Peter Baker examines a book exposing Australia's actual role in the tragic reality suffered by East Timor during its historic invasion.
IF YOU ARE looking for a good read that will give you, the happy reader, a no-small glow of pride in how Australia, the country of the “fair go”, applies itself on the international scene in general, or perhaps more locally – say in that area just north of us, East Timor – then you are in for a crashing disappointment.
Research Associate at the University of New South Wales Dr Peter Job’s book, A Narrative Of Denial: Australia And The Indonesian Violation Of East Timor, gives readers a detailed review and explanation of the happenings in then Portuguese Timor and East Timor — its name today.
The invasion, systemic starvation, dreadful mistreatment and massacre of locals – until the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) made a thankful appearance – make for hard reading.
It is, perhaps, a pity the book stops at this point. Without going into any detail in this review, a lot of "water" was to pass under the bridge after INTERFET's arrival — or should I say “oil”. Job makes a very brief mention of this valuable resource when he alludes to Woodside Petroleum’s interest in exploiting the oil resources of the Timor Sea.
The author's general impression of the Australian Government’s actions in these earlier years was not influenced by commercial matters such as resource interests. It's a very different story today, with the ongoing court case involving Former Deputy Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory Bernard Collaery and Australia’s bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet offices during negotiations for a petroleum and gas treaty in the waters off Timor.
Job’s book takes us through the events surrounding the initial invasion of Timor in 1975 by Indonesia, up to pre-United Nations (UN) involvement in 1999 and the arrival of UN troops to free the country for independence.
Initially, we have the input of the Whitlam Government. But then, following its “Dismissal” late in 1975, Malcolm Fraser takes control. In a historical context, Job argues that being "just post-Vietnam", the feeling at a high political level was one of fear of insurgent communism. (We had just spent over ten years listening to the “Domino theory” — the reason Australia and the U.S. had been in Vietnam.)
Job describes the years following the initial Portuguese Timor invasion, the massacres and mistreatment of whole villages, Portuguese refusal to be involved, and the low level of concern for what was happening in Timor on an international level. And in regards to this last point, Job has painted a sad and sorry picture of Australia's input into what the world knew was happening.
This is where the book becomes an invaluable tool for those seeking the truth about our Federal Government's actions in the 1970s and 1980s. Lies, official denial at the highest level and every attempt made to discredit those putting their head above the parapet.
For some reason, as I read the book, visions came to mind of former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper in 1938 just before Europe burned, declaring “peace for our time”. But, except in my vision, Malcolm Fraser stood outside a destroyed Dili saying: “nothing to see here”. Sad.
So, do I recommend you read A Narrative Of Denial: Australia And The Indonesian Violation of East Timor? Yes, I do, if for no other reason than to wash away any lingering ideals you, the reader, may have about our elected representatives and the notion they do not lie.
Peter Baker is a retired chartered accountant. He worked in the Australian Taxation Office for some 30 years, leaving at acting assistant commissioner level to go into private practice in Riverina, NSW.
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