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.

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