History wars over Australia’s role in Timor’s freedom

The release of the 976-page official military history, Born of Fire and Ash: Australian operations in response to the East Timor crisis 1999-2000, has revived controversies over Australia’s role in the independence ballot that freed Timor-Leste from 24 years of Indonesian military occupation.

The short version of these events is that, on 30 August 1999, over 400,000 Timorese voted in a United Nations ballot on whether they wanted independence from Indonesia. Under attack from violent militias controlled by the Indonesian army, 78% of Timorese voters chose independence. The Indonesian military and their militias, who had been intimidating and murdering independence supporters in the lead-up to the ballot, reacted with even more violence. They burnt houses and buildings, expelled the population from cities, towns and villages, murdered over a thousand people, and showed no sign of stopping.

Then on 12 September 1999, under massive international pressure, Indonesia reluctantly agreed to allow an Australian led peace-making force into the territory. This military mission, the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), began deploying on 20 September 1999. They brought the violence to an end and helped secure Timor-Leste’s freedom.

As Australia had prominently supported Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste for so many years, its leadership of INTERFET was remarkable and, to many, in need of explanation.

The Indonesian military occupation and annexation of Timor-Leste had long been controversial in Australian politics. The cause of Timorese independence was traditionally associated with the left, but the INTERFET mission was carried out by the conservative government of John Howard. Some leftists found themselves surprised to be supporting Australia’s largest military intervention since the Vietnam War.

Unsurprisingly, there have been sharply different views of how to make sense of Australia’s turnaround.

At least five different narratives have developed over Australia’s role in the lead-up to the independence ballot, the ballot itself, and the INTERFET intervention that followed. These positions developed shortly after the events of 1999 and are periodically relitigated in response to events like the release US documents and now the official military history.

The five narratives can be summarised as:

  • Australia as the hero:
    • In the “hero” narrative, Australia’s role in Timor-Leste’s independence ballot was a heroic triumph that overshadows Australia’s earlier support for Indonesia’s occupation. This narrative was implicit in much media and political rhetoric at the time. A detailed version of this narrative was later developed by the journalist Paul Kelly in his book March of the Patriots, which argued that “in early 1999, Howard and his foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer recognised that an independent East Timor was likely and they worked to achieve the result”. The “hero” narrative essentially holds that Timor-Leste owes its freedom to Australia. In Tony Abbott’s words, “[t]hanks to Australia, East Timor is free for the first time in nearly 500 years.”
  • Australia as the meddler:
    • The “meddler” narrative is the mirror image of the “hero” narrative. It similarly sees Australia as being primarily responsible for East Timor’s independence, only it sees this as bad thing. As soon as the INTERFET intervention was announced, public figures such as former ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott and former Prime Minister Paul Keating put forward versions of this narrative. It was also popular in Indonesian political circles.
  • Australia as the reluctant saviour:
    • While both the “hero” and “meddler” narratives view Australia as having sought to make Timor independent (though disagreeing on whether this was a good or bad thing), the “reluctant saviour” narrative views Australia as having sought to suppress Timorese independence up to, and briefly after, the referendum.  This narrative holds that Australia implicitly colluded with Indonesia and in effect enabled the massacres throughout 1999, but at the last minute (early to mid-September 1999) independence activists rallied the wider Australian public and forced Australia to reverse course. The most detailed versions of this argument come from Clinton Fernandes in his books Reluctant Saviour (where I’ve taken the term from) and The Independence of East Timor. A shorter version of his argument can be found in this Security Challenges article. He argued that “Australian diplomacy functioned in support of the Indonesian strategy all along… When the Howard government was eventually forced to send in a peacekeeping force, it did so under the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage” (page 3). Many others support this narrative, such as John Martinkus.
  • Australia as the bungler:
    • The “bungler” narrative is somewhat similar to the “reluctant saviour” narrative, as it similarly places a lot of blame on Australia for Indonesia’s atrocities in Timor-Leste throughout 1999. However, it views the causes of Australia’s actions differently. Whereas Fernandes’ work portrays Australia’s actions as an outcome of foreign policy serving “the interests of those who control the central economic and political institutions” (page 130), the “bungler” narrative instead sees Australian policy at the time as driven by the incompetence, myopia and groupthink of various politicians and bureaucrats. This narrative is most succinctly expressed in John Birmingham argument that the “original failure was analytic, and from that moral consequences flowed” (he was referring specifically to the government’s policy in 1975, but throughout his essay he draws parallels with 1999). Similar arguments can be seen in the work of William Maley, who describes Australia’s role in the referendum as “a massive failure of analysis and constitutes Australia’s equivalent of the bungling which saw Pearl Harbor open to attack on 7 December 1941”.
  • Australia as the mostly powerless observer:
    • This “mostly powerless observer” narrative  differs from all four of the previous ones, by contending that (until the unique moment of early to mid-September 1999) Australia actually had little influence over on Timor’s fate. This narrative argues that the Indonesian government was utterly opposed to any talk of an international military presence before the referendum (only reluctantly agreeing to unarmed police observers), and that no countries, including the United States, would have been willing to sufficiently pressure Indonesia at the time even if Australia had sought for them to do so. Proponents of this narrative tend to agree with advocates of the “bungler” and “reluctant saviour” narratives that Australia knew full well that Indonesia was not upholding its promise to maintain security for the ballot, and that the Indonesian military was facilitating the murders instead. However, they differ by arguing that Australia had little power to prevent these atrocities, other than by speaking publicly and risking the cancelation of the referendum altogether and losing this rare chance for Timorese self-determination. The situation changed in September 1999, when global outrage at the post-referendum escalation of atrocities finally prompted sufficient international (mainly US) pressure to force Indonesia to allow an Australian-led military deployment. In Hugh White’s words (where I’ve taken the term from), “Australia found itself a mostly powerless observer of events in which it had important interests but little capacity to influence”. This narrative can also be found, in slightly different forms, in the works of Iain Henry, David Connery, James Cotton, David Scott, Frank Brennan, and Nicholas J. Wheeler and Tim Dunne.[1]

In my view, the “mostly powerless observer” narrative fits the facts far better than the other four, but not perfectly. I’m sympathetic to some elements of the “bungler” and “reluctant saviour” narratives, and almost none of the “hero” or “meddler” narratives. 

But I’m particularly interested to see what the evidence in Born of Fire and Ash will reveal about these debates, and about what needs to be rethought. Much of the media coverage has suggested that the book overwhelmingly supports the “reluctant saviour” narrative. I’m sceptical that it will, because I doubt that a 976-page official history will neatly fit any single narrative.

But I could certainly be wrong, as I have not read any of it yet. So I am purchasing a copy and aim to revisit this topic afterwards. This is clearly an important book that deserves to be read closely.

[1] However, I’ve grouped some quite different individuals together here. For example, David Scott’s book is highly critical of Australian government policy (he was a long-time independence supporter who spent 24 years fighting for Timorese freedom) while David Connery’s book is much more sympathetic to the government. I’ve placed Scott’s work in this category because Chapter 19 of his book is somewhat similar to Hugh White’s argument.

Everything but the punchline: what “Utopia” got right about Australian defence policy

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen wrote a fun post on this endlessly shared clip from the sitcom Utopia:

One of the episode’s sub-plots revolves around a fictional new Australian Defence White Paper. In the clip, Rob Sitch’s character Tony frustratedly seeks to get Defence officials to plainly answer why it’s necessary to spend close to $400 billion dollars as the paper promises.

The scene is sometimes widely shared on social media, and surged in popularity after the government announced that a similar sum of money (up to $368 billion) would be spent on nuclear-powered submarines under Pillar One of AUKUS.

Roggeveen’s post enjoyably dissects the clip. He starts with the weakness of the clip’s punchline, when Tony says:

So under this scenario we’re spending close to 30 billion dollars a year to protect our trade with China…

from China…

and that doesn’t strike anyone at this table as odd?

The punchline is fine as a sitcom line, but people sharing it on Twitter as if it is a compelling critique of defence policy has always bothered me. It’s as if people in the late 1930s were to say: “why do these stupid generals think we could ever face a threat from Japan, don’t they know Japan buys our pig iron?”

As Roggeveen notes:

There is nothing at all inconsistent about Australia defending itself against a country it trades with. In fact, it’s common for countries that trade together to also fight one another. Europe was highly economically integrated before the First World War, yet that didn’t prevent the war.

However, for this post I want to make a different point, one largely in support of the scene. To me, it’s all the parts of clip before the punchline that ring true.

I know this is all treating a sitcom scene far too seriously, but please indulge me.

The salient part of the clip is not the punchline, but the jargon and the vagueness throughout in how the Defence officials describe potential future threats, including steadfastly avoiding saying the word “China” until forced:

Genera: I wouldn’t want to raise tensions.

Tony: Where?

General: In this room.

Tony: You know what I’ll just name one and you nod… China

This highlights a real issue. Australian governments have generally sought to avoid inflaming tensions with China by saying anything too explicit about a potential future conflict with them. The Morrison government sometimes deviated from this approach, particularly the then Defence Minister Peter Dutton, but the Albanese government has been particularly firm on this. As Brendan Taylor notes:

Three distinct positions have emerged as to how Canberra should respond to the growing risk of war. One camp calls for Australia to make clear its commitment to joining with the United States and others in defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack, with a view to deterring Beijing from ever taking this path. A second perspective maintains that Taiwan’s defense is not a vital Australian interest, and that Canberra should be candid with Washington and Taipei regarding this reality well in advance of hostilities erupting. A third school, and one associated most closely with Australia’s new Anthony Albanese-led Labor government, holds that talking up even the chances of conflict is ill-advised. Instead, this camp argues, Canberra should adhere to the tried-and-true approach of its American ally, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding how it would respond in the event of a Taiwan conflict. [emphasis added]

But it will be harder to avoid mentioning conflict with China if the public want clearer answers on why we need nuclear-powered submarines, which may increasingly happen in the years ahead as the budgetary impact hits.

This tension is clear in a recent interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles (an interview discussed in Roggeveen’s post but to make a separate point). Marles seeks to justify the submarine decision without saying anything too inflammatory about China:

Marles has a tricky task, because if the public is told these submarines are necessary for defence they want to know who we need to be defended from. This was foreshadowed in the Utopia clip when Tony said, “At some point the PM is going to be asked a very simple question: in order to protect us from which enemy?”

Moreover, due to the lack of a strong “maritime consciousness” in Australia, for much of the public “defence” tends to mean defence from an invasion rather than defence through shaping distant events out in the oceans. Marles therefore seeks (in the interview and elsewhere) to shift the conversation away from a purported threat to Australian territory to a potential threat to Australian trade, but it is clearly hard for him to convey exactly how the submarines help with this. When he talks about defending Australia’s trade routes, it sounds like he is talking about using the submarines as escorts for trading vessels. Roggeveen responds to this by saying:

The distance between Singapore and Sydney is more than 6000 kilometres in a straight line and even further by sea. How are eight nuclear-powered submarines, only two or three of which will be available for operations at any one time, supposed to defend every ship traversing that vast stretch of ocean? Even the US Navy, with all its resources, would struggle to do it.

That probably isn’t what Marles was suggesting.

A few weeks ago, I was wondering what Marles may have actually meant and asked on Twitter whether maritime security experts could explain how the nuclear-powered submarines would protect trade routes. A bunch of maritime security experts were extremely generous with their time (see responses from Richard Dunley among others) and explained that the trade-protection idea would not at all be to use the submarines as escorts. Instead, if I have understood their responses correctly, the idea would be (in the context of a broader conflict, if deterrence failed) for the submarines to assist allied efforts to damage the enemy’s fleet and hem them in at bottlenecks between islands, to hopefully avoid a situation where escorts for allied merchant shipping were even necessary.

I personally can’t speak to how compelling that argument is. It depends on assumptions that not everyone will share (such as whether to maintain the US alliance for the decades ahead, to the extent of actively participating in a global war). The point is that the precise purpose of the submarines is not at all easy for the government to convey.

To tie this all together, when the government tries to explain why it is committed to such an expensive and ambitious submarine plan, they do indeed end up sounding like the military officials in the Utopia clip above.

This is due to a real dilemma. The government is caught between three competing imperatives that Richard Marles would be contending with throughout all his public statements on the topic:

  1. The diplomatic imperative to talk softly, where our defence policies are increasingly geared to concerns over China but political leaders are understandably wary of escalating tensions, so they seek to say “China” (or discuss specific threat scenarios) as little as possible.
  2. The parochial incentive to frame the international security situation in Australia-centric terms. Political leaders feel compelled to justify defence spending decisions by emphasising their direct benefits to Australia (many references to jobs and allusions to hypothetical future attacks on Australia by unnamed adversaries) rather than openly engage with the difficult questions of collective defence such as “should we help to defend the people of Taiwan if China goes to war and, if so, what risks should we bear?”
  3. The inherent complexity of the international security situation itself, where its likely impact on Australia is more indirect and long-term than can be conveyed through media-friendly comments. Marles’s arguments make the most sense when he addresses this indirect nature of the threat (“the maintenance of the rules-based order as we understand it, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, is completely in Australia’s interest”) rather than when he talks about directly defending Australian shipping. But this international security situation does not easily lend itself to concise statements. Hence the abstractions like rules-based order, which in my view are valid but likely don’t resonate with much of the public. And however valid they are, these abstractions do not in themselves amount to an argument for why spending hundreds of billions on this specific defence capability is the best way to deal with the international security situation.

These three competing imperatives will become more prominent in the years ahead. Arguments will need to be made as to why the submarines are so important that Australia can’t afford whatever has to be cut out of future budgets, but these contradictory imperatives work against making such arguments directly.

So the government is in the same position as the Defence officials in the Utopia clip: adamantly insisting that the money needs to be spent in this way, but awkwardly struggling to clearly or concisely explain why.