Cover of book: A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor

Peter Job
A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor

As the title indicates, this book is not kind to the Australian politicians and diplomats who shaped policy on the former Portuguese Timor between 1974 and 1983. Peter Job was not predisposed to be kind: in 1978 he was in the bush outside Darwin manning a clandestine radio link to the Timorese resistance, trying to pierce their fog of denial.

Now he has dispelled it by quoting their own words from declassified cables and minutes in the National Archives. The cynicism can still be astonishing. The Department of Foreign Affairs knew that annexation would never be voluntary. Perhaps, suggested one assistant secretary as covert invasion began, the example of West Papua “with an eventual essentially fake ‘act of free choice’ manipulated by Indonesia, could have some political advantages for our government”.

More on the personalities would have improved Job’s account. Why did Gough Whitlam, steeped in the Graeco-Roman classics, fall under the spell of the barely educated Suharto? In July 1974, two months after Portugal’s “carnation” revolution, he sent his private secretary, Peter Wilenski, to meet Harry Tjan, adviser to long-time Suharto intelligence aide Ali Murtopo, to convey the message that East Timor naturally belonged to Indonesia. A chain of public denial followed through the worst years in Timor under Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. It continued under Hawke, Keating and Howard, although this is beyond Job’s account.

Suharto was not entirely set on taking Portuguese Timor until his Townsville meeting with Whitlam in April 1975. Tjan had convinced the Australian embassy that he was, that opposition was futile and could only damage relations with Jakarta, gateway to South-East Asia. Our diplomats became hooked on the flow of intelligence from Tjan and derided Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik’s attempts to take control of Indonesian policy. It’s a case study in “source capture”.

Job could have explored this aspect. Malik was no mere official but a political figure in his own right. Suharto was in an economic jam: the state oil firm Pertamina had brought Indonesia close to bankruptcy. Murtopo and other generals were under a cloud, thanks to the anti-Suharto rioting in January 1974. Murtopo’s effort in October 1974 to flatter Suharto by getting a magazine to claim he was of royal descent backfired: an outraged president said it called him a bastard. Could Malik have opened a different diplomatic opportunity for Canberra, avoiding 200,000 deaths and Indonesian disgrace? Job’s book suggests it might have been possible.

Hamish Mcdonald

Melbourne University Press, 356pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 26, 2021 as "A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor, Peter Job".

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