POST WAR AUSTRALIA - TIDYING UP ON TIMOR
up on Timor
“What did you know,
and when did you know it?” They are the questions that a Sydney
coroner into the 1975 death of an Australian journalist in East Timor
will put to the then Prime Minister, E. G. Whitlam.
As wide ranging as the
coroner is being, she cannot lead her august witness back through his
involvement with Indonesia across the 30 years leading up to its
invasion of East Timor. To do so is to discover Whitlam as the prisoner
of that past.
The key moment came in
1965 when General Suharto took advantage of an uprising in the armed
forces to take power through the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of
Whitlam was truly
grateful for this bloodbath. In his first statement on foreign policy
after becoming Labor leader early in 1967, he called for Australia to
give the New Order “all the political, diplomatic and economic support
we can.” (Australian, 18
February 1967) Whitlam realized that Suharto’s bloodbath of Leftists
had pushed the Red-Yellow peril back from our doorstep as far as
As he continued: “We
can only imagine the additional and crippling sums we would now be
spending on defence” if the Reds had taken charge. In that case, his
welfare programs would have been out of the question. Even more
fundamental, a victory for the Communists would have allowed the
Liberals to whip up more than enough hysteria to keep the ALP out of
office for at lest another 17 years.
Whitlam had arrived at
his commitment to Suharto by a twisted path of anti-colonial
enthusiasms. In the late 1940s, he had welcomed the defeat of the Dutch
imperialists. Throughout the 1950s, he pressed for negotiations between
Jakarta and The Hague over West Irian. The Menzies government was
stymieing talks and promoted uprisings to dismember the Republic of
No sooner had
Washington reversed course by siding with the Indonesians over West
Irian, than the British provoked Sukarno into Confrontation by setting
up Greater Malaysia in 1962-63. The then Labor Leader, Arthur Calwell,
led the charge against this threat from the north by a Japanese
collaborator. Menzies recognised that the electoral threat was as great.
He ordered F1-11s and ran a lottery of death to conscript 20-year old
males for two-years’ military service. (Many ended up in Vietnam.)
Whitlam crafted his bid for ALP leadership by opposing Calwell’s
jingoism and the ineptitude of the government’s responses.
During 1975, these two
tracks to Indonesia intersected in Whitlam’s policy-making. Getting
the Portuguese of Timor out was the final step in the decolonizing that
he had supported since 1947. Incorporating the remnant into the Republic
was inevitable given the haplessness of the population and the alarm
among the Indonesian rulers at any whiff of communism. In office,
Whitlam had delivered on his 1967 commitment to provide “diplomatic,
political and economic support” for the butchers of Bali and beyond.
He saw no reason to retreat from pragmatism.
7 May 2007