Companion to East Timor - The Whitlam government

The Whitlam government

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) under Prime Minister Gough 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 spoke of the need for Australia to be 'at home in Asia.' He also regarded a 'stable' Indonesia under the Suharto regime as vital to the Australian national interest. He supported Indonesian claims to sovereignty over East Timor.

The problem was that the Australian public was hostile to Indonesia's plans to annex East Timor. Since public opinion was at odds with policy, public opinion would have to be neutralised. Accordingly, policymakers issued perfunctory statements supporting the East Timorese right to self-determination. These statements were no more than routine representations to Indonesia, with the understanding by both sides that no meaningful action would be taken to prevent the invasion or support the right of self-determination for East Timor. The government did identify opportunities that would give the East Timorese some diplomatic support – in order to neutralize them. In 1974, for example, then-Foreign Minister Don Willesee wrote to his Prime Minister arguing against the ALP's own proposal to organise a parliamentary delegation to East Timor. The problem was that any parliamentary delegation that went to East Timor would see immediately that the population supported independence under the leadership of Fretilin:

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?

Although they knew that other political parties in East Timor were influenced by Indonesia, Australian diplomats tried to blame Fretilin for the problem, claiming that it had 'aggravated an already tense situation in Portuguese Timor.' Fretilin was accused of being unwilling to compromise with the other parties. Its 28 November 1975 declaration of independence was criticized as an act of intransigence. Privately, of course, Australian officials were not misled about the basic issues; they understood the problem very clearly. They acknowledged that 'Fretilin's claims have 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.'

There were plenty of alternatives available: Australia could have lobbied internationally for a UN-supervised referendum at any time after the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. It could have called for a decolonisation process under the auspices of the UN, preventing the Indonesian invasion by internationalising the issue. Australia could have recognised Fretilin and UDT, and insisted on their legitimacy as representatives of the East Timorese in any decolonisation process. Australia could also have informed the US that its preference was for an independent East Timor, even if under heavy Australian influence. None of these steps was taken because they may have led to a viable democratic alternative in the middle of Indonesia, then under the authoritarian rule of President Suharto. And this, ultimately, was the real issue – the Indonesian public must not see, in their geographical midst, a viable alternative to the New Order. In the words of a leading policy maker, Michael Curtin (Head of the Department's Indonesia Section from 1975-1976), Fretilin was 'the sort of party we would have welcomed, even encouraged, anywhere else than in Timor':

It may be that Fretilin, if it is given the time required to put its thoughts together … will find some of the ideas advanced by the various schools of communist theory to be very attractive. … Fretilin's advice is coming mainly from the doctrinaire left. … If an independent and politically radicalised East Timor were to make a go of it, with political and economic help not to Indonesia's liking, it would certainly become something for discontented Indonesians to look to.

Such a scenario was unwelcome – to policy makers in Australia as well as in Indonesia. Even before the Carnation Revolution, official Australian thinking was clear about the 'stability' provided by the Suharto regime. The summary of a dispatch from Australian ambassador Robert Furlonger in January 1973 notes his 'observation that the New Order in Indonesia is vastly better than the other likely alternatives with which we were faced in 1965 (or, if development fails, could be faced with in the future) ... However, Australia's main interest is an Indonesia experiencing reasonable economic growth and a benign and stable government and pursuing policies of good relations with its neighbours. The Suharto government fulfils these criteria.'