The leak of the so-called "Kissinger Cables" has shown that while the US expected Indonesia would invade what was then Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did not wish to be implicated in the affair. A cable dated August 16, 1975 said that the US' "only secret" regarding Portuguese Timor was its desire not to become involved.
The cable stated that while Indonesia's "incorporation" of Portuguese Timor would be the outcome most "beneficial" for locals and the most likely to ensure regional stability, the "decision … is not for us to make, and we are determined not to become involved in the process". The cable noted that if Indonesia used aggression in the incorporation, it could have negative repercussions for military support for Indonesia.
The cable appears to show little understanding of events in Portuguese Timor at this time, given that the local UDT party, influenced by Indonesian disinformation, had attempted to stage a coup on August 10. By August 16, Fretilin forces had all but defeated the UDT and its pro-Indonesia Apodeti allies.
Perhaps the most importand aspect of the leaked cable is that it confirms the expectation of Indonesia's invasion, more than two weeks before another leaked cable, on September 4, 1975, said that Indonesia's then acting foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, acting on behalf of president Suharto, had proposed that Australia join with Indonesia, Portugal and Malaysia in sending UN-sanctioned peace-keeping troops to oversee Portuguese Timor’s decolonisation. The cable says the Australian embassy in Jakarta had responded negatively to the suggestion, given that then prime minister Gough Whitlam had previously refused to consider such an overture from Portugal.
By September 4, UDT and Apodeti forces had been defeated and already retreated across the border into West Timor, where they were re-organising with the support of -- and as a front for -- the Indonesian military. By September 4, too, Australia almost certainly knew that the Indonesian proposal was intended to obscure its intention to invade Portuguese Timor. It was already known by Australian diplomats that Indonesia's military intelligence had been fomenting a disinformation campaign about the dominant Fretilin party since earlier in the year, and promoting its local front party, Apodeti.
A Jakarta think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, closely linked to the Indonesian military and the generals who later led the invasion, had already drawn up plans for Portuguese Timor's "integration" into Indonesia. The CSIS had close relations with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woollcott, who in August 1975 recommended that Australia should accept the inevitability of the impending Indonesian invasion.
Whitlam had told parliament on 2 September that no definite proposal for including Australian peace-keepers had been put which, at this stage, was correct. The cable, however, reveals a more nuanced and considered response from Whitlam than has previously been portrayed by what appeared to be his acquiescence to, if not promotion of, Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor. A September 3 cable says that Australia could consider humanitarian assistance to Portuguese Timor, which Indonesia had earlier rejected. But it showed Whitlam would not countenance anything that had a "colonial character", such as sending troops.
Whitlam's concern at this time reflected the method of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua in 1969, through a much-criticised show of hands by 1025 hand-picked tribal leaders. It also reflected Whitlam's support for the subsequent "Barwick Doctrine" of Australia not involving itself in prolonging unsustainable colonial arrangements.
The leaked cables add detail to understanding the events that led to Indonesia’s invasion of Portuguese Timor, which had unofficially begun in early October 1975 and officially on December 8. Most notably, they show how poor much US information was on relevant events at this time.
Almost four decades later, and more than a decade after Timor-Leste "restored" its independence, the cables are an awkward footnote to the now surprising closeness of relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.
Australia enters 2013 reconsidering its place in a strategically shifting world. Issues close to home have stabilised and, increasingly, considerations further from Australia are being written off as a lost cause.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to East Timor has ended, with that country now charting an independent and, for the medium future at least, stable course. East Timor’s relations with its giant and once problematic neighbour, Indonesia, are now so positive that it has been mooted that East Timor’s defence forces might start training with Indonesia’s army.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to the Solomon Islands will also end this year, bringing to a close engagement in what was once referred to as the ‘arc of instability’.
Australia's draw-down of its remaining military force in East Timor, and the conclusion of the United Nations mission on December 31, has signalled that this sometimes troubled tiny country is now responsible for its own future. The stark realisation that the security blanket provided by the international community is being taken away has left some in East Timor feeling vulnerable. Some observers, too, have suggested that the withdrawal is still too soon and that East Timor still has the potential to slide back into internal conflict. The country’s leaders, however, have been making clear they are not only ready to take full responsibility for their own affairs but are demanding to do so. In this, Australia's continuing military presence is regarded by some East Timorese as neo-colonial, and the UN as of marginal competence or value.
Following Timor-Leste’s presidential election last Saturday, the two leading candidates, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao-backed Taur Matan Ruak, will now progress to a second round of voting in mid-April. Their success to date reflects perhaps more the relatively high level of party loyalty within Timor-Leste than support for the two as individuals.
At 28%, Lu-Olo’s vote was almost exactly the same as in the first round of the 2007 election. Ruak’s vote reflected support in 2007 from the main government party, CNRT, for outgoing president Jose Ramos-Horta, then at 22 per cent. At that time, CNRT was a new party and has since had time to consolidate in office, reflected in Ruak’s 25% vote.
Both Lu-Olo and Ruak are well known in Timor-Leste, but neither is especially well known outside the country. That will no doubt change for one of them after April.
Amongst Timor-Leste’s traditions, there is none more central to how Timorese understand themselves in relation to their world than that of lulic, or that which is ‘sacred’.
While a sense of lulic is not always visible, especially in life that is affected by elements of modernity, such as in a town or in Dili, it continues to lie under the surface for many, perhaps most, Timorese.
The idea of lulic can apply to place, to the relationship between things, such as the sun and the moon or the earth and the sky, to relationships between people, to life and death and social obligations and to symbols of authority and social organisation.
As traditions evolve and change to incorporate new elements, so too has lulic changed to incorporate such symbols.
Old Portuguese swords may be considered as lulic, as can flags that have a particular value or importance.
The dog was sleeping, its head on its paws, in the middle of the road leading from the airport. As we approached in a four-wheel-drive, it looked up, gauged the situation and put its head back on its paws and closed its eyes. This sleeping dog was let lie.
Apart from horrific moments of violence and destruction, East Timor has otherwise been a pretty laid back place, as it is now.
The pigs that used to wander the streets just outside of the main commercial precinct are only a little less common than they once were.
Yellow taxis ply the streets at the slowest possible speed to conserve fuel. Sunday c-ckfights and wet season thunderstorms are often as exciting as it gets.
When things are normal, life tends to move at a pretty slow pace. It is only when violence erupts that East Timor goes from a lazy day dream to a frantic nightmare.
The announcement by East Timor’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, that his country will begin military to military links with Indonesia has caused widespread surprise, given the deeply troubled history between the small, recently independent state and its large and previously belligerent neighbour. There are a number of benefits to this new arrangement, which will also see police to police links established. But there are also many unresolved issues.
Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 led to the deaths of more than a quarter of its population, almost 200,000 people, with its final farewell being the destruction of most of the country and the murder of around 1,500 more civilians. According to Prime Minister Gusmao, it is now time to forgive and forget.
As the new consolation prize Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd’s first job will be to try to implement the government’s ‘East Timor solution’ for asylum seekers. The issue whether this policy has any chance of success.
The first hurdle to be overcome was the unanimous vote by East Timor’s parliament, if with an incomplete sitting of members, opposing the idea. As a wealthy developed country, many East Timorese ask, why does Australia want to off-load its problems onto its impoverished neighbour? Why does Australia not properly shoulder its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention?
The vote by East Timor’s parliament yesterday to oppose the establishment of an Australian off-shore asylum seeker processing centre should not have come as a surprise. Parliamentarians from the government and opposition have been saying they were against the idea since it was announced last week.
The Australian government has certainly acted unperturbed by the vote, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying the vote from the parliament did not necessarily reflect the position of the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has similarly said that the process is "going forward".