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The Timor Gap - Xanana Gusmao was welcomed to New Zealand as an honoured guest, but New Zealand has yet to face the truth about its role in East Timor's bloody past

5 October 2002

Xanana Gusmao was welcomed to New Zealand as an honoured guest. But writes a long-time activist, New Zealand has yet to face the truth about its role in East Timor's bloody past.

East Timor went through hell to get its independence. Now there is huge interest in the plucky little country that won through, and the politicians would like us to set aside 24 years of New Zealand's betrayal. Recently Foreign Minister Phil Goff carefully timed a release of secret historical documents just on the eve of a visit from East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta: a token offering and a token acknowledgment that the government was wrong in 1975 to accept the Indonesian invasion.

Now we should all return to basking in the warm glow of East Timor's liberation?

For 24 years, New Zealand's governments gave active support to Indonesia, shunned resistance representatives and turned their backs on unassailable evidence of East Timorese suffering. Can this dark history, like our past support for apartheid South Africa, be swept under the carpet and quietly forgotten?

From the start New Zealand fell in step with Australia. Both governments juggled with two incompatible considerations: supporting East Timor's integration into Indonesia, while appearing to back a genuine act of self-determination. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam charted the course by responding to Indonesia's pre-invasion diplomatic offensive with forthright encouragement. He told President Suharto in September 1974, more than a year before the invasion, that he believed that East Timor should be part of Indonesia even though this was not yet part of Australian policy. An independent East Timor would be "unviable" and "a potential threat".

Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam's successor was initially critical of the invasion. But pressure from the United States State Department and Pentagon saw the opposition taper off. A persuasive cold war argument was that the strategic importance of keeping the deep sea passage through the Ombai-Wetar Straits open for nuclear submarines required us to stay onside with the Indonesian military.

Early briefing documents for New Zealand's Labour Prime Minister Bill Rowling advised: "If the press ask about Indonesia's position , you might refer them to President Suharto's remarks in recent days. These confirm that Indonesia would be concerned at having an unstable independent East Timor in its midst. This is understandable. ..... It would be desirable however, for you to reiterate New Zealand's support for the principle of self-determination - leaving it for the Timorese themselves to determine their own future."

Rowling need not have worried about the press. On December 9 , 1975 just two days after Indonesia's full scale invasion and slaughter of thousands, the Auckland Star noted in a one column article his "formal regret" at the Indonesian "involvement" in the capture of Dili and his comment that "the government is against the use of force."

The same day's New Zealand Herald carried an article from Jakarta-based correspondent Colin McIntyre headed "The fall of Timor smoothly played." He said that Fretilin, a "left wing political party" gave rise to fears of "an independent State emerging on the 'soft underbelly' of the Indonesian archipelago." This was seen as a threat to Indonesia and to a lesser extent Australia who feared that a " politically immature and economically weak" East Timor might "attract insurgency groups in the area or Big Powers looking for well-located satellites."

In succeeding months and years New Zealand played its part in the western conspiracy of silence about the ongoing war in East Timor. Our role was not only that of team player, we took several significant initiatives of our own to help Indonesia to legitimise its takeover and to evade international sanction. One move led on to the next.

New Zealand, unlike Australia, abstained on the first UN resolution condemning the invasion, carefully explaining that the resolution was not 'balanced'. When Indonesia rewarded us by an invitation to attend its self-styled process of self-determination it was a little problematic. Our Secretary of Foreign Affairs suggested : "The maintenance of our present close relationship with Indonesia may require that we accept an invitation, but it would clearly be desirable to do this only in the company of as many other countries as possible and, as a minimum, including ASEAN, Japan, Australia and the US."

Other Western nations and the UN shunned the phony integration "assembly", conducted in defiance of the UN General Assembly resolution calling on Indonesia to withdraw. In the end only seven countries accepted the invitation to attend. Diplomat Alison Stokes reported on an event that was brief (diplomats and journalists were on the ground for only two hours) and orchestrated. She rightly questioned afterwards why only one option was considered and who were these "representatives" making the decision to integrate? Stokes referred to "disappointing" aspects of the day such as a pamphlet she was given on the plane going in which announced the result of the vote in advance. Stokes's report was deliberately kept under wraps and did not become public for 12 years.

It noted an absence of people in Dili - at the time large numbers were in the hills under the protection of the resistance Fretilin forces. The Indonesian forces were carrying out a terror campaign to rival the horrors of the Vietnam War - villages were destroyed and survivors herded into strategic camps. In February 1976 President of the "provisional government" Lopez da Cruz claimed that 60,000 Timorese had been killed.

Our Ambassador Roger Peren was awarded the 'privilege' of a tour in early 1978. .His visit, and presumably his complimentary report, encouraged the Indonesians to allow a series of diplomatic visits from US, Australia and ASEAN countries. He had no difficulty in accepting the official explanations he was given: at a time when people were being resettled in camps, Peren interpreted it as the people "voting with their feet" to leave Fretilin. Peren's conclusion that integration with Indonesia was "irreversible" provided the basis for government policy for the next 18 years:

His report described the Timorese as "poor, small, and riddled with disease, and almost totally illiterate". He advised that, "Considered as human stock they are not at all impressive and this is something to think about when judging their capacity to take part in act of self determination or even perform as responsible citizens of an independent country". Two decades later nearly 99% of these people would turn out to vote in the 1999 referendum.

Throughout the 80s the Indonesian military conducted successive operations against the East Timorese guerrilla resistance. They took mass hostages to advance with them as human shields, and bombarded villages from the air. Refugees, Amnesty International and Church leaders tried to alert the world to the massacres, famine, torture and arrests. But Indonesia was winning the diplomacy war - after 1982 the United Nations General Assembly began to "defer" consideration of the issue.

In New Zealand, a Labour Government was elected on an anti-nuclear tide and was widely seen around the world as courageous for resisting pressure from the US and Britain to host nuclear warships. This "moral" aura lent additional authority to government pronouncements on East Timor. It was a public relations coup for Indonesia.

PM David Lange infuriated local East Timor supporters and ' Jose Ramos Horta with a radio interview in late 1984 in which he made confident assertions that the human rights situation in East Timor was improving. Horta maintained that the transcript of this interview was put to good use by the Indonesians in their campaign to neutralise any UN action. When it met in 1985, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights took East Timor off its agenda.

Lange explained his reasons for refusing to meet with Horta in 1985 : "I do not believe that keeping alive the issue of independence will do anything to help the East Timorese people." Then chairperson of the foreign affairs committee of Parliament Helen Clark, and Lange visited Indonesia (separately) in 1986, and both urged looking beyond the "stumbling block" of East Timor to develop a stronger relationship with Indonesia.

But New Zealand could not avoid taking a stand when a young New Zealander, Kamal Bamadhaj was killed in the 1991 Dili massacre. Of the 271 young people murdered by the military, only Bamadhaj's body was released. It took the Indonesian authorities months to come up with an "explanation" for his death, and when they did it was to blame the victim, who was "actively engaged in fomenting and encouraging the demonstrators to be defiant to the security officers along the way from the church to the Santa Cruz cemetery." New Zealand's official protest was so muted that Indonesia praised our "balanced response."

In 1996 a tiny crack opened up in New Zealand's East Timor policy - the phrase the "occupation is irreversible" dropped from the diplomatic lexicon. No announcement was made of the change and it only became public when Oxfam hosted Horta in early 1997. Canberra was angry to discoverfrom media reports this break in the ranks .

But little changed. The government came under more pressure about its military ties, but insisted that the military relationship - training Indonesian officers, allowing Skyhawk fighter jets to be refurbished in Blenheim- was essential to its "fully rounded" relationship with Indonesia.

Only at the time of the post-referendum violence did New Zealand decide that the price of the "fully rounded" relationship was too high. New Zealand followed the United States initiative and suspended all military ties on September 10, 1999.

Right now the generals responsible for East Timor's tragedy haven't been punished or even dismissed - they are rising in the ranks and assuming command in embattled West Papua and Aceh. Australia, Britain and the US are well on the way to resuming military ties. So far New Zealand has not resumed its training of Indonesian army officers, but has reverted to its usual "quiet diplomacy" - asking Indonesia politely to respect human rights and refrain from military abuses.

The New Zealand Government isn't supporting the West Papuans in their claim for self-determination, despite the evidence that Indonesia stage-managed a fraudulent "Act of Free Choice" to gain control in 1969. Even a moderate request for New Zealand to back the campaign to have the UN to review its conduct in relation to the events of 1969 has so far been refused.

Is it not time for New Zealand's foreign policy, which is conducted in our name, is also conducted with our input and ultimately with our assent?

Maire Leadbeater (former Spokesperson East Timor Independence Committee and current Spokesperson Indonesia Human Rights Committee)
Published in the NZ Listener, 5 October 2002

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