The Australian Timor solidarity movement in the early years of occupation
Peter Job Australian Defence Force Academy - University of New South Wales (ADFA-UNSW), AUSTRALIA
The years of the Fraser government in Australia (1975-1983) corresponded to the worst period of the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, during which grave human rights abuses took place and the Indonesian military strategy of targeting food resources in resistance-held areas caused an artificially produced famine involving a high loss of life. As a close neighbour to Timor-Leste and a country many others looked to for expertise on the issue, Australia was in a strong position to manage the extent and nature of information coming from the territory and to influence how the situation was understood on the world stage. The Fraser government viewed relations with the pro-Western and anti-communist Suharto regime as the key to its policy position in South East Asia. It therefore worked to produce and propagate a narrative concerning Timor-leste that distorted the historical narrative, covered up the abuses occurring there, deflected blame from Indonesia, and depicted the Australian position as principled and realistic.
These efforts, however, were challenged by evidence of the humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste that came to the attention of the outside world and by a solidarity movement which campaigned to bring the issue to public attention. With organisations in all states and territories and regular publications in both Sydney and Melbourne, the solidarity movement proved a considerable obstacle to the Fraser government’s efforts to marginalise the Timor issue, maintain a “business as usual” approach to the Indonesian relationship and present the issue as a matter of the past. Activities included protests, rallies, boycotts, lobbying and other actions. It was supported by a pro-Timor parliamentary lobby consisting of Members of Parliament from both major parties who spoke on the issue on a regular basis and lobbied for a change of government policy. In the years 1975 to 1978 the movement was aided by a radio link from northern Australia to Fretilin in Timor-leste which brought news of the situation to the outside world, including Indonesian operations, Fretilin resistance and severe and widespread human rights abuses. This presentation will examine the impact of the solidarity movement on the Fraser government’s Timor agenda, the government’s response, the reaction of the Suharto government and the longer term impact the movement had in contributing to bringing the situation in Timor-leste to the attention of the world.