East Timor: time to talk

October 23, 1991

Solidarity activists are mobilising for a major international campaign called "East Timor: It's Time to Talk". The proposal is for round table talks between the East Timorese resistance and Indonesia under United Nations auspices. The offer has been made by Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the resistance in East Timor, and is consistent with calls for consultations made by the bishop of Dili. PETER BOYLE spoke to PAT WALSH, the coordinator of the campaign in Australia.

Why talks now?

This offer comes at a period of increased international activity around a number of long-running and intractable international conflicts, for instance, Afghanistan and El Salvador. So there are many precedents for similar talks on East Timor.

One of Indonesia's justifications for invading East Timor in 1975 was that it was threatened by "international communism". But now, it can't use the Cold War to justify its continuing occupation.

There are also winds of dialogue and negotiation blowing all over the world as a result of the developments in Eastern Europe, and they are obviously impacting on Indonesia. President Suharto called for more "openness" and freedom in Indonesia in his Independence Day address on August 17.

Indonesia is also increasingly pressured over its record on human rights by international bodies, including the UN Commission on Human Rights, the European parliament, the International Labour Organisation, even the World Bank.

Numerous commentators have contrasted the international positions taken on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to that taken on Indonesia's more brutal invasion of East Timor. There was clearly a double standard, and Australia, which sent forces to the Gulf, epitomises that.

"Big countries cannot invade little countries and get away with it", Prime Minister Bob Hawke said in September 1990. The Labor government has taken a very inconsistent and hypocritical position on Kuwait considering its silence on East Timor. Why?

Australia has been more than silent on the issue; it has conscientiously worked against any creative response by the UN. We are saying Australia does not have to be the champion of East Timor, but it should stop blocking the process.

Foreign minister Gareth Evans argues that a reconciliation between Indonesia and the East Timorese is virtually complete. But I don't know anyone who knows anything about the situation in East Timor who agrees with this assessment. The UN Commission on Human Rights said as recently as June that it was "gravely concerned" about the situation in East Timor and wanted to see a "just settlement" consistent with UN principles and with the "legitimate aspirations of the East Timorese people".

Aid workers, travellers, the church in East Timor, the refugees confirm that the East Timorese people, especially the young pt the forced integration into Indonesia.

What are Australia's motives?

The Australian government wishes to cultivate a close relationship with Indonesia, including defence and economic cooperation to exploit the rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea and access for Australian investments.

The Australian parliamentary delegation to East Timor, which visited in February, came back with a letter from Xanana to Bob Hawke, asking Australia to facilitate negotiations. But without even seeing a full translation of the letter, Evans, who was then in Bali for the signing of the Timor Gap treaty, dismissed it out of hand.

The Australian government is obviously being driven by self-interest of the crudest form.

Is there any sign of a change of attitude on the part of Indonesia?

While the Indonesian government regularly trumpets that East Timor is its 27th province and any problems are an "internal matter", in practice it is much less inflexible. It regularly dialogues with Portugal, with which it has had no diplomatic ties since 1975. It dialogues on East Timor under UN auspices. They are even about to allow [in early November] a visit to East Timor by a Portuguese delegation, accompanied by UN officials. They are even about to allow the UN's expert on torture into East Timor. They are being flexible because they have been brought under considerable international pressure.

The Indonesian military does have strong interests in East Timor. However, field commanders (with the support of some of their superiors) did engage in talks with Xanana in 1983, which led to three to four months of cease-fire. The military's line is also being challenged by some Foreign Ministry officials who are eager that Indonesia appear more reasonable internationally.

Proponents of greater democratisation in Indonesia are questioning the military's role in East Timor. Researchers from the Indonesian Gadjah Mada state university concluded that east Timor was suffering from an "overdose of the military". They called for demilitarisation of East Timor.

An anti-Gulf War demonstration in Jakarta last January included "the East Timorese people" in a list of peoples who "should be allowed to resolve their situations through referendums".

Why focus on the Australian government, which seems to be most intransigent on this issue?

Frankly, we are not counting on a rapid turnabout in Australia's attitude, and the campaign is being run internationally. We have much greater expectation of the European Community, Japan and even the US. We are also aiming at the Australian public, because we don't think the government should have a monopoly on Australia's stance.

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