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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 1, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 39

The View from Australia
Outrage - and some second-guessing
By ANTHONY DAVIS Darwin

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Indonesia
Australia-led peacekeeping troops land in East Timor. Can they keep the territory under control?

  RELATED STORIES
CNN
Breaking News
CNN's latest stories on East Timor

TIME
Marching into Trouble The multinational peacekeeping force that landed this week is entering a minefield - just the first on what promises to be a long road to independence

For many Indonesians, East Timor is an emotional issue - and it is for many Australians too. Even before the tearful send-offs for the troops last weekend, the tone of local media coverage of Australia's biggest single domestic story in decades suggested powerfully that the country was girding for war rather than for a humanitarian rescue mission. Television footage of combat troops training on assault courses competed with tear-jerker interviews with young wives and children soon to be left behind and re-ports of Jakarta street mobs promising to prepare graves for Australian troops. Well before any troops had landed in East Timor - let alone suffered casualties - phone numbers for psychological counseling for distressed relatives of servicemen and women had been distributed. "The media are going a bit over the top," reflects one Australian defense analyst.

Clear at street-level though is the overwhelming support for the Australian military's East Timor mission. Much of that is born of outrage over the recent massacres. More deep-seated is a reaction to the sense that Australia has betrayed the East Timorese. Canberra did not object to Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony in 1976, and may even have encouraged the action. It quickly recognized Indonesian sovereignty over the territory, and then turned a blind eye to persistent atrocities committed by the Indonesian military in the interests of maintaining good relations with Jakarta.

But now, already perceptible are the first rumblings of a political debate, raising questions that are likely to loom much larger if Australian troops do suffer casualties. Isn't this a foreign-policy debacle for Canberra? Shouldn't PM John Howard's government have known about the close links between the Indonesian military and the pro-integration militias and plans for a post-vote carnage? And if it did know, why did it not insist on peacekeepers on the ground before the vote? How true is it that - as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer claimed to the press Sept. 4, the day of the announcement of the referendum result - Australia has "calibrated this pretty much right all along"?

Government critics argue that Australian intelligence must have been aware of a stream of information both from human sources in East Timor as well as from its electronic eavesdropping that slaughter would follow the vote. Canberra should have been able to intercept radio messages between the Indonesian army and the militia commanders who many believe planned and coordinated the butchery. Besides, there were the hostile on-the-record comments both from militia bosses and the military. Particularly quoted in retrospect have been the remarks of Col. Tono Suratnam, the former military commander in Dili, who earlier this year told Australian TV: "If the pro-independence [people] do win, all will be destroyed."

Other analysts disagree both on the details of what Canberra knew and on the options open to the government. "Once Habibie had made his decision, we had no choice but to support the ballot," says Alan Dupont, director of the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center. "We could not let the militia get away with dictating terms of what happened in East Timor." While the intelligence community may have realized the likelihood of violence, argues Dupont, no one could have predicted the severity and scale of the scorched-earth policy that unfolded.

Either way, there is a real awareness that the East Timor crisis marks a fundamental watershed in Australia's relations with Indonesia. That much was made clear when Jakarta abruptly abrogated its four-year-old security agreement with Australia after Canberra suspended links with the Indonesian military. Even as the popular mood in both countries has hardened markedly - with calls by some Jakarta politicians to sever diplomatic relations - those steps bring official ties to their lowest ebb in decades.

While he concedes that the fruits of the substantially improved ties of the past decade have "gone down the tube," Dupont argues that "we still have diplomatic relations and we still have a civilized dialogue." Moreover, as a result of the East Timor crisis, Australia and Indonesia now have a clearer - and more honest - understanding of each other's very different political cultures. Foreign Minister Downer suggested as much in a recent TV interview: "It's important that we have a constructive relationship with Jakarta, but [not] at any price. Our relationship has to be based on straight-talking, mutual respect and mutual understanding." Hard for even the Indonesians to argue with that.

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