Opinion: The politics of starvation

How much did our government know about Indonesia’s campaign to starve East Timor into submission in the 1970s? Clinton Fernandes is fighting to uncover the truth.

* corrected version

From 1977 to 1979 Australia’s northern neighbour East Timor was slowly being starved to death. Still reeling from the invasion of the Indonesian military in 1975, resistance among the East Timorese was being eradicated by the occupiers in a most brutal and indiscriminate way. Indonesia used napalm and destroyed agricultural areas and other food sources such as livestock, in flagrant disregard of the laws of war.

Illness and food shortages as a result of the famine forced civilians to leave the hills and surrender. The surrendering population was detained in camps that were often little more than huts made from palm thatch with no toilets. No medical care was available. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and tuberculosis ensured that most people who were sick died. By late 1979, there were approximately 300,000 to 370,000 people in the camps. Thirty per cent – or approximately 200,000 – of East Timor’s population would die.

While the Whitlam government has often been justifiably criticised for its diplomacy in the lead-up to the invasion, it was Malcolm Fraser who was prime minister during this genocidal period. Fraser’s government cracked down on Australian supporters of East Timor. It ordered the interdiction of supply boats carrying humanitarian aid, the surveillance and arrest of activists who tried to communicate by radio with East Timor, and the denial of a visitor’s visa to José Ramos-Horta and other East Timorese independence campaigners. Fraser and foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, ensured Australia became the only Western country to officially recognise Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor.

What Australia knew of the brutal tactics being employed by the Indonesians remains a secret. Research has established that the then Australian ambassador Tom Critchley visited East Timor along with 10 other foreign ambassadors from 6 to 8 September 1978. The ambassadors were told that approximately 125,000 people had come down from the mountains, and that as many as a quarter of them were suffering from cholera, malaria, tuberculosis and advanced malnutrition.

Research has also established other Australian diplomats visited East Timor in December 1978, January 1979, in the second half of 1979, and in May 1980. Their reports and associated documentation have not been fully declassified, although under the 30-year rule they ought to be, along with relevant Cabinet records, records of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Defence and other government agencies. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has withheld documents relating to Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor claiming their release would compromise Australia’s security, defence or international relations. It has been supported in this obstruction by the Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon. In March, Ms Roxon agreed to DFAT’s request for a certificate shielding its officials from public scrutiny and cross-examination of their claims as to why the documents should remain classified.

The effect of Roxon’s decision is to exclude the public from hearing DFAT’s arguments. In Opposition, Roxon campaigned for open and accountable government, arguing that Commonwealth information should be protected only when there is a legitimate reason for doing so. But what is that reason? The public may never know, and interested parties, such as myself, will have to make a counter-case from behind a veil of ignorance.

The case to declassify the documents comes before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the second half of this year.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 30 percent, or 100,00 East Timorese, died during the war. In fact, the number was approximately 200,000. This was  a production error and no fault of the author. 

Dr Clinton Fernandes, from UNSW Canberra, has just published The Independence of East Timor (Sussex Academic Press).