Sep 21, 1999

East Timor


21 September 1999

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (8.50 p.m.)—I am very pleased tonight to participate in this debate, unfortunate though it is, and to support the motion moved by the Prime Minister. In particular, I support the comments of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for foreign affairs. Whilst we can be proud of our troops who are today in East Timor and of the others who will be going to East Timor, Australia has very little, in my view, to be proud about regarding our performance on the East Timor issue over the last two and a half decades. The invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975, the de jure recognition of East Timor as a province of Indonesia a few years after that and our foreign policy performance in the decades after 1975 in a bipartisan way leave much for us to regret.

In order to move forward into the future, you must have an honest appraisal of the past. Both the current government and the Australian Labor Party have to acknowledge that mistakes were made. That is not to blame individuals for those mistakes—we all make judgments as politicians based upon the way we see history at the time—but it does not help to pretend that errors of judgment have not been made. For those people who say that we could have not had a ballot for an independent East Timor at any stage, the fact is that 200,000 people have perished since 1975 in East Timor. It has been a land characterised by intimidation, by fear and by occupation by the Indonesian military, police and paramilitary forces since then.

In Australia this has been an issue for many community organisations and, in particular, for people who are involved in the Catholic Church. They have played a very critical role, and I pay tribute to those people who have held the faith in East Timor over the last 24 years. Anyone who hears Sister Susan Connelly speak on this issue cannot but be impressed.

In recent times there has been a change. I want to pay tribute to Laurie Brereton, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, for presiding over the change in the Australian Labor Party’s policy. The Labor Party changed its policy at the national conference in January 1998. Since then Laurie Brereton has consistently raised his concerns about what was occurring and could occur in East Timor. In spite of that, the government has been reluctantly dragged forward by the forces of history. At all stages, instead of being ahead of the process, it has been behind.

The government cannot say that it did not know what was going on. There is the tragedy of the Liquica massacre on 6 April, when at leat 58 people were killed in that town. I will quote from advice given to the Australian government by the Defence Intelligence Organisation on 4 March, which said:

. . . the military will continue to support intimidation and violence or at least won’t prevent it.

They concluded:

Further violence is certain and Dili will be a focus.

What was the response of the government to this? The Prime Minister flew to Bali and, after a meeting with the Indonesian government representatives, made a statement on 28 April that he was confident that security could be left in the hands of the Indonesia forces with regard to the ballot, which was then scheduled for early August but was delayed by a fortnight.

It is not being smart in hindsight to say that at that time the Australian Labor Party pointed out the danger that was inherent in this approach. I gave a speech on behalf of Laurie Brereton to the Australian Institute for International Affairs on 29 June 1999. I will read some of the comments that I made to the institute in June. On behalf of Laurie Brereton I said:

From the beginning of this year, the situation on the ground deteriorated rapidly as the pro-integrationist militias, armed and orchestrated by the Indonesian military, set about killing and terrorising the civilian population. We quickly reached the conclusion that a fully-fledged UN peacekeeping force would be required to stabilise the situation, verify an agreed process of disarmament and guarantee an environment free from violence and intimidation. We repeatedly called on the Howard Government to press Jakarta to disarm the pro-integrationist militias and to accept a UN Peacekeeping mission to verify that disarmament.

The Howard Government declined to take up our calls. Rather than press Indonesia to accept peacekeepers, they told the international community that any consideration of peacekeeping in East Timor was completely premature. One of the key reasons a fully-fledged UN peacekeeping force is not deployed in East Timor today—

that is, in June—

is the fact that the Howard Government has persistently argued against such a course of action. More than any other country, Australia worked to take pressure off Jakarta.

I went on to say:

Australia’s refusal to support, let alone campaign for peacekeepers set the scene for the very late deployment of a minimal, unarmed civilian UN presence to conduct the ballot with security remaining in the hands of the Indonesian military and police—a scheme fraught with danger and difficulty. The sad reality is that in spite of all that has happened, in spite of all the changes taking place in Indonesia, the Howard Government is still working with the mindset of past policy which defined good relations with Indonesia in terms of what Jakarta wanted, and within that consistently sought to marginalise the East Timor issue.

Further on I said:

At present it is a reality of continuing violence and intimidation and the inadequate international support, especially Australian Government support, for the measures required to guarantee a peaceful, free and fair ballot.

I concluded by saying:

They haven’t moved all that far, but at least in recent weeks the Government did finally acknowledge, without its previous equivocation, the Indonesian military’s complicity in pro-integrationist violence. Time will tell whether the Howard Government will move further. One hopes that they will not be too late.

That was on 29 June 1999. We are moving too late. That is not to suggest a unilateral action by the Australian military; it is to suggest that, had we played an appropriate diplomatic role in lobbying the United States government in particular but also Jakarta and the United Nations, we would not have allowed people to participate in a democratic ballot—having told them that the United Nations would stay and provide protection as a result of their exercising their democratic right—and then allowed a situation to develop whereby an unknown number of people were murdered and a policy of slashing, burning and destroying the infrastructure in East Timor was carried out. I sincerely hope that our forces come back safely, each and every one of them, and I wish them well. (Time expired)