Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


New Zealand ought to say sorry to East Timorese

On May 20 2002, East Timor become the first new nation of the millennium. Former US President Clinton attended, joined by his last ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke. While there in Dili Clinton congratulated the East Timorese on their hard-won victory and provide encouragement for further social stability, infrastructure development, industry and economic growth.

But western nations ought to be reminded of their reluctance to interfere when Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7 1975. And western nations, New Zealand included, would be foolish to trivialise the excesses of silence orchestrated against the people of East Timor through the 1990s. Silence is indeed a weapon, and, for this, apologies ought to be forthcoming.

Back in 1975 Indonesian dictator Suharto had been given the green light to invade by the then United States President Gerald Ford and his US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What followed was 23 years of a US-Indonesian alliance that supported the oppression of East Timorese. The US looked the other way when massacres were orchestrated against unarmed citizens including New Zealanders and Australian journalists. New Zealand too embraced open and progressive trade with Indonesia and maintained a policy of silence over atrocities in East Timor. The United States supplied 90% of the weapons used during the initial invasion and continued to provide Jakarta [Indonesia's capital] with billions of dollars in weaponry.

The result? More than 200,000 [one third of East Timor's population] were murdered. Evidence of this was revealed within formerly classified documents released recently by the United States National Security Archive.

Former New
Zealand Deputy Prime Minister, and current Commonwealth
secretary general, Don McKinnon.New Zealand is not clean on this issue. Former New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don McKinnon [Now Commonwealth Secretary General] insisted that a "non-critical" policy was observed regarding Indonesia and East Timor. McKinnon, preoccupied with trade not humanitarian issues, refused to add clout to the voice of a New Zealand family that had lost loved ones during a massacre in Dili, East Timor's capital.

New Zealander, Helen Todd's son Kamal Bamadhaj was killed in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, when Indonesian troops opened fire on protesters marching for independence on November 12, 1991. The story of his death was told in the documentary Punitive Damage, a collaboration between his mother and filmmaker Annie Goldson.

Helen Todd lobbied McKinnon to apply pressure on Indonesia. She wanted justice and conviction for those responsible to the massacre and the death of her son. McKinnon was not moved. Trade was the all important issue, not the death of Kamal Bamadhaj and certainly not human rights.

When video footage and photographs of a November 1991 massacre in Dili were smuggled to the outside world by reporters who survived the bloodbath, international support for East Timor's independence grew dramatically. But McKinnon and his Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials did little apart from attempt to steady unease.

Following the 1991 massacre, a group formed called East Timor Action Network. It successfully lobbied the US Congress to block some weapons sales and military training to Jakarta. But New Zealand continued to seduce Indonesia, establishing strong trade ties, exploring sounder diplomatic alliances, training Indonesian pilots and refusing to comment on Indonesia's occupation and continued policy of state-sanctioned murder of East Timorese.

See John Pilger video of Portugal president Jorge Sampaio on genocide in East Timor.

See John Pilger video of former Indonesian government minister Nugroho Wisnumurti’s denial that genocide took place in East Timor or that Indonesian troops murdered anyone at the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991.


Even after East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence on August 30 1999 [78.5 per cent of East Timor's registered voters approved independence for the region in a UN-backed referendum] when the Indonesian military (TNI) and its militia proxies laid waste to the territory killing at least 2,000 and forcibly displacing more than two-thirds of the population - New Zealand's Don McKinnon tried to damp down outrage.

The wave of violence staggered the world. Eye witnesses reported bodies piled high in Dili's police station cells, stacks of bodies went up to the roof. The Sydney Morning Herald reported arms and legs dripping blood.

At that very moment APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation heads of governments meetings were then being held in Auckland, New Zealand. There two thirds of the world's countries came together to discuss globalisation, economic trade liberalisation. Bill Clinton, the then Russian Federation Prime Minister and now President Vladimir Putin, the Late Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin were all there.

McKinnon insisted that APEC had gathered in Auckland to discuss economic liberalisation not Indonesian relations with East Timor. McKinnon, charged as host nation with coordinating the meetings was determined to keep East Timor off the agenda. But as the world's leaders gathered, McKinnon was out manoeuvred largely by pressure from ASEAN nations determined to halt the killings in East Timor and salvage ties and ease threats of economic sanctions against the developing economy of Indonesia.

A "Crisis Meeting" was demanded by the world's heavyweights. McKinnon was forced to organise a meeting in the Auckland Town Hall adjacent to the APEC heads of governments meetings in the Aotea Centre. Britain's Foreign Minister Robin Cook was on his way - expecting to take part in a meeting. McKinnon was forced to comply. In a face-saving measure McKinnon chaired the meeting. The tolling of Auckland City church bells on the hour every hour throughout that Crisis Meeting was a moving reminder to all the leaders who sat inside the Auckland Town Hall that the world's people were watching.

The results were kept secret.

On exiting from the meeting, reporting for Scoop Media I asked US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright what was the outcome of the meeting. She replied: "Chairman Don McKinnon will expand on this later." He never did. But we found out from the international contingent's spokespersons that a wedge had been driven between the economically obsessed ASEAN nations and the humanitarian concerns of the western Pacific UN leaning nations. New Zealand remained silent.

Clinton followed by cutting all military ties with Indonesia and severed economic co-operation and aid with Indonesia. Japan raised concerns about taking this approach. Japan warned that the international community must "consider the serious consequences" of withholding International Monetary Fund aid to Indonesia. It said such an action would have dire consequences for the security and economic development of the Asia/Pacific region.

Japan at that time contributed $2 billion US in humanitarian aid to Indonesia. That made up 60 percent of the net aid contribution the country received.

Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi reiterated for Indonesia to: "accept international calls for calm in East Timor." "To do so," he said, "is not something which Indonesia should be ashamed." Mr Obuchi said the situation in East Timor was "unacceptable". That the responsibility of restoring order lay with Indonesia: "If it cannot restore order then we should again ask Indonesia to allow the international community to restore order on its behalf." But again he warned: "If international pressure on Indonesia causes the economic hardship onto Indonesia's people, then unknown consequences would develop." Japan would only go as far to say it would provide "logistic support to a United Nations lead force in East Timor."

China took the strongest stance of the ASEAN nations with its President Jiang Zemin stating: "That the will of the East Timorese people should be honoured and that the International community should now move to restore order in East Timor."

McKinnon became insignificant, and remained silent.

The world leaders, gathered in Auckland for the APEC leader's summit meetings, waited for a statement from Indonesian President B.J. Habibie on whether an international peacekeeping force would be asked into East Timor to help restore peace.

Press secretary to Britain's foreign minister Robin Cook, Kim Darroch, told me in a telephone interview to Whitehall that Britain had little information regarding which way President Habibie would swing. Darroch said the British Government had agreed to send one infantry company, consisting of around 150 to 200 soldiers, to back an international peacekeeping contingent to East Timor should President Habibie request assistance. Darroch said the British naval ship, HMS Glasgow, was also close to reaching the waters off East Timor. The ship had restocked in Singapore two days previously and was heading to sea.

Meanwhile, back in Auckland, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, awaited the Indonesian response. McKinnon continued to be silent. Shipley's press secretary, Simon King, said she would not make any statements on the situation before receiving the Indonesian statement and would not likely comment on what stance New Zealand would take.

An important point was this week raised by the spokesperson for East Timor Action Network, John Miller. He issued a statement saying: "When former President Clinton, joined by his last ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, congratulates the East Timorese people on their hard-won victory, we must remember that as the most important supporter of Indonesia's illegal occupation, the US, owes the new country an enormous moral debt. We urge the Clinton delegation to acknowledge it." Miller said: "Since September 1999 Washington has provided significant assistance to East Timor's reconstruction, but such aid does not begin to compensate the East Timorese people for the suffering wrought by 24 years of US support for Indonesian military occupation."

Of course recent history shows that New Zealand, as did Australia and the US, contributed significantly to a United Nations peace keeping force in East Timor. Successful elections have been held. And on May 20 East Timor becomes this century's first new nation. That is a wonderful outcome for a country that has suffered and endured much.

But it would be wrong for people to forget the role that western nations - led by the United States and bolstered by nations like New Zealand - played in the invasion of 1975 and subsequent massacres like that and the Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991.

The policy of silence that New Zealand then supported, and the United States' arming of the Indonesian military, allowed in large part the continued oppression of the people of East Timor. These are now brighter days.

Lest we forget.

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Globetrotter: How AUKUS May Damage NATO
The fallout over the AUKUS deal, as we are now seeing, has been a severe rift in relations between two historic allies, the U.S. and France. And the collateral damage may also include NATO. Only weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden courageously ended the war in Afghanistan—in the face of bitter opposition from the media and Congress... More>>

ANZUS without NZ: Why AUSUK might not be all it seems
We live, to borrow a phrase, in interesting times. The pandemic aside, relations between the superpowers are tense. The sudden arrival of the new AUKUS security agreement between Australia, the US and UK simply adds to the general sense of unease internationally... More>>

Bill Bennett: Farewell Clive Sinclair
My first brush with Sinclair was as an A-level student in the UK. Before he made computers, Sinclair designed an affordable programmable calculator. It fascinated me and, thanks to a well-paid part-time job, I managed to buy one. From memory it could only handle a few programmable steps, but it was enough to make complex calculations.... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Melbourne Quake: Shaken, Not Stirred

It began just after a news interview. Time: a quarter past nine. Morning of September 22, and yet to take a sip from the brewed Turkish coffee, its light thin surface foam inviting. The Australian city of Melbourne in its sixth lockdown, its residents fatigued and ravaged by regulations. Rising COVID-19 numbers, seemingly inexorable... More>>

Keith Rankin: New Zealand Superannuation: The Rules Versus Common Sense

Radio New Zealand (Checkpoint) ran stories last week about New Zealanders aged over 65 stranded in Australia who are at risk of having their pensions ('New Zealand Superannuation') stopped, and then having to repay the funds they received while in Australia... More>>

Dunne Speaks: Proud to call Aotearoa home

Te Paati Māori continues to provide a breath of fresh air in the political space, otherwise thoroughly choked by Covid19. Its call this week this week for a referendum on changing the country’s name to Aotearoa by 2026 is timely and a welcome diversion to the necessarily short-term focus engendered by Covid19... More>>