Companion to East Timor - The Keating government

The Keating government

Prime Minister Paul Keating and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans accelerated Australia's links with the Suharto regime. Evans had signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia's foreign minister, Ali Alatas, in December 1989. As foreign minister, Gareth Evans did his best to provide diplomatic cover for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. In 1990, he dismissed concerns about Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor, saying that 'the world is a pretty unfair place, that it's littered over the course of the decades and the centuries with examples of acquisitions by force which have proved to be, for whatever reason, irreversible.'

Nine months before the 12th November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Evans had stated that East Timor's 'human rights situation has, in our judgment, conspicuously improved, particularly under the current military arrangements.' When news of the massacre broke, Evans described the massacre as 'an aberration, not an act of state policy.' The Indonesian government announced what it called a 'special commission of inquiry'. The "inquiry" conducted no investigation but merely used the year of the massacre (1991) to deliver a casualty number of 19 killed and 91 wounded. It said that a few junior soldiers were guilty of over-reaction but that responsibility for the massacre lay with the civilian marchers, who had provoked the military into firing on them. Gareth Evans said 'there were grounds for the international community to be "somewhat critical" of the relatively light sentences imposed on troops involved in the massacre, compared to long jail terms for demonstrators'. But there was 'no case to be "supremely critical".'

He stated:

'It's a matter of recognising that what happened in Dili, as appalling as it was, was not on any evidence a deliberate act of state policy. It was aberrant behaviour by a section of the military which has been responded to in a reasonable and credible way by the Indonesian government. Under those circumstances we believe that essentially punitive responses from the international community are not appropriate.'

In January 1992, Gareth Evans ordered the removal of more than 100 wooden crosses symbolizing the victims of the Santa Cruz massacre from the lawn in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. These crosses had been placed there peacefully as a sign of mourning by East Timorese refugees, their supporters and representatives of Canberra's union movement. In March 1992, after talks with Portuguese Foreign Minister Joao de Deus Pinheiro, Evans said at a press conference that Australia saw 'the sovereignty issue as effectively closed, whether you like it or not, whereas Portugal does not… We do occasionally have to accept some harsh realities. The way forward is not to chase a Will of the Wisp, not to chase an aspiration that can never be satisfied.'

On his return from Indonesia after the Santa Cruz massacre, Keating advised his fellow Labor members of parliament that 'President Suharto was the best thing in strategic terms that had happened to us; by bringing stability to the archipelago he has minimised the Australian defence budget.' When the US Congress cut off Washington's military training program for Indonesia, the Keating government filled the void left by the US's decision, pursuing closer military-to-military ties with the Suharto regime. Australia carried out more military exercises with Indonesia than with any other country. During a visit to the US in September 1993, Keating lobbied President Clinton on the issue of military training for Indonesia, urging him to withdraw human rights considerations from the drafting of economic and defence contracts. The Keating government ensured that Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas received the award of the Order of Australia in 1995.

The Keating government concealed the negotiation of the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement from the parliament and the people. Gareth Evans justified the secrecy, saying that it was 'difficult to do things in a fishbowl'. He argued that the secrecy was necessary in order 'to have a sensible process of negotiation' so as 'not to be thrown off the rails by people getting very excited about things before it's appropriate.' Keating tacitly acknowledged the public's opposition when he conceded that the Agreement might have been unachievable had its negotiation been preceded by public scrutiny, 'If there'd been a more public process, there probably wouldn't have been a treaty.'