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Australia's suspicious silence on its role in Timor-Leste atrocities

With an eye on oil income, Canberra supplied arms and support to Indonesian despot Suharto
Australia's suspicious silence on its role in Timor-Leste atrocities

Oracio Gomes draws a diagram of the human chain into a mud floor near Viqueque, Timor-Leste. (Photo by Francis Wade)

Published: May 08, 2014 02:32 AM GMT
Updated: May 07, 2014 08:49 PM GMT

One afternoon in August 1981, Indonesian troops arrived at Viqueque, a small town that lies on Timor-Leste's southern coast, hemmed in on one side by forested mountains and on the other by a vast expanse of ocean.

Oracio Gomes was 24 at the time, and native to Viqueque. The soldiers saw in Gomes a man of suitable age and physique for the arduous task that lay ahead. In the space of several hours, all men in Viqueque over the age of 15 were rounded up by Battalion 501, and the following day, forced to march hand-in-hand in the direction of Watu Carabao, to the east.

That march lasted three months. Gomes was one of nearly 145,000 Timorese, many of them subsistence farmers, who formed a human chain that swept like a dragnet across the country, flushing out Timorese rebels and ending in a major massacre at the Rock of St Anthony.

The operation, which formed the backbone of the Indonesian army's Encirclement and Annihilation Campaign, remains one of the largest military endeavors of the war in then East Timor, which began when Indonesia sent its first wave of soldiers to the half-island state in 1975. The occupation continued for another 24 years, devastating the country's infrastructure and population. For those three months, Oracio was in the service of the enemy.

"Every day we would start walking at dawn and continue until around 3 pm," he says.

The goal was to leave no patch of earth unchecked for the armed wing of the Fretilin political party, known by the Portuguese acronym Falintil, formed first to drive out the Portuguese, and then the new invaders. Indonesia's leader at the time, Suharto, dispatched troops in late 1975 to take over Timor-Leste as Portuguese colonial rule ended and independence loomed.

Around the same time that Battalion 501 arrived in Viqueque, western powers were quietly debating their support for Suharto. Australia backed the invasion of Timor-Leste, and in 1978 became the only government to snub Timorese demands for independence and instead officially recognized the country as a province of Indonesia. This it did both for strategic and economic purposes: many western nations feared the popular left-wing Fretilin party would turn Timor-Leste into a communist front, something that sat uneasily with countries like Australia mired in Cold War fears. Canberra also had its eye on the abundant oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, and an independent Timor would have scuppered what chances it had of acquiring the rights.

At the last volley of fire in 1999 during Indonesia's occupation of Timor-Leste, the death count stood at 180,000, or about one-third of the country. The Timor war ranks as one of the most destructive of the 20th century. How much western nations supporting Suharto knew of the devastation wrought by the invasion is still debated, and obscured.

Dr Clinton Fernandes, a specialist on Timor-Leste at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has been researching Australia's role in supplying military hardware to the Suharto regime while the war was in full swing. A former military intelligence officer, Fernandes has spent six years trying to force the Australian government to declassify documents that would throw light on its policy toward Indonesia in 1981 and 1982, the period in which Gomes was force-marched across swathes of mountain and forest. In early April, Fernandes was told that a court had ruled against releasing the files, claiming that it would further strain already tense relations between Jakarta and Canberra.

Of Australia's likely knowledge of the events, Fernandes is frank.

"We knew. The open portions of the file refer to the major military operation underway in Timor, followed by dozens of pages of intelligence reports that are withheld," he told ucanews.com.

One Australian embassy cable from October 1981 relays information passed on by the in-country director of Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid wing of the US bishops, who had been told by an Indonesian colonel that between 80,000 and 100,000 civilians had already been involved in the operation from periods of between one week and three months.

The information should have given pause to the Australian government. Instead, however, one document that Fernandes obtained shows that in December 1981, months after Gomes became another link in the human chain, Australia sold two N-22 Nomad aircraft to Indonesia. On December 23, 1981, Indonesian Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Sugito visited Indonesian military personnel in Dili, Timor-Leste's capital, and inaugurated the surveillance planes.

Jose Antonio, now 58, was in the same pool of Timorese youth that three decades ago were deemed suitable for the long march. Unlike Gomes, however, his misery didn’t end after three months. Upon returning to Viqueque in late 1981, having first walked north to Baucau and then across to Lospalos, a distance of close to 125 miles over unforgiving terrain, he was arrested by another battalion of Indonesian troops suspicious that he had links to the resistance.

"I was taken back to Baucau and then thrown into a boat. From there they took me to Atauro."

The island, 20 miles north of Dili, had long held a feared place in the minds of Timorese. It was used as a penal colony by the Portuguese, before Indonesia sent thousands of prisoners there charged with aiding the resistance.

"We received one plate of green beans and corn every two weeks," said Jose Antonio, who during his three years in the island’s prison, saw many people starve to death.

As well as the toll the human chain took on its participants, the campaign had a devastating effect on Timor-Leste's food stocks, given most of the participants were farmers who were forced to let their land go to waste. A UN report released in 2006 said that Indonesia used starvation as a means to exterminate the population. Some 90 percent of the 180,000 that died during the war did so as a result of starvation.

According to Fernandes, this issue was relayed to Australian authorities, including fears that it may spark another famine, yet they continued to supply aircraft that they knew were being used by the military. Fernandes says the reason why Australia was so eager to overlook severe human rights abuses was largely down to the strategic value that a strong relationship with Jakarta held, and the role it played in buffering Australia from hostile forces in the region. Australia has never had the same clout over countries that the US, for instance, could wield, and therefore would work to develop close relations with key institutions.

"The Indonesian military stands out among all other agencies because it represents the best instrument for guaranteeing social and political control," Fernandes says.

Tom Clarke, of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center, believes that Australia's policy toward Timor-Leste has had "a terrible human cost" that needs to be addressed.

"In the case of our relationship with Suharto, there's little doubt that Australia's myopic and unprincipled foreign policy delivered deadly results."

Releasing the files is, he believes, in everyone's interests – it would both shed light on Australia's own role in crimes overseas, and help the people of Viqueque and beyond to understand the wider geopolitical chess game underway in the early 1980s that conspired to bring Battalion 501 to the sleepy town.

"If we want to move forward in good faith as friendly neighbors, then we need to come clean about our role in the various atrocities inflicted on the people of Timor-Leste," he told ucanews.com.

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