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Essay: An evaluation of Gough Whitlam's response to Indonesian claims to East Timor.

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by Nicholas Klar

NOTE: This paper was written in 1993, well before the East Timorese were able to regain their independence from Indonesia. Therefore bear in mind that recent events could not be considered and what was being evaluated was the response of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government at the time of the Indonesian takeover. 

The forced integration of East Timor into the Indonesian republic has been a controversial issue in Australia for over eighteen years. The takeover was bloody and human rights violations continue to this day. Many would view Gough Whitlam's stand on East Timor as paradoxical to the other 'reformist policies' of his government. The purpose of this paper will not be to justify the Whitlam policy, decry the repression of Indonesian authorities since 1975, or justify the case for East Timor independence. Rather it will be to put forth and evaluate the reasons why Whitlam assumed the position that he did. The writer does not necessarily agree or disagree with any of them.

There has been a veritable plethora of material written on East Timor since 1975. Many of these writings are critical of the attitudes of the west during the crisis, particularly that of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his government, and do not accept Indonesian claims to East Timor. Few have attempted to pursue a balanced or unbiased viewpoint, except perhaps the short chapter by Renouf. There are many reasons for the stand that Whitlam took and each will be discussed in the course of this work.

Each of these fall roughly into three categories. The first is relations with Indonesia. These include Whitlam's close relationship with, and respect for, President Suharto and his emphasis on the importance of relations with Indonesia (which was often referred to as 'batik diplomacy'). There was also a reluctance to become involved in what he saw as a Portuguese/Indonesian question needing indigenous resolution, and the associated tensions between Suharto and his military leaders.

The second category is the Labor government's commitment to non-military solutions, and a zone of peace and neutrality in the ASEAN region. Whitlam's reasons here included, the consideration of East Timor's unviability as an independent nation, the potential instability in the region that could arise to neighbouring states ('Balkanisation'), and the notion of Fretilin as an undemocratic government - similar to those in North Vietnam, North Korea, and East Germany. Most important was the 'spectre' of a Vietnam type conflict close to home. Labor had won government partly because of it's commitment to peace in the region, and would not, or simply could not resume military operations so soon after the withdrawal from Vietnam.

The last category is Whitlam's desire for an 'enlightened but pragmatic' foreign policy, and his desire to be seen as a world statesman. He was often accused of being overtly concerned with Australia's image abroad. Whitlam felt Indonesian control of East Timor would not only bring stability to the region, it would also serve the purposes of decolonisation, and wipe the slate of 'an untidy colonial relic'. There was a long term fatalism in the Department of Foreign Affairs over the question of independence for East Timor, with the feeling that eventual integration into Indonesia was inevitable.

There is also little to suggest that the coalition parties would have acted any differently. Both Malcolm Fraser (probably the Liberal Party's most socially conscious leader ever on world affairs) and Doug Anthony, leader of the Country Party, were conspicuous on their lack of public comment on East Timor. The Roy Milne speech by Whitlam in 1973 gives much substance to his East Timor policies. In it he laid out his government's movement away from the basic foreign policy framework of the previous Liberal government. This policy had rested on two themes - Australia's alliance with the U.S., and the containment of China. Whitlam contended that the most important nation to Australia, apart from it's natural partners of New Zealand and PNG, was it's northern neighbour Indonesia.

Whitlam's respect for, and trust of, President Suharto was a great foundation of his Indonesian policy. In fact Whitlams views on Indonesia appear to have been formed long before he reached The Lodge in Canberra. Whitlam often stressed during his speeches the vital importance of Indonesia to Australia. His high regard for the Suharto and the Indonesian state is obvious in his book The Whitlam Government. Whitlam vigorously criticised the Indonesian policies of his conservative predecessors, and sought to foster political and economic interest in the region. Suharto was widely respected in the west, especially for his role in smashing the PKI communist group.

Suharto was viewed as a bulwark against communism, and he himself was keen to play the role of moderate. He had stressed his opposition to Islamic extremists, and was a restraining force on his generals. This latter point would be important as the East Timor crisis deepened. He was deeply concerned about the reaction of the major western powers to an Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The Indian takeover of the Portuguese enclave of Goa in 1961 would have provided some encouragement to the Indonesians. Interestingly, Malaysia was covertly supplying weapons to Indonesia for use in Timor. This would appear as tacit approval for the stand of Australia (and other western states) although some may argue it may due to coercion or a desire to further their political and economic interests.

The British and Americans, like Whitlam supported the principle of integration, even though the C.I.A. admitted little inside knowledge of the crisis. Suharto sought Portuguese approval to intervene in the situation in an effort to validate the invasion. This attitude of non-involvement emanating from Australia and other western states strengthened the resolve of both the East Timorese independence movements and the Indonesian integrationists. In his Wonsobo meeting with Suharto it was claimed that Whitlam actually went further in his acquiescence than Indonesia required. Asked what the Australian government would do in the case of Indonesian military intervention Whitlam simply stated it would 'do nothing'. In fact East Timor was viewed by him as 'a natural extension of the Indonesian Republic'. Whitlam did not wish to be held responsible for the decolonisation of East Timor, nor give Indonesia reason to suspect that Australia 'had designs' on the same either.

Whitlam validated Indonesian control of West Papua (Irian Jaya) but warned against the same style of integration through managed plebiscite. The issue of West Papua had been a source of much angst and resentment between Indonesia and the former Liberal governments of Australia. The Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, appeared to have had considerable influence in Canberra. He considered that it was better to have good relations with 130 million Indonesians than 650,000 East Timorese. He also felt that it would be far easier to negotiate territorial borders, along with oil and gas mining leases, in the Timor Sea with Indonesia than with an independent East Timor or Portugal (as has apparently proven correct).

Even recently Woolcott was still defending the geo-political importance of Indonesia to Australia and lambasting Indonesian critics within Australia. Woolcott very much had the ear of Whitlam with regard to counsel on Indonesian affairs, and also had influence with the Australian press. He recommended that Australia accept whatever happened in East Timor because there would be no changing of the Indonesians resolve, and Australia 'had best just keep its head down'. Woolcott backed intervention by Indonesia listing several points in their favour, also stating that the government should move to minimise public impact in Australia. He admitted in a diplomatic dispatch on 7th August 1975,

'I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about'.

Australia closed it's consulate in Dili in 1971. Dunn claimed that this was to distance itself from any actions taken in the region. It was probably more simply due to a complete lack of interest. Diplomatic dispatches to and from East Timor were 'rarely taken seriously' and 'simply not going to be read'. As the mission became 'increasingly neglected' the Australian representative felt 'forgotten and isolated'. The Dili office was not re-established (despite pressure to do so) because it was felt Australia could be seen as interfering by both the Indonesians and East Timorese.

Whitlam very certainly did not want Indonesian resentment of Australia. Although named as a 'party principal' to the crisis Whitlam ruled out this notion along with any assistance, apart from humanitarian aid. Whitlam was afraid that any involvement (particularly as a 'party principal') may lead to a form of quasi-colonial rule. He vigorously supported the Indonesian policy of seeking indigenous solutions and self-determination, as opposed to western interventions that could tragically escalate. Both Suharto and Whitlam supposedly agreed on self deter-mination for East Timor. The Department of Foreign Affairs did not really believe Suharto on this point, but would accept the eventual result anyway. Whitlam's views were apparently shared by many ambassadors and diplomatic staff. Like Gareth Evans today there appeared amongst the Australian Foreign Affairs department a 'be kind to Indonesia' attitude.

Suharto had given personal assurances to Whitlam that Indonesia would not invade East Timor nor involve itself by violent means. Whitlam contends that these assurances were personal and did not automatically pass on to the caretaker Fraser government after his governments dismissal. This may be the reason Suharto did not move on East Timor sooner, but one must also take into account Whitlam's own ego and opinions. This was so much so that Whitlam rarely consulted his cabinet on foreign policy matters. Nonetheless Indonesia moved to 'restore order' in East Timor just six days before the 1975 Australian federal election. Suharto and his generals would have taken into calculation the impotence of the Australian government due to the political crisis of November 11th.

With the cold war still a reality, an 'weak, unstable, left-leaning independent East Timor' was a threat to the unity and security of the Indonesian Republic, and also surrounding areas. Because the Fretilin movement contained some communist elements could some senior officials have been secretly worried that there could be 'another Cuba' on Australia's doorstep? After the intervention Foreign Minister Willessee acknowledged Indonesia's problems with East Timor (especially the 40,000 refugees who immediately fled into West Timor), and laid the blame on the divisive politics of both East Timor and Portugal.

Another major reason was the Whitlam view that East Timor was unviable as an independent state, and that it was 'in many ways part of the Indonesian world'. Whitlam considered that larger states lent themselves more to political and economic stability than small states which were 'politically inconvenient'. Yet East Timor was (is) larger than thirty other independent states, and could be a great deal more viable than many of the Pacific Island nations. Renouf contends that East Timor was an 'absurd relic' of colonialism, particularly with its small separated enclaves, that it was badly administered by the Portuguese, and was far from ready for the independence it had thrust upon it.

The question of military intervention caused a split between the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Indonesia was really the only place the military considered a non-nuclear attack on Australia could be launched from, but defence strategists were still keen to maintain friendly relations. Whitlam was not impressed by the dissenting views of some in the Defence Department who he considered were wanting East Timor as a defensive buffer against Indonesia. Even if the Labor government had wished to intervene militarily it could not because it was hamstrung by party policy. One of the first decisions by the new Whitlam government in 1972 was that it 'would not intervene again in land wars in South-East Asia'. There was to be no intervention in East Timor even if there was widespread violence.

Both Australia and the United States had just 'got out' of the Vietnam War and were not willing to be involved in another costly police action. In the post-Vietnam climate neither Whitlam or Fraser 'could have threatened to put Australian troops in the field, let alone done so'. The United Nations was unwilling to take on the problem, especially when compared to the almost fait accompli of its previous effort in West Papua (Irian Jaya). Besides, the logistics of mounting such an operation compared to the rapidly deteriorating situation in East Timor would have in all practicality ruled out such action.

Much concern was displayed by Whitlam about the possible 'Balkanisation' that could occur from the dispute. The parties most involved in East Timor (UDT, Fretilin and Apodeti) were forming and splitting on 'alliances of convenience'. Control of the country was split between UDT and Fretilin forces and no party looked as if it were capable of proper administration. The situation had 'deteriorated into virtual civil war' with both the police and military primarily supporting different factions. Whitlam laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Portuguese for its irresponsible attitude, and also on the Timorese for their intransigence. The worry on both sides in Australia was that problems could spill over in the region, and may even encourage an eventual Indonesian move against Papua New Guinea.

Whitlams aim was to develop a foreign policy that was 'realistic and generous, enlightened yet pragmatic' with its first objective to 'promote and protect Australia's security'. Australia's foreign policy had to strike a balance between 'commitment and power' and was committed to supporting a zone of peace and neutrality within the South-East Asian region. Australia's defence would be best served by accepting the political realities in its regions and removing 'tension and conflict which could directly or indirectly affect Australia's security'. This kind of thinking had a direct influence on policy towards East Timor.

In order to reduce some of these tensions Whitlam put the responsibility for settlement of the East Timor crisis firmly on the Portuguese government. Stating 'no national interest' the Australian government effectively washed its hands of any responsibility in regard to the problem. While Whitlam was advocating self determination for the colony he was offering signals to Indonesia that Australia would not interfere if Indonesia chose to intervene. At the same time Britain was allegedly arguing that 'Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible'.

Another major claim by Whitlam was that the Fretilin organisation was non-democratic, represented only a small political elite, and was no better than those who had forcibly seized power in Vietnam, North Korea, or East Germany. There had been no real political interest shown in independence either inside or outside the colony up until the time of the coup in Portugal. It was alleged that much of the outside support for Fretilin and criticism of Indonesia had come through Fretilin's skilful use of propaganda. Toohey and Pinwill claim that the western governments were not adequately informed on the situation yet Renouf claims the opposite.

There were major divisions between UDT and Fretilin which could not be simply solved by an act of independence, and the colony 'would be a mess for some time'. There have been suggestions that Whitlam should have 'publicly' opposed Indonesian military intervention, rather than quiet diplomacy. No formal protest was made over the killing of five 'Australian' journalists (in fact only two were Australian citizens). Whitlam claimed that any protest would have been seen as a political stunt which would not have helped the Timorese, and brought possible conflict with Indonesia. Once again this stresses Whitlam's pragmatic foreign policy based on good relations with Australia's largest neighbour.

Both the policy of Whitlam and his Fraser his successor were ambiguous. Whilst declaring that the East Timorese had a right to self-determination the preferred option was integration into Indonesia. Australia sought to implement both and failed. With incompatible aims (because of the colony's desire for independence) both leaders would have hoped that the problem would eventually be solved by force majeure. Perhaps Whitlam's response was also bound by his governments inability to act, and a desire not to be seen acting like Yankee imperialists. Australia, without support from other major powers, was effectively in a no-win situation.

When evaluating Gough Whitlam's response to the crisis it must be remembered that much of the criticism levelled towards it comes with the benefit of hindsight. There are many parallels with the current situation in Bougainville, and is there not more justification for an independent West Papua (Irian Jaya) whose indigenous people are distinctly Melanesian and suffer similar oppression? Yet Whitlam still attempts to justify his policies by denying human rights abuses in East Timor when he no longer needs to. His trust in Suharto was betrayed, and Indonesia acted shamefully. There lies the crux of Whitlam's failed policy. Yet while Indonesia is to be condemned for provoking unrest, its invasion, and its subsequent human rights abuses, it is to be also understood in its concern for stability within its region. This is exactly what Whitlam sought as a protection of Australian national interests. When we evaluate his response to Indonesian claims to 'Portuguese' Timor we must try to do so from the stand point of 1975 not 1993. At that point his response becomes understandable, although not totally justifiable.


A. Primary sources (Documents)

Neville Meaney (ed.), Australia and the World, Melbourne, 1985

Gough Whitlam, 'Australia's Foreign Policy : New Directions, New Definitions', Australian Institute of International Affairs, Roy Milne Lecture, November 1973

Gough Whitlam 'Opening Address' in Australia Institute of Political Science, Foreign Policy for Australia

B. Primary Sources (Books)

James Dunn, Timor : A People Betrayed, Brisbane, 1983

Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government, Melbourne, 1985

Alan Renouf, The Frightened Country, Melbourne, 1979

George Munster, Secrets of State, Sydney, 1982

C. Secondary Sources (Books)

Mark Aarons & Robert Domm, East Timor: A Western Made Tragedy, Sydney, 1992

Glen St. J. Barclay, Friends in High Places, Melbourne, 1985

T. B. Millar, Australia in Peace and War, Canberra, 1978

John G. Taylor, Indonesia's Forgotten War, Sydney, 1991

Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson, The Book of Leaks, Sydney, 1987

Brian Toohey and William Pinwill, Oyster, Melbourne, 1989

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, An evaluation of Gough Whitlam's response to Indonesian claims to East Timor" - + date accessed

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