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Southeast Asia


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Southeast Asia


Dodging the Intel men in East Timor

7 December 1995

WHEN INDONESIAN PARATROOPS fell from the sky over Dili, twenty years ago today, about 400 were picked off in mid-air by the city's defenders. Others drowned in the sea. Of those who landed, many died in fighting with other Indonesian units.

Others were too weighed down by loot (jewellery, beer, house windows) to defend themselves - and were shot by the city’s Fretilin defenders. But this was the biggest military operation since Indonesian independence, and eventually numbers prevailed.

The conquerors of Dili were welcomed by a delegation of Chinese community leaders, and another from Apodeti, East Timor's tiny pro-Indonesia political party. Both delegations were gunned down. So were hundreds of ordinary East Timorese in the streets. Grenades were tossed randomly into houses, and mass executions were carried out on the Dili wharf. One of these targeted mothers, whose young children were forced to watch. In another, Australian journalist Roger East was shot.

In this manner Indonesia’s armed forces - indoctrinated in the belief that they were invading a Communist country - began a bloodbath which altered the nature of the former Portugese colony forever.

"Integration", the Indonesian word for East Timor's status, is less accurate than "occupation". Dili has a military barracks every few hundred metres. Timorese recruited by one of the intelligence organisations (generically known as Intel) report on their friends and family. Priests report on their brother priests.

Though East Timor lacked the population for mass death on the scale achieved by Pol Pot, the Indonesian invasion of December 7, 1975, did end up costing the lives of at least a quarter of the nation's people. Based on the pre-invasion census, East Timor's population in 1980 should have been about 750,000. The Indonesian census of 1980 counted 200,000 less than that. The “200,000 deaths” figure is regarded as credible even by East Timor’s present Governor, Abilio Osorio. A couple of Indonesian officials have privately put it much higher.

I ARRIVED IN Dili the morning before the fourth anniversary of the Santa Cruz Massacre. The previous day, a large, disparate human rights delegation had been intercepted at various Indonesian airports and turned back. Reporting on the delegation's "secret" visit for The Australian, I was one of the dozen who got through to Dili. This small group included another journalist - Hugh Shaunessy of the Irish Times.

First thing, foreigners were summoned to a meeting at the Turismo Hotel. I was at that moment arriving at the Turismo, from the airport - having caught my early flight from Kupang. Before I had put my bags down, Mr Triswoyo, head of East Timor's immigration service, informed us that we were being "requested to leave" the province immediately. A plane would be ready later in the morning, and we were to stay in the hotel till departure. Amongst the group was Andrew McNaughtan, whom I barely knew then, but who later became a close friend.

Once the meeting was over I took Mr Triswoyo aside, and rather pleased him by giving him my plane ticket out - which I would no longer need, but he could cash in. The delegation's members had entered East Timor, on tourist visas, “to foment riots”, according to Mr Triswoyo. I told him I was horrified by such irresponsibility. Catching sight of the gold cross round his neck, I told him I was also a Catholic - and had spent years praying to the Virgin to allow me to see East Timor's churches. Suitably impressed, he allowed me to stay "a little longer" - though I was to stay close to the hotel.

For the rest of the day I was followed everywhere by eight minders. But at least I was still in Dili.

The minders - military police guys - were there in the foyer later in the day, when I came out of my room. They followed me to the beer garden. When I ordered beer, they ordered beer.

A 14-year-old East Timorese girl - I later discovered that she was an Intel informer - played pop tunes on the organ near the bar. I turned the pages of her sheet music for her for a while.

As my minders watched on, I drank - a lot. They showed no sign of leaving me alone, so after a couple of hours I wobbled over to their table. The girl was playing I Can't Stop Loving You, so I sang them the verses I could remember, complete with extravagent gestures. They were gobsmacked, then hysterical with laughter.

I headed off to my room, yawning ostentatously. I would not be allowed to stay in Dili much longer, but was keen to observe the events of the fourth anniversary of the Santa Cruz Massacre, the following morning. The reason we were all being deported was obviously so we would not witness these events.

I was a sitting duck in my room: I puzzled over where I could hide for the evening. The entire island was by then being combed in the search for Westerners - two Swedish backpackers who imagined they were in a remote village had been dragged in a few hours earlier.

My minders apeared to believe I had collapsed in a drunken stupor. So I sneaked out of the hotel by the back door, and made my way to the one place in town I was safe from the secret police.

The secret policemen's nightclub was garish even by Southeast Asian standards. Javanese men with very large guns hanging from their hips were draped over tiny island girls, or on the dancefloor with them, curled round them like tree roots. Everyone was extremely drunk. The video screen played karaoke tunes, with images of couples running into each other's arms along beaches - the words in subtitle below:

My friend, I'll say it clear

I'll state my case, of which I'm curtain...

Everyone was off-duty. I wasn't bothered. I bought some beer for a group of Intel officers, and chatted amiably enough. It was a long evening, and it wasn't long before dawn that I sneaked back into the Turismo to prepare for the dawn.

I got out onto the busy streets of the capital before my minders were awake. It was an amazing sight. Overnight, hundreds of fully equipped riot police had appeared - in trucks, on motorbikes and on foot. They wore big, black helmets, and carried perspex shields and truncheons. These Darth Vader lookalikes were matched in numbers by the men from the SGI, the military intelligence organisation - distinguishable by their heavy builds, crewcuts and running shoes. Together, the security forces outnumbered citizens on the streets of Dili.

Two British-made Hawk jet fighters shot across the sky over the city - clearly part of the intimidation. I sat under a tree, wrote my story, then made my way to the post office, outside which there was an international phone booth. I dialed the Australian and got put through to a copytaker, just as the booth was surrounded by armed soldiers. The soldiers glared at me fiercely (I smiled back pleasantly) but did not physically harm me. They just watched. Whenever they came close enough to hear, I would pretend the copytaker was my auntie, and tell her about Timor's beaches.

Eventually the story was dictated. It apeared in the next day's Australian, as I was being escorted aboard a chartered plane by fifty armed men. One of them stayed with me all the way to Kupang. A second story ran a day later.

AUSTRALIA-INDONESIA relations are mostly cordial at the highest levels, due to a quarter-century of strenuous diplomacy by Australian leaders, and the Western leanings of President Suharto.

In 1974 Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam met Suharto in Indonesia, telling him that Australia understood Indonesia's desire to annex East Timor, and would raise no objection provided no force was used, and the local population was agreeable.

In August 1975 there was a brief civil war in East Timor - partially engineered by Indonesia - which was won by Fretilin, the pro-independence party. Fretilin quickly established an unexpectedly efficient administration. But on December 7, Indonesian paratroops, marines, special forces and regulars stormed Dili. Despite Indonesia's breaching of his two conditions, no protest was issued by Whitlam - by then a victim of a "coup" of his own. In the Fraser Government which succeeded his, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock’s mild protests were opposed by parliamentary colleagues and departmental advisors. Australian opposition soon evaporated.

For 25 years, overdue trade and diplomatic bridges have been built with our nearest and biggest neighbour - with Foreign Minister Gareth Evans leading the effort in recent times. For all this, Australia is often taken less than seriously by many within the Indonesian ruling caste. Referring to Australia’s military aid to Indonesia, the rector of an Indonesian University laughingly told me: "We are hitting these people [the East Timorese] very hard - and the Australians, can you believe, are helping us!"

Australian diplomats have long been seen by the Indonesians as “pliable”. In 1975, when an Indonesian invasion of East Timor became likely, Australia's Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, cabled his Government that Australia should

...act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show privately understanding to Indonesia of their problems.

Woolcott acknowledged that this was "a pragmatic rather than a principled stand," but "that is what national interest and foreign policy are all about". He also pointed out that Timor Gap oil would be more easily negotiated with Indonesia than with “Portugal or an independent East Timor”.

In October 1975, a Parliamentary statement was prepared by Don Willesee, Whitlam’s Foreign Minister, on Indonesia’s by then flagrant military incursions into East Timor. A draft was sent to Woolcott - who cabled back:

Although we know it is not true, the formal position of the Indonesian Government is still that there is no Indonesian military intervention in East Timor. If the Minister said or implied in public that the Indonesian Government was lying we would invite a hurt and angry reaction.

Willesee’s statement was duly toned down.

These attitudes have percolated down to the present. The junior Australian diplomat sent to Dili to observe the trial of the captured Fretilin leader, Xanana Gusmao, was placed by authorities at the back of the court, where he could not hear anything. He lodged no protest at this, nor at the trial’s glaring legal irregularities. His only advice to Australian observers was not to offend Indonesia by using the word “invasion”. Because of incidents like this one - which did not go unnoticed by other foreign embassies - Australian diplomats are not highy respected in Indonesia by their European counterparts.

Indonesian authorities live by a pervasive and unshakeable myth regarding East Timor. There was no invasion. in December 1975, pro-Indonesia "volunteers" defeated pro-independence "rebels", then petitioned Indonesia to absorb the region.

There was, too, no holocaust: no 200,000 dead from Indonesian bombings, firing squads, napalmed villages, and the starvation brought on by geographical dislocation. Instead, the myth goes, the majority of the population accepted integration, and quickly came to reap economic benefits.

These benefits are undeniable. There are hundreds of new schools, for example - and illiteracy has been slashed. However there is often a cost: East Timorese teachers told me that local languages have been "unofficially" pushed off the syllabus by both military and educational authorities.

The myth touches Australia directly: it holds that the five journalists at Balibo were "killed in crossfire" during the civil war between UDT and Fretilin. In fact evidence has come from several quarters that the journalists were killed by Indonesian soldiers.

For some years, the myth was put across with marginal success. But international perceptions changed dramatically in November 1991. The Santa Cruz massacre was witnessed by numerous foreigners. These included an Australian aid worker, whose New Zealander translator was shot dead. Fleeing the massacre, the Australian was chased by a soldier firing an automatic weapon. He believes Timorese children, playing in the backyards he fled through, may have been hit.

The massacre itself was filmed by Max Stahl, an international documentary-maker, who courageously kept filming as the bullets flew, and Timorese dropped all around him. Stahl's dramatic footage appeared on TV screens all over the world.

After the massacre, the local commander stated that his troops began firing when a grenade was thrown from the crowd. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas stated that the firing began when “the crowd became very wild” and the deputy military commander “was stabbed by a machete”. Indonesia’s armed forces newspaper, Angkatan Bersenjata,  claimed the incident was formally organised and “provoked by the GPK (security disturbing group)...” An army spokesman in East Timor claimed the trouble began when more than 100 separatists arrived in Dili to join the march, “carrying Portugese-made G-3 rifles.”

No foreign visitor saw evidence in the crowd of either provocation or weaponry.

In describing the Santa Cruz Massacre as “aberrant behaviour” by Indonesian troops, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was technically correct: since the holocaust which ended in the 1980s, human rights violations have mainly consisted of the disappearance, torture, mutilation and execution of individuals or small groups.

Senator Evans stated that the Indonesian commission of enquiry into Santa Cruz was “credible”. As a result of the enquiry, eight low-ranking soldiers were gaoled for between eight and 18 months. In Bali I spoke with a sharp-eyed human rights worker, who spotted one of the convicted killers, Martinho Alau, in a Denpasar karaoke bar during his supposed gaol term. (My contact had a second person, familiar with Alau, also identify him.)

Gareth Evans is not alone in his diplomatic difficulties. East Timor has done nothing to improve the human rights credentials of a succession of Australian politicians. In 1974 Liberal Foreign Affairs spokesman Andrew Peacock told Parliament:

So far as Portugese Timor is concerned, we would prefer to see Portugal remain in control and assist in a program for self-determination.

However in the same year Peacock met Indonesian officials in Bali, telling them off the record that

his party would not protest against Indonesia if Indonesia were forced to do something about Portugese Timor... At the maximum, he would criticise Whitlam...for hesitating in solving the Portugese Timor problem, thereby forcing Indonesia to act militarily. Basically, he respects Whitlam's policy in this Portugese Timor problem...

In 1976 the Fraser Government ordered the seizure of an Australian shipment of medicines to East Timor. Those responsible for the aborted mercy shipment were prosecuted.

In early 1978 - when Fretilin still controlled most of East Timor - Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser extended de facto recognition of Indonesia's annexation. De jure recognition came in 1979.

In 1985, Labor's Foreign Minister Bill Hayden wrote that he lacked "sufficient" or "substantial" information on alleged Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. However reports from refugees and the Red Cross had by then been available for some years, as had the damning 1980 Indonesian census. Most pertinently, where Hayden was concerned, a clandestine network of Indonesian students (former members of which I spoke to in Indonesia last month) kept the Australian Embassy in Jakarta well-supplied with documentation of atrocities through most of the 1980s. Hayden was a frequent visitor to the Embassy.

However no Australian politician - serving or retired - has so much kudos to lose over East Timor as Gough Whitlam, the Prime Minister who so poignantly placed traditional soil back in the hands of Aboriginal elders, who stood up to the US on the bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia, and who handed independence to Papua New Guinea. Whitlam - generally revered in Australia's ethnic communities - is regarded with distaste by our several thousand Timorese expatriates. This is less for his perceived green light for the invasion as Prime Minister, than his March 1982 "elder statesman" tour of East Timor. The tour lasted three days. Whitlam returned praising the Indonesian authorities, and dismissing suggestions of widespread hunger.

Whitlam's tour came shortly after Indonesia's infamous "fence of legs" operation. The operation - attested to by many refugee survivors, and by eyewitnesses I met in East Timor - involved tens of thousands of Timorese between the ages of nine and 60 being marched through the bush as "cover" for Indonesian soldiers. Hundreds of the very old and very young died of starvation and exhaustion. When the survivors returned home their land had not been cultivated, and hundreds more starved to death.

Around the time of Whitlam's tour, journalists and other foreigners well-acquainted with the country reported "a critical shortage of food in a number of areas", and "a land beset by widespread malnutrition and hunger".

On his return to Australia, Whitlam condemned East Timor's Apostolic Administrator, Monsignor da Costa Lopes, as "mendacious" for his talk of famine.

James Dunn, Australia’s former Consul in Dili, has written the most comprehensive book on East Timor’s recent history. According to Dunn’s sources in East Timor, Whitlam's "reception was carefully organised, with the areas that were experiencing serious food problems being excluded from the itinerary..."

In August 1982 Whitlam appeared before the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly. He stated: "It is high time that the question of East Timor was voted off the UN agenda..." He also said that his East Timor visit had been conducted "entirely under the auspices" of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This was formally denied by the ICRC, which stated that the Whitlam visit was arranged "solely with the agreement of the Indonesian authorities..."

MANY TIMORESE LOOK to Australia for some reciprocation of their costly wartime assistance for our commandos. Nearly every Timorese not in the pay of Indonesia wants autonomy or independence for the beleaguered country, and Australia is still seen as a potential broker for such an agreement.

But the Suharto family (worth an estimated $US16-17 billion) has a firm grip on Indonesia's military and business - and both are gaining increasing footholds in East Timor. Thus the dream of independence, which countless East Timorese live and have died for, has more counting against it than the apathy of the nation's former allies.

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