor, B.J. Habibie, had also ruled out a referendum in East Timor. However, under economic, political and diplomatic pressure, he was forced to offer what he called 'special status ... under one condition that East Timor is recognised as an integrated part of the Republic of Indonesia.' His foreign minister, Ali Alatas, actively promoted the new special status offer, calling it 'a new opportunity or big chance to seek a comprehensive and fair solution that can be accepted by all parties on the East Timor problem.' Abilio Soares, the puppet governor of East Timor, convened a meeting at his official residence in an effort to convince the public to accept the offer. It was attended by a number of prominent East Timorese and about 2,000 members of the public. When Soares spoke up in favour of 'greater autonomy', the audience jeered him and demanded a referendum on independence. Later, leaders of the newly-formed East Timorese Student Solidarity Council immediately rejected all talk of autonomy, and also demanded a UN-supervised referendum on independence.

Watch Andrew McNaughtan's film, Viva Timor Lorosae here:

The Australian government was providing maximum diplomatic cover for Indonesia's offer of autonomy by talking down the chances of a referendum. In a visit to Jakarta in July 1998, Alexander Downer dismissed calls for a referendum, saying that East Timor was 'obviously a very divided place. There is no point trying to solve the issue with a quick fix'. Later that month, Downer travelled to the Philippines for annual talks between the Association of South-East Asian Nations and its chief partners. He re-affirmed his government's rejection of calls for self-determination: 'I do not think that immediately moving into some sort of active self-determination in East Timor is a solution at all.' President Habibie, trying to promote his autonomy proposal, announced a program of troop withdrawals from East Timor. In fact, the troops were not withdrawn at all. They sailed away from the wharf in Dili and then, under cover of darkness, five battalions landed north of Los Palos. Activists in Australia, who were in regular contact with the East Timorese, tried to draw attention to the deception, but the government dismissed their claims. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer praised the decision to withdraw troops, calling them 'a step in the right direction.' He said he had been assured that more withdrawals would follow:

'I discussed this matter with Foreign Minister Alatas. He has confirmed media reports that troop numbers would be reduced. He has confirmed a figure of about a thousand and tells me that this is to be the first in a series of withdrawals.'

But in October 1998, Australian activist Andrew McNaughtan smuggled the entire file of Indonesian army personnel records out of East Timor, showing that the claims of withdrawal and demilitarisation in East Timor were lies. It is worth expanding on this episode, because it serves to illustrate the continuum that existed between FALINTIL in the mountains, the clandestine resistance in the towns and activists overseas. While he was staying in Dili during late August and early September 1998, McNaughtan was contacted by East Timorese activist Jose Antonio Belo, who explained that he had in his possession some information of great importance. He showed McNaughtan a few pages of printed matter. McNaughtan realised that they were extracts from the Indonesian military's Order of Battle, with detailed information about personnel and units. Belo gave him the entire Order of Battle on a computer disk, which he smuggled out of East Timor and printed out when he returned to Sydney. He then engaged in intensive consultation with the dissident Indonesian academic Dr George Aditjondro, who provided expert comments on the significance of the documents. McNaughtan also consulted Dr John Roosa, another academic specialist on Indonesia. Once the documents had been analysed in detail, McNaughtan and his fellow activists maximised publicity by holding simultaneous press conferences in different cities. The documents received a lot of publicity, and led to a dramatic increase in the pressure on Habibie and the Indonesian foreign policy apparatus. The exposure of the personnel records, and the extensive details contained therein, made it clear that the Indonesian authorities were lying. They had been caught out.

Links with the Indonesian military

Activists continued to campaign against links between the Australian Defence Force and the Indonesian military. For example, the band known as Relish played gigs outside the Australian Army base in Canungra.

Ant McKenna and Relish (Afonso Corte-Real, Jeremy Hill, Michael Leach, Sean Lynch and James Denton)
play at the "Stop Training KOPASSUS" protest, Canungra, 1997.

Left: Michael Leach fronting a solidarity rally for East Timor in Brisbane, 1995
Right: Afonso Corte-Real

Below are the lyrics written by Michael Leach to the song "Xanana Vive".
You may download or play the song HERE (mp3 - 3.16MB).

Lyrics: M. Leach

Mountains arise
when the storm hangs heavy down
I'm waitin' for the day you're gonna
walk back into town

That flag is a knife
it bleeds red to white
this town
We're waitin' for the day you're gonna
burn that flag to the ground

Xanana Vive!

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