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Our aim is to please

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2012


The inclination of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence is to acquiesce to requests, pressure and demands from the United States and to appease an often ruthless, fractious, and headstrong Indonesian military. These are significant Australian foreign and defence policy considerations, together with trying to give China what it wants.

Riding the twin horses of America and China is difficult for Australia and will be more so as the US seeks to contain China, with what it has been led to believe, by policy makers and near do well influence junkies of the Australian/American Leadership Dialogue and right wing 'think tanks', is Australian support and compliance.

Understandably the Indonesian military are uneasy, watchful, and increasingly tetchy at these developments. Putting a Brigade of deployable, combat ready Marines and US Naval vessels into Darwin, basing B52's at Tindal, home porting US submarines at HMAS Stirling in WA and flying US unmanned spy aircraft out of Cocos Island have combined to cause concern. This concern has been officially and unofficially expressed; Cocos sits in the lee of Indonesia.

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Unofficial expressions of concern have come from a range of contacts and from listening to Indonesian conversations from Australian facilities and from the Joint US/Australian communications base at Pine Gap, where around 1,000 US National Security Agency, NSA, and Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, carry out a range of surveillance activities including taping phones and other communications using Echelon, a sophisticated and effective listening system. Pine Gap has been in operation since 1966 and has been upgraded and enlarged over the intervening period.

During the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Australia monitored military communications. It was well aware of military operations against the Timorese resistance. Indonesian casualty reports of deaths and injuries to both sides were intercepted and eventually found their highly classified way to mainstream departments such as Foreign Affairs and Defence.

They detailed genocide. Within my responsibilities as director of the Indonesia section I had the call as to whether the Minister, Bill Hayden, should be sent these weekly reports. I chose to send them.

One day an operative from the security branch of the department came to me and said that there was 'thinking', as they used to say (maybe they still do) that it might be better and less time consuming for the Minister if he were to receive a six month summary of the information in the reports. Apparently it was information overload for the hard pressed man. I thought not and said so. I felt it was important for the Minister to be up to date with the activities of the military of a neighbouring country we refused to criticise publicly and privately over genocide. So the Minister received his weekly dose of regional horror, but I don't know whether he read it, there was no feedback.

In the run into the reluctant intervention in East Timor, Australian intelligence agencies were keen to distance themselves from the churlishness of Howard and Downer. Members of this community briefed journalist Paul Daley in March 1999. Writing in The Age of 20 March he said that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) were working around the clock monitoring signals into and out of East Timor. Daley also said that a massive reconnaissance effort including the help of US spy satellite stations in Australia was underway to prepare maps and photographs of Indonesian military installations.

An academic, Associate Professor Clinton Fernandes, of the University of New South Wales, several years ago put in an FOI request to the Department of Foreign Affairs for documents relating to Australian Government knowledge of (and therefore complicity in) the mass starvation of East Timorese in 1978/79 as an instrument of Indonesian military control. Quite rightly Fernandezs is seeking documentary evidence of a shocking event which saw around 100,000 people die out of a population of 640,000. A further 100,000 East Timorese died as a result of the armed struggle, detention, torture, rape and relocation during the occupation.

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Fernandes says the documents relate to cables written by the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. From my own knowledge they report information from visitors to the island, East Timorese living and studying in Jakarta, the Red Cross (although not named as a source), members of the Catholic Church both local and overseas and NGO visitors to the island. The cables also detail forced relocation of East Timorese and the transmigration of Javanese.

DFAT has refused to release the documentary evidence on grounds of security, defence and international relations. These reasons are spurious. The Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has blocked Fernandes from testing them in court.

Of course gaining access to the documents matters, but the timing is wrong (has it ever, in the eyes of DFAT, been right?). For all the old reasons of not wanting to offend the Indonesian military and its putative political masters, now exacerbated by Australia's closer embrace of the US, DFAT seeks to please. All the more so now when the new embrace involves weapons systems that are perceived as being just as easily deployed against Indonesia as China.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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