Tue, 09 Mar 1999

Australia: Responding to RI's transformation

This is the second of two articles based on an address by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in the Australia- Asia Institute's 1999 Australia in Asia Lecture Series State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, on March 1, 1999.

SYDNEY: The Australian government made a major shift in its policy approach to East Timor when the prime minister wrote to President B.J. Habibie last December emphasizing the importance of Indonesia talking directly with East Timorese about the province's future status. He suggested long-term prospects for reconciliation would be best served by East Timorese holding an act of self-determination at some future time, following a period of autonomy for East Timor. The Australian government has also made clear its support for the release of Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao in light of the important role he must play in the negotiations on East Timor's future.

As both President Habibie and Xanana Gusmao have made clear to me, these suggestions were a catalyst inside Indonesia that helped produce the policy announcement on Jan. 27 concerning possible independence for East Timor and the transfer from prison of Xanana. Australia welcomed Indonesia's stated willingness to take account of the wishes of the East Timorese people, and the later decision to move Xanana Gusmao from prison to house arrest.

The resignation of president Soeharto last May cleared the way for a resolution of the East Timor question. Before that, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War took away a key rationale for Australia's quiet acceptance of Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor. Successive Australian governments endorsed Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor because Australia did not want to see the balkanization of Indonesia with the granting of independence fanning separatist sentiment elsewhere in the archipelago. The Portuguese left East Timor in a state of civil war with little prospect of stability, and there were concerns that an independent East Timor would be economically weak and susceptible to interests inimical to Australia's and Indonesia's interests.

I believe those considerations to be totally understandable in the historical context in which they were made. The Whitlam government was understandably concerned at the prospect of a fiercely left-wing government sympathetic to the Soviet Union controlling East Timor at a time when the Cold War perhaps came closer to Australia's shores than ever before with the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in 1975. With the departure of Portugal, East Timor's infrastructure was in an appalling state and its literacy rate was less than 10 percent. In those circumstances, the acquiescence of the Whitlam government followed by the Fraser and Hawke governments to Indonesia's integration plans was not unremarkable.

There remains to this day keen public interest in the decisions taken by Australian governments around the time immediately preceding, during and soon after that integration. It was, after all, one of the major Australian foreign policy decisions of recent times. To help provide the public with a clear understanding of the development of Australian policy during this period, I have asked my department to prepare the early release of records covering Indonesia's incorporation of Portuguese Timor between 1974 and 1976. This period covers decisions taken by both Labor and Coalition governments.

The records will also cover the period from the announcement by Portugal in 1974 that it was decolonizing East Timor through to Soeharto's signing of the bill integrating East Timor with Indonesia in July 1976. The records will be released as part of my department's historical records series. As part of this exercise, the department will accelerate the release of records related to the deaths of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo in October 1975.

But the Australian government is not obsessed about the past. We are looking to the future and having made our policy shift must now respond to developments currently concerning East Timor. The next round of UN-sponsored tripartite negotiations on East Timor, which will take place on March 8 and March 9, could see an autonomy package finalized. When I met him last week in Jakarta, President Habibie repeated to me his intention to resolve the question of East Timor's status by Jan. 1, 2000, and to have the East Timorese make a decision on autonomy before the June 7 election.

What Australia has consistently stressed -- and what I confirmed in my talks with the President and in Bali with foreign minister Ali Alatas -- is that whether the eventual outcome is for autonomy or full independence, the transition must take place in a peaceful and orderly manner and the East Timorese people must be fully consulted at all stages.

Australia has welcomed Indonesia's commitment not to abandon East Timor in any transition to full independence. We have also expressed the hope that any transition could be handled in such a way that UN or other peacekeeping forces would not be necessary. The responsibility for managing the transition process and maintaining order in East Timor lies with the parties involved, not with Australia or the international community. That said, we have committed ourselves to assisting Indonesia and the East Timorese where possible, including through considering future levels of development assistance.

While the prime minister, other ministers and I have indicated our preference for a long transition period before a decision is taken on East Timor's final status, we have always made it abundantly clear that it is for the East Timorese themselves to decide. Whether they want independence instead of autonomy, whether they want a quick or a prolonged transition, we will respect their decision. As I told Xanana Gusmao as we sat in his Jakarta house, Australia will be there to help the East Timorese people whatever course they eventually take.

In all our considerations of the issues that are involved in East Timor's future, our primary motivation is the welfare of the East Timorese people. We have not forgotten the contribution they made to the security of Australia and the well-being of Australian servicemen in World War II.

As the largest bilateral aid donor to East Timor by far, Australia has already budgeted over $6 million in development assistance for the 1998/1999 financial year. We are also one of the largest contributors to the International Committee of the Red Cross in East Timor, having provided more than $5 million to the ICRC since 1982/1983. Through our Human Rights Fund, we provided assistance in the area of legal aid and human rights monitoring, dissemination of information on human rights issues, and support for addressing specific human rights cases. We are currently looking at developmental and humanitarian requirements for an autonomous or independent East Timor.

Events have moved with breathtaking speed in the past few months. But they have not passed us by. Australia has and will continue to play an active role as developments unfold. Let me take a few moments to outline some of our recent initiatives.

Over the last week I have conducted extensive consultations on East Timor with President Habibie and Indonesian ministers, with Indonesian opposition leaders Megawati Soekarnoputri and Amien Rais, and with East Timorese leaders, most notably Xanana Gusmao. This morning I arrived back in Australia from Lisbon where I spent Saturday meeting with the Portuguese foreign minister and officials.

At the same time I sent the secretary of my department, Dr. Ashton Calvert, to New York and Washington to talk with the UN secretary-general and other senior United Nations officials and representatives of the American administration.

There are now a series of high hurdles for East Timor to jump. First, negotiations on the autonomy package between the Indonesians and the Portuguese in New York will be concluded next month.

Secondly, the people of East Timor will be consulted on whether they accept the package or they would rather have full independence. We all accept -- including Xanana Gusmao -- that the consultative process will be less than a full referendum but we and the others have insisted that the methodology used is seen by the East Timorese themselves as credible. One possible option is for a consultative assembly to be elected by the East Timorese and for that assembly to make the decision. There are other ideas being considered, all of which involve very wide participation by the East Timorese.

Thirdly, once the decision is made on East Timor's future, there will be the task of managing a smooth transition to either wide-ranging autonomy or independence. The Indonesians have given me a firm commitment they will not just walk out and leave East Timor in a state of chaos if independence is chosen. That is good news. But Indonesia does not want to bear the financial burden for East Timor once it separates from Indonesia, should that happen.

Instead, it will be happy to make security and administrative resources available to the territory provided the cost is borne by the United Nations. Obviously, in those circumstances, other countries -- including Australia and Portugal -- would assist. I have been pleased at the breadth of commitment to helping East Timor that exists around the world.

The fourth and most difficult issue of all is how to manage the security environment within East Timor while all these changes are taking place. In our view, there will almost certainly have to be some international confidence-building and administrative presence in East Timor from an early stage. This would have to operate under the auspices of the United Nations and would, without doubt, involve some Australians.

At this stage, we do not favor a United Nations peacekeeping force of the kind involved in Cambodia. Indeed, none of the actors in this drama are calling for that. After all Indonesia and the East Timorese must bear the primary responsibility for working out arrangements that not only provide for a peaceful transition, but which lay the groundwork for a peaceful and productive long-term relationship.

What would be more realistic would be the provision of United Nations-based administrative support, a confidence-building presence and -- if independence is the preferred choice of the East Timorese -- some police presence alongside the East Timorese police.

The process of East Timorese reconciliation is crucial to the manner in which the whole East Timor issue evolves over the next couple of years. It is necessary now to prevent bloodshed. It is necessary to allow the process of testing East Timorese opinion on the autonomy package to work. It is necessary to enable the East Timorese to work out in the end what sort of country they want. As part of this reconciliation process, we believe it is crucial that East Timorese leaders of all factions sit down together to work on a way forward, especially on a transition to a new status. We have told East Timorese leaders we will provide support for a representative gathering.

Finally, there is the question of who will run East Timor from next year if East Timor opts for independence. Obviously, the East Timorese themselves will in time take full control of East Timor but probably after a period of a couple of years, during which the United Nations would play a role in the territory's administration.

Indonesia, the East Timorese, Portugal and Australia have all put a lot of work already into how the East Timor issue could evolve.

The Indonesia we see today is so changed from that of only a year ago that it can truly be said to have gone through a transformation.

Some of the change has been for the bad, but some -- particularly political change -- has been for the good.

The task for Australia is to help Indonesia make the shift in as smooth a manner as possible; to ensure that the winds that are blowing through Indonesia make the tree of state stronger, and do not blow it down. It is up to us to be supportive in that process, and to encourage it wherever we can.