East Timor: Moral Obligations and Systematic Betrayal

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, November 17, 2003


The full title of today's presentation is "East Timor: Moral Obligations and Systematic Betrayal". As most of you gathered here would know it is just over a year ago that I left Australia to spend a year as a volunteer in this recently re-established nation, assisting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in maintaining their internal voice and data network and advising senior members of the government on national prospects in using such technology. Of course, that was hardly the only activity I engaged in. Apart from learning a modicum of the vernacular language, Tetun, and a smattering of the other national language, Portuguese, I travelled throughout the half-island nation, visiting ten of the thirteen districts as well as travelling through the nearby nations of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

There are many tales to tell of this, my second journey to East Timor, but that is hardly the reason for this presentation. Such queries are best left until after the service. Rather, what I would like to highlight today is the difference between actions taken with a view of moral obligations and those taken with inconsiderate self-interest. In discussing this difference the example of East Timor stands as a particularly relevant, recent and nearby example. In doing so it is of course necessary to provide a very brief background, to set the scene as it were, before moving to specific examples on how the Australian government, and others, betrayed a people when they were clearly under the obligation to assist them. Finally - and moving slightly into the world of theory - a description of the general problem of obligations and betrayal and in particular, the difference between collective and systematic action.

History and Current Situation

So to begin, and although it is already familiar to many here, a very basic history and description of the current situation. The first recorded human contact with the people of Timor was by the Chinese who were on the scene some thousand years before the arrival of the Portuguese early in the 16th century. At that stage, as there is now, there were a number of ethnic groups, the most powerful being the Tetun Belu kingdom. Over the next several hundred years, the Portuguese engaged in a form of colonialism perhaps best described as "benign neglect". Their main interest was to achieve financial gain from the indigenous sandalwood, described as the best in the world, and from the nearby Spice Islands. The border between East and Indonesian west Timor, which split the old Tetun Belu kingdom in two was a negotiated settlement between Portuguese and Dutch colonial powers. Christian missionaries had a role, but the indigenous peoples remained steadfast in their animist beliefs and by the time of independence the Roman Catholic Church could only count a quarter of the population as converted and East Timor's sole purpose of existence was a place of political exile for opponents of the fascist regime in Portugal.

All that changed in April 1974. A group of young Portuguese army officers organized a coup against the ailing dictatorship in Portugal in an event known as "the carnation revolution", so named as a woman handed out carnations to soldiers in the street on that day. The revolutionary government rapidly wrote a new constitution and engaged in a process of decolonisation, which some would say occurred too quickly - but as one of the last colonial European powers with substantial overseas occupations it was also very long overdue. In 1975 the first free general elections were held in East Timor, which were overwhelmingly won by the FRETILIN party, a result which attracted the attention of the Indonesian military dictatorship who invaded on December 7, 1975. The invading army engaged in a brutal campaign against the strongly pro-independence East Timorese - Amnesty International estimates that between 1976 and 1986 some 200,000 of East Timor's population of 700,000 were killed.

Despite this brutality, the East Timorese remained committed to their ideal of an independent nation, shifting from guerrilla warfare to clandestine operations. In 1997 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, a decision which left Indonesian President Suharto furious. But his time was certainly up. Following a collapse in the Indonesian currency, Suharto was thrown out of office and in 1999 the new Indonesian President Habibie promised a consultative vote on independence or autonomy. To the shock of the Indonesian establishment, but not to supporters of the East Timorese, almost 80% of the population voted for independence. Evidently this was too much for the pro-integration forces, who went on a two month rampage killing an estimated 1,000 people and destroying some 85% of the infrastructure. But there was no turning back - the path to independence was set and after a two year administration by the United Nations, East Timor finally re-established its nationhood in May 2001.

It is, of course, a difficult nation to build. It has started with some 54% illiteracy, with the majority of those literate being so in Bahasa, the language of the former occupying power. It begins with a per capita parity purchasing power of $337 USD - the lowest in the world and of which more than 40% live on less than 55 cents per day. The mean years of schooling is a mere 3.5 years. Almost two thirds of households have earth or bamboo floors. Only 7% of households have direct access to water, 36% have access to electricity and only 14% have toilet facilities. Over three-quarters of the population do not live to see sixty.

Systematic Betrayal

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the first major action of betrayal against the East Timorese by the Australian government was the invasion during the Second World War. This is something spoken in hushed, somewhat embarrassed tones, but the facts cannot be avoided. In 1942 Australia invaded East Timor and the nominally neutral Portugal issued a formal complaint, but to no avail. Australia's reasoning was quite simple - they were hard pressed in New Guinea by the Japanese imperialists and it necessary to establish a second front to draw attention - East Timor was a perfect location. Thousands of ANZAC commandos were landed in East Timor and soon afterwards the Japanese did intervene. The East Timorese overwhelmingly supported the allies who managed to conduct a highly successful guerrilla war, despite being out of radio contact with Darwin for many months. For their efforts, the Japanese engaged in retaliatory measures against the Timorese - some 60,000 East Timorese were killed during this occupation, about thirteen percent of the total population.

Having suffered so much supporting Australia during the Second World War it was only reasonable that the East Timorese would have expected Australia to support them following their declaration of independence in November 1975. After all, this is the essence of a moral obligation of mutual aid - if you aid someone whilst they are in dire straits and a great cost to yourself, you can reasonably expect that they will chip in to help you in times of pressure. But for the Australian government, a bigger issue, determined by a bigger foreign power, was at stake. Mere hours before the Indonesian military dictator, President Suharto, launched the invasion of East Timor he had met with President Ford and Henry Kissinger. One can just guess at the content of the conversation. For his part, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam decided to play second fiddle, describing East Timor's integration into Indonesia as "inevitable". A few years later, as the massacres and death by enforced starvation were reaching their height, Whitlam again endeared himself to the memory of Australian morality by complaining that the East Timor issue was distracting the United Nations.

Still, Australia is hardly alone in this betrayal although it does gain special mention for being the only nation in the world to formally recognize the annexation. During the occupation, the United Kingdom and the United States provided a billion dollars worth of arms to Indonesia, which the Timorese received in the form of US-produced napalm being dropped from US-supplied Bronco planes with excellent support from British tanks, frigates, armoured vehicles and Hawk bombers. Even as late as 1998, the "New Labour" government refused to terminate these defence contact licenses on the grounds that it would cost valuable jobs; not to mention the estimated 300 million pounds of annual profit to British companies. Apparently, the wages of sin are high indeed.

Along the same theme of the smell of money, the concerns of the Timor Gap and oil and gas revenues must certainly rate high. Unlike similar borders maritime where the mid-point is the standard demarcation line, Australia and Indonesia came to an agreement in 1989 for the exploration of natural resources substantially north of Timor's territorial waters. With the assistance of Portugal, which was still considered the "administrating power" by the United Nations, challenged Australia in 1991 at the International Court of Justice over the agreement. Australia has since established a new Timor Sea treaty, but in March 2002 it became clear the treaty was in breach of the international law of the sea. Australia then withdrew from the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.

Australia's treatment of East Timorese refugees also deserves special mention. Whilst many did arrive here very soon after the initial invasion as time went on and Australia's relationship with the Indonesian dictatorship strengthened, the government became less accommodating. Despite recognizing the Indonesian occupation, the Minister of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs took the very unusual step of describing East Timorese refugees as being Portuguese. Following independence, the current Federal government attempted to return the refugees back to East Timor, despite the fact that many had been here for over a decade and were with children, over half which had been born in Australia. It has only been continuous protests that has caused the government to allow the East Timorese to stay, and even then their future is hardly set in stone.

Another remarkable action by the Australian government was their refusal to relay information to the United Nations or to the East Timorese concerning the impending militia violence in September 1999. This issue has been in discussed widely in the Australian Parliament, the Bulletin, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age and the ABC. The Australian Federal Police have searched the homes of Labor Party advisors and Army intelligence officers for some 79 documents, including 20 Defense Signal Directory Reports. Nothing has been found. The claim is quite simple - that the Australian government knew well in advance that the Indonesian military, and their special forces unit Kopassus, were planning a campaign of violence if the East Timorese voted for independence. The official line of the Howard government was that the Indonesians could be trusted to maintain security and indeed, the Howard government did let the Indonesians maintain so-called security for some weeks after the referendum until mass protests enforced an intervention.

The Essence of the Conflict

It is remarkable that any East Timorese even talk to Australians given what we have done to this, our deeply impoverished and brutalised neighbour. But they do and indeed, they seem eternally grateful for our assistance. This has much to do with the fact that the East Timorese, a very politically aware group of people, are able to distinguish quite clearly how the actions of a government may be in complete contrast with the will of the people. Perhaps in part they are quite familiar with the experience themselves.

In formal terms, the problem may be defined and stated as follows: Morality is about how individuals and groups treat other individuals and groups. An obligation is a duty, by which one is legally or morally bound. By systematic what is meant is the procedures of an institution, a legal entity rather than a natural person. By betrayal what is meant is a disloyal breach of an obligation. According to the principles of moral reasoning Australians should help their East Timorese neighbours - and following the experiences of the Second World War are obliged to do so. The Australian government should also do so as well, for it was in the time of defending the Australian government that the intervention took place in the first instance. However, in legal terms there was never any accord between the Australian government and the East Timorese people.

Under such circumstances the Australian government, like any other government, has acted entirely in terms of systematic self-interest, which does not judge actions on the basis of whether it is right or wrong, but rather on whether it advances its effectiveness or efficiency - or to put in more blunt terms: power. It has been in the interest of Australian governments to support the Indonesian invasion, to recognize the annexation, to rob the people of their natural resources, to treat their refugees as problems and to fail to inform them of impending violence. Morality has nothing to do with it. Neither governments, corporations nor any other institution (including churches) has a moral imperative in its own right.

But ultimately all human institutions rest on their legitimacy, and legitimacy is a moral concept. Existing between the instrumental and systematic procedures of institutions and the moral norms and expectations of individuals exists a important regulative force: law. It is through legal expressions that the collective mores of a people can be expressed and individual rights ensured - it can of course, be the antithesis of these rights and mores as well we all know. It is for this reason however that moral social action must be expressed through institutions to have any degree of effectiveness. Individual action and behaviour, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot regulate social systems, rather moral individuals must take charge of social systems from those "one dimensional men" who worship power for its own sake - the Fords, the Kissingers, the Suhartos, the Whitlams, the Howards - and will in this worship, condemn us all to effect of instrumental reasoning alone.

In closing, it is the words from last weeks' Hymn of Modern Thought that expresses succinctly the essence of the problem between moral obligations and systematic betrayal and its solution:

"Come build a church of nobler life,
Our loftier precepts to translate,
Until the laws of right become,
The laws and habits of the State."