A tough job done in East Timor
Joe Kelly | August 29, 2009
TEN years ago East Timor voted for its independence, triggering a contentious Australian military intervention that transformed the nation's regional profile and provoked hostility from Indonesia.
In exclusive interviews with The Australian, former prime minister John Howard and his foreign minister Alexander Downer say their management of the 1999 East Timor crisis was a special achievement of their government.
They credit the UN-mandated Interfet (International Force East Timor) operation as a foreign policy victory for Australia. Both men say, if given their time again, they would not change anything and view the Interfet mission as near perfect.
It is a compelling stand, given the explosion of violence in East Timor following the independence ballot on August 30, 1999, and that the troubled territory has confounded Australian policy for nigh on 25 years.
"I'd have done everything the same. I wouldn't have done anything differently," Howard says.
"I think it all worked extremely well."
The Defence Department deputy secretary at the time, Hugh White, disagrees. White argues East Timorese independence was never the objective of the government, that it bungled the crisis at every step and later papered over its mistakes with a triumphalist mythology. "The former government has retrospectively sought to portray Australian policy in 1999 as an example of creative diplomacy when in fact the whole thing was a chapter of accidents," White says.
The key to understanding Howard's convictions on East Timor is to recognise they stem from an unwavering personal belief the intervention was the morally appropriate course of action.
"Morally, what we did was the right thing," the former Liberal PM says. "We worked very closely with the UN. It's seen by many UN observers as a model of UN intervention ... I thought it was quite a significant foreign policy triumph for Australia."
Howard's opening came in June 1998 when Indonesian president Suharto's successor B.J. Habibie canvassed a special autonomy package for the territory. Howard was forced to respond or risk the political embarrassment of Jakarta outmanoeuvring Canberra.
The Australian response began with Downer commissioning the August 1998 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade survey of East Timorese sentiment. Downer credits the survey with critical importance in shaping the change of policy later articulated by Howard in his definitive December 1998 letter to Habibie.
"The survey showed that the East Timorese, both the diaspora and the local East Timorese, they just, just nobody was going to go along with this wide-ranging autonomy," Downer says. "(It was) the reason the letter was written in the first place."
The letter ignited the fuse of East Timorese independence and pushed the Howard government past the point of no return. But the letter was based on the assumption Indonesia would retain sovereignty over East Timor.
Howard was audacious in proposing a future act of self-determination for East Timor. But it was to follow a lengthy period of autonomous self-governance.
"The change in policy was really in December of 1998 when we decided to encourage Indonesia to grant Timor some kind of internal self-government," Howard says. "I thought it (the letter) had a reasonable chance of being acceptable. But he ended up going further ... We were not unhappy when he decided to opt for full independence."
"I think he was pretty taken aback by it," Downer says of Habibie's response.
"You know, president Habibie had a not unreasonable point, which was: 'Why should we invest a whole lot in East Timor when, at the end of the period, they're just going to turn around and tell us where to get off?"'
Habibie's January 1999 decision to offer, at short notice, the East Timorese people a choice between limited autonomy or immediate independence threw Australian policy into a genuine crisis. White argues that events slipped beyond the control of the government following the Howard letter.
"Once Howard had written to Habibie events quickly got out of our control ... independence wasn't our desired outcome," he says. White, now the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra, argues that Howard was motivated by domestic political purposes in sending the letter and was caught off-guard by Habibie's unexpected response.
"Up until late 1998, there had been a very robust bipartisan support for Australian acquiescence in Indonesian incorporation of East Timor," White says. "That bipartisan consensus was first broken by the Labor Party and specifically by Laurie Brereton as opposition foreign affairs spokesman.
"It seemed to me that in the light of that, it wasn't that Howard and Downer became seized of a desire to promote East Timorese independence. What they did become worried about was that they would become outflanked politically."
As the humanitarian crisis unfolded in East Timor, the question soon became what Australia could do the violence. Even today, a bitter debate still rages over whether Australia could have got peacekeepers into East Timor before the August 30 ballot.
Howard vehemently argues he exhausted this possibility in discussions with Habibie at the April 27 summit in Bali.
"I raised that issue with him and he said, 'I can't possibly do that. I can't. I would lose domestic support for what I'm doing.' So those critics are completely unrealistic. The criticism is not soundly based. They've no idea of how much he was pushing the envelope in doing what he was doing."
But White argues the issue was not pushed hard enough. "I don't know how Howard raised the issue in his private discussion with Habibie, but in the larger discussion with larger delegations present it didn't seem that Howard pressed the issue as firmly and effectively as he could," he says.
After the August 30 ballot returned a 78.5per cent vote in favour of independence, the situation in East Timor rapidly deteriorated into an international emergency. Pro-integrationist militias, aided by the Indonesian military, waged a brutal campaign of retribution, forcing about 250,000 people across the border into West Timor.
In early September, Howard and then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan agreed Australia should lead a multinational force in East Timor, later dubbed Interfet, with Howard specifying Indonesian approval as a key condition for any mission.
US pressure proved critical in securing Habibie's approval of the mission.
"American support, diplomatic support, was very important," Howard says. "The Americans put a lot of diplomatic pressure on Jakarta to agree to the Interfet."
But the US refusal to provide a troop commitment was a blow for Howard in his dealings with president Bill Clinton.
"While I understood, I said to him that you had to realise, given Australia's long history of supporting the US, that there would be many people in Australia who would feel a little let down. Including me."
Interfet commander Peter Cosgrove says: "Clinton had to be talked into this effort in East Timor when he was in Wellington for APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum). And the Pentagon (was) very reluctant to have any commitment in East Timor."
Howard concedes Australia could have led Interfet without US support but insists Clinton provided "a package of assistance that proved quite valuable in the end".
"I'm always a little wry about this," Cosgrove says. "The US is a great friend, but the US did not provide strategic lift of any weight to us. We did it." Arriving in Dili on September 19, Cosgrove was struck by the devastation. "There was an eerie similarity between Dili and the Darwin I saw after Cyclone Tracy," he says. "The destruction, particularly in the commercial areas, seemed almost total, with only some government buildings and TNI (Indonesian military) barracks being spared. It was obvious that the population had fled or, if still around, was in deep hiding."
At dawn on September 20, 1999, Interfet forces began arriving by RAAF C-130 Hercules at Dili's Komoro airport. Twenty-two nations eventually comprised the force, with key contributions from Association of Southeast Asian Nations members including Thailand, The Philippines and Singapore.
Cosgrove's key objective was to make an instant change of circumstances through a show of force. "I had a feeling the bully-boy militia would be intimidated by trained, powerfully equipped regular troops," he says. "We wanted to be powerfully on the ground early so the militia would say, 'Whoa! I'm off."' Despite moments where an exchange of shots between Interfet and TNI was narrowly avoided, the mission succeeded in restoring security quickly and efficiently. The indicators of success were the low casualties and smooth transition to the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor on February 28, 2000.
Cosgrove says East Timor was an example of a "mercifully brief, economical, serious security challenge successfully negotiated".
Next to the long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 1999 intervention also proffers an attractive legacy for Howard and Downer. It is keenly embraced by both and carefully defended.
There are lessons to be taken from the East Timor intervention. Most important, it established the limits of Australian influence on Jakarta. Howard could not leverage Habibie to accept peacekeepers before the ballot. It also revealed Canberra's relationship with Jakarta was hostage to the turbulence of Indonesian politics. But, at the same time, the successful mission revealed Australia as a robust regional leader. To mount Interfet, Canberra used the full range of tools in its strategic arsenal. It mustered the support of ASEAN, used the US alliance to secure Habibie's approval and provided the bulk of the force.
It also saw a maturing role for the Australian Defence Force. "The modern historical experience of the ADF took its first big step forward in East Timor," Cosgrove says.
The verdict on the intervention hinges on a simple question: whether an independent East Timor can justify the humanitarian tragedies that occurred after the August 30 vote. This is a moral issue to which Australia must reconcile itself.
"Many Indonesians felt that their pride had been wounded over East Timor," Howard says. "(But) I thought what we did in East Timor was absolutely correct."
Yet even Annan would express his doubts. "If any of us had an inkling that it was going to be this chaotic, I don't think anyone would have gone forward. We are not fools," he said.