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Peace in our time - Gordon Campbell

Peace in our time

Can New Zealand wash the blood from its hands in East Timor?

By Gordon Campbell

If Indonesia has treated the outside world with contempt over the last few weeks, it has been encouraged to do so. For decades, Indonesia was given carte blanche to rule East Timor as it saw fit, while New Zealand assured Jakarta that nothing would disturb our "wider relationship".

In that sense, the recent horrifying events have been the product of a 25-year cringe towards Indonesia by Australia and New Zealand.

To recap: East Timor was formerly a colony of Portugal, whose rapid exit from the territory in 1975 enabled Indonesia to invade and annex it. In 1979, Australia became the only country to give formal recognition to the takeover. Despite Amnesty reports of famine and massacres, New Zealand opposed a mild UN resolution in 1982 calling on the UN Secretary-General to try to negotiate a settlement. Australia and New Zealand then refused - from 1975 until 1984 - to give the Timorese envoy Jose Ramos Horta a visa to enter their countries to talk about East Timor, for fear of offending Indonesia. In July 1984, Horta was given a brief interview with Australia's then Foreign Minister Bill Hayden - a breakthrough that infuriated the Indonesians. A year later, Horta visited New Zealand, although a diplomatically gun-shy Prime Minister David Lange refused to meet him. Why not? Lange wrote at the time to organisers of Horta's visit: "I am not prepared to afford him the degree of official recognition that a formal call on me or any other member of my Cabinet would afford. I do not believe that keeping alive the issue of independence will do anything to help the East Timorese people."

To Foreign Affairs, East Timor was a dead issue. After a brief visit to the territory in 1984, Michael Powles, our then-ambassador in Jakarta, detected progress on the human rights and economic fronts, although his report was judged too sensitive - it contained balancing criticisms of Indonesia - to be released for media scrutiny. In December 1984, Lange told RNZ's Checkpoint that "liberty is better overall" in East Timor under Indonesia than under the Portuguese. The grateful Indonesians tabled a transcript of the Lange interview at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in February 1985, and narrowly succeeded in getting East Timor removed from the UN human rights register of concern.

Lange had exceeded the evidence, and made Powles look like a patsy. In early 1985, the Listener got limited access to the Powles report. While Powles wrote: "We were not in a position to investigate allegations of human rights violations", Lange cited a "very marked development" in the human rights situation. Powles wrote: "We were told, but could not confirm, that there had been some acquittals." Lange to Checkpoint: "People are being put on trial, given effective legal aid, and in some cases there have been acquittals."

Contrast these apologetics, an angry Horta told me at the time (Listener, May 4, 1985) with our anti-nuclear stance. While New Zealand postured about the threat posed by nuclear weapons, Horta argued, Lange was voicing no similar moral indignation on the world stage over the killings of Timorese by the Indonesian military.

Ancient history? Our diplomacy has never induced Indonesia to soften its stance towards the Timorese. "Canberra has made a lot of accommodation for Indonesia, realising that their society is politically different from ours," said Australia's Bill Hayden in 1985. "They have not reciprocated. It is time they did." Fourteen years later, we are still waiting. Some things do change, though. Lange has become a strong critic of our softline diplomacy on East Timor. Given his past role as an apologist, does he feel in any way responsible for his mistakes? Back then, Lange replies, New Zealand had held the prevailing world position on East Timor. "We unashamedly said it had been annexed. That was our diplomacy at the time. Then we realised the futility and stupidity of that, and completely resiled from it. But by then, I was dog tucker."

Mistakes? Well, Lange says, more people got East Timor wrong than any other issue. "It caught Fraser, it caught Whitlam, it caught the Rowling people, it caught Muldoon, it caught Lange, the whole shebang É"And has New Zealand ever won anything from being conciliatory to Jakarta? "No, nothing whatsoever. You're not dealing with a society that we understand É You're talking about a society with its own moral code É" We have been playing "strange diplomatic games" with Indonesia for years, Lange concludes. Why, he recalls that his colleague Stan Rodger visited Indonesia and left behind at a meeting an External Intelligence Bureau report that slighted one Indonesian general as being less important than he made out, cited the general's wife as the real power, and advised Rodger to talk with the wife if he could. Next day, Lange recalls, the EIB report was returned to Rodger "with tongs" by his host.

Horta, for his part, has shown the patience of a saint. His brothers Gui and Nunu, and sister Mariazinha were killed by the Indonesian military. In 1995 - after he had co-won the Nobel Peace Prize - a New Zealand Cabinet minister finally agreed to meet him, but only informally. In 1996 Horta was refused entry to the Philippines, lest his presence embarrass the Apec meeting in Manila.

In Auckland this year, a human rights issue swamped Apec for the second year running (Anwar Ibrahim's case dominated Kuala Lumpur last year) and once again gave this lacklustre gathering a reason to exist. The turning point in the crisis was the hardline speech by US President Bill Clinton, and the threat of economic sanctions (via US pressure on the IMF) if Indonesia continued to refuse entry for international troops to East Timor. Indonesia buckled. Subsequently, New Zealand has sought a "me, too" credit for helping bring Jakarta to heel. In fact, without Clinton's tough line, New Zealand would have been left in its customary posture - wringing its hands on the sidelines, while assuring the Indonesians that nothing would be allowed to threaten the wider relationship.

The political spin was that we had been playing a canny game of verbal pressure on one hand and encouragement on the other to President B J Habibie. In fact, any pressure in the days preceding the Clinton speech was consistently undercut by the conciliatory signals that we were also sending. If anything, our softline messages - Indonesia might not be at fault, East Timor belonged only on the margins of Apec, it was too big an issue for Apec, economic sanctions would only hurt the people of Indonesia, etc - were not only morally suspect. They were just as likely to undercut Habibie, by giving his generals hope that they could flout world opinion.

To cite one example: in the week that the carnage was at its height, we put our military ties to Indonesia "under review", but cut them only after the US cut their military links, and then only partially, and reluctantly. On September 10, a Defence press release expressed "regret that New Zealand's longstanding relationship with an important regional partner was coming under strain. But the fundamental issue - whether a decision openly and democratically arrived at should be allowed to be overturned by intimidation - was too important to ignore."

So the "fundamental issue" was merely undue "intimidation". Overall, Lange doubts whether "as a slipstream government" we considered many tactical options. "The idea [we] would take an initiative based on principle is so absurd as to be wacky. He [Foreign Minister Don McKinnon] was just shutting up and waiting for everyone else to jump. I don't think there's any calculation in it, apart from that." It was not always so. In years past - when Norman Kirk sent a frigate to France's nuclear-testing zone, and during the anti-nuclear 1980s - we defined our own foreign policy and national interests on principle, largely against Foreign Affairs advice. Overall, this approach probably did more to advance our standing in the world than the millions we lavished on Apec.


- Republished with permission from the Listener Magazine - see also...© Scoop Media

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