Monday, 12 February 2007

Editorial: Timor and the temerity of politicians

Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 11 February 2007
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New Zealand's shameful record over East Timor comes into focus again this week. A Sydney inquest is delving into the murder of five journalists, including New Zealander Gary Cunningham, during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. And a new book by Maire Leadbeater exposes in detail New Zealand's complicity both in the invasion and the murderous Indonesian occupation of what is now Timor Leste. It is an open question whether our politicians and officials have learned the right lessons from this disgraceful business. So let's list them.

The first is that the self-proclaimed "realist" school of international relations is blind and self-defeating. Hard-headed diplomats in western capitals made a conscious decision to feed East Timor to the Indonesian beast. They did not want a small, easily sacrificed nation to upset an important ally in the Cold War. They feared Fretilin would take Timor into the communist camp, although Fretilin was actually a social democratic movement. They decided that independent Timor, in short, would be better dead than red. But throwing Timor to the dragon did not "work".

Timor resisted and for the next 30 years there was a rising tide of international woe that infuriated the Indonesians and disgraced the West. That is the flaw in the policy of realpolitik. By placing "national interests" ahead of any moral consideration, it underestimates the permanent influence of morality in human affairs. Timor refused to allow itself to be a pawn in the bloodless chess game of international diplomacy. Protesters and journalists refused to let Timor die.

Timorese courage and international outrage finally led to Timorese independence. Publicity was also crucial - and that is the second lesson from Timor. If the leaders of the West had had their way, Timor would have been quietly strangled and buried in a distant corner of the Indonesian empire. Henry Kissinger told President Soharto to do his invading fast.

"It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly," Kissinger told the tyrant. But it is difficult, in the era of instant global communication, to keep murder quiet.

And that is the third lesson of East Timor: diplomacy should never be left to diplomats and politicians. Both groups are, by nature and training, inclined to appeasement, deal-making, secrecy and cynicism. Left to themselves, they will try to "fix things": and the usual result will be to sacrifice the weak to the strong, the defenceless to the aggressor, justice to "peace and quiet." That is why they need always to be watched and held to account. Diplomats in particular have created an aura of expertise in order to protect their power. Foreign affairs, they would have us believe, is a high intellectual mystery open only to the specially-trained. In fact, this is nonsense.

Thirty-one years after the first massacre, who has been proved right about East Timor? Not the highly-educated and well-informed officials who thought Timor could be quietly suppressed. Not the politicians who thought appeasement of Indonesia was the only realistic option. Not the thugs in Jakarta who thought Timor was a small morsel to swallow. The ones who were proved right were people like Jose Ramos Horta, who kept the flame alive during decades of darkness. They were the journalists who kept telling the truth about genocide and the mothers of murdered sons who refused to be fobbed off with official lies.

This is the triumphant message of East Timor: that courage and truth-telling will defeat the professional deal-makers and appeasers. There is an analogy here between the "realists" of diplomacy and the hard-right proponents of free-market economics. Devotees of realpolitik think nations do nothing but follow their own interests. The marketers believe that individuals merely pursue their own economic advantage. Both are catastrophically wrong.

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