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The States That Failed East Timor

The States That Failed East Timor

By Matt Robson, Deputy Leader of the Progressive Party

Image By Kirsty Griffin – see
East Timor Children traumatised and in shock

Scoop Editor's Note: The John Roughan referred to in this commentary writes for the New Zealand Herald and is not the Solomon Islands based John Roughan that writes for Scoop.


As East Timor is wracked with crisis and the western media pour into another “failed state” my thoughts turn to the states ( and the media) that failed East Timor when Indonesia seized it in 1975 and over a period of almost a quarter of a century of brutal occupation were responsible for the deaths of 200,000 people in a nation of 1 million.

The New Zealand Herald with breathtaking haughtiness described the murderous Indonesian occupation as “several bloody incidents.” In the same dreadful editorial it sneered at Xanana Gusmao as “once a hero of its independence struggle" and mused about “whether we are stepping into a passing storm or the first stage in the failure of a new state”.

How the rich countries and their media which fail to uphold international law and just treatment of the underdeveloped world love to lecture “failed states”. It absolves them of their indifference to the causes of the failure.

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Senior Herald journalist John Roughan, who probably wrote the abysmal Herald editorial with its patronising cant, bemoaned how good people like him were tricked into supporting East Timor’s independence when clearly it would have been better if this “two-bit state “had been left in the hands of Indonesia even if that country did hand out “rough justice”.

So there we have it from John and his paper. Indonesia’s Suharto and his generals were responsible for ”a few bloody incidents” and of handing out a bit of “rough justice” to some natives who probably deserved it.

But I remember. I remember being in Dili at the independence celebrations in May 2002 as New Zealand’s minister responsible for overseas aid. I remember that the heads of the states that armed and financed the Indonesia killing machine were there to join in the festivities.

The most noticeable was Ex-President Clinton who had betrayed promises to help East Timor for Indonesian money. But he was not alone. Britain, a great flag waver at independence, had made a killing, literally, from its massive armaments sales to the Indonesian military. These sales were mad under the Blair “human rights” foreign policy. But all the rich nations who had turned their backs on the pleas of a helpless nation and its desperate people and made lucrative deals with their persecutors in total defiance of international law showed no shame or remorse at attending.

Australian politicians were prominent. Yet it was under Labour leaders Hawke and Keating, who declared that the mass murderer and totally corrupt President Suharto was like a father to him, that Australia trained the most feared of all the Indonesian occupying forces – Kopassus. This policy was continued under Howard and Downer, The self-same Downer who has tried to cheat East Timor out of its oil and gas reserves, so desperately needed to prevent a failed state, who now struts through Dili as a saviour.

And our own country from Labour’s Bill Rowling through to National’s Jenny Shipley had failed the long-suffering people of Timor. They followed MFAT’s advice to talk about respect for the processes of international law while secretly supporting Indonesia’s annexation.

National PM Muldoon refused to see Ramos Hortha when he came to New Zealand as part of a world tour as East Timor’s foreign minister in exile begging nations like New Zealand to protect his country through the processes of international law. In fact Muldoon and MFAT tried to prevent his visit. David Lange complained that Indonesia was nowhere near grateful enough for New Zealand’s work in keeping East Timor off the international agenda.

Mike Moore snarled at Labour activists who wanted their party to side with an oppressed nation and international law that they didn’t have to do trade deals as he did with Indonesia’s foreign minister Ali Alitas. Helen Clark on a trip to Indonesia in 1987 saw things the way of the Indonesia generals and declared that East Timor’s independence was no longer an option.

To Don MacKinnon of National, East Timor was irrevocably a part of Indonesia and those Timorese seeking asylum in our Jakarta embassy were to be bundled out as soon as possible. Meanwhile commerce with Indonesia was the main game.

But the East Timorese refused to accept their prescribed fate. Their heroism won through and with Indonesia in upheaval with the fall of the corrupt Suharto regime East Timor won its independence in 1999. The states that failed East Timor could no longer cover up for their ally in front of world opinion that was witness to the reality of Indonesian rule.

Six Years On

It is good that New Zealand has sent troops to East Timor. It is at the request of the legitimate government. The people deserve protection from the violence.

But let us not forget that we owe those people big time. New Zealand made no noise, in fact applauded, when Suharto came to power in 1965 and bathed his nation in blood. When he swept into East Timor we concurred with the Americans and the Australians that this was in our best economic, political and strategic interests. Our diplomats worked overtime for us to be friends with Suharto and to explain away his daily practice of torture, murder, corruption and annexation.

Officials and politicians who were part of the spin machine that waved away these crimes are now in high places in MFAT. Some are in Parliament .Some like Mike Moore and Don McKinnon went onto lucrative international positions to lecture others about human rights.

In the international arena so much was promised with international aid post 1999. So much has not arrived.

In the meantime Australia has been determined not to give up the dominant position in the oil and gas fields in the Timor Gap that Indonesia had handed to them. Prime Minister Alkatiri has had to confront an arrogant Downer (what other one is there?), who in negotiations has attempted to bully and blackmail East Timor into taking far less than its due share.

It is this revenue, estimated to be over US$30 billion and rising that could if matched with the OECD actually delivering on aid promises provide the investment to lift Timor out of its “failed state”. It would be a big part of the solution to the unemployment rate of 50 percent, of a life expectancy rate of just over 40 and of one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

The gangs trashing Dili are overwhelmingly young. Little wonder when very few of the 10,000 students who finish school every year are employed and when only 30% get to secondary school in the first place.

The international force must stay until the day to day safety of the people is secured.

However, New Zealand must oppose any moves to implement what seems to be the game plan of Australia. That is that East Timor’s future is, as leaked Defence documents show, to fit into Australia’s plans for the region to meet its economic, military and political interests.

Nor should we be part of a policy that obviously wants to paint Alkatiri as the cause of the failed state. Alkatiri might indeed go as part of the political crisis. However, it shouldn’t be because then Australia neess to lose a thorn in its side in regard to its theft of Timor’s oil and gas revenue. It shouldn’t be because the Americans are opposed to his acceptance of Cuban doctors and because Timorese medical students are training free of charge in Cuba. And it shouldn’t be because we are the deputy-deputy sheriff for Australia as it carries out its assigned duties from the American sheriff.

What East Timor has a right to ask of us is that we show respect for its sovereignty, help it with its internal security and advocate in international forums for adequate long-term investment for its infrastructural needs and its rightful share of its oil and gas revenues.

It is a time for humility in regard to East Timor not humiliation from the states that have failed that nation.


Matt Robson is a former New Zealand Cabinet Minister and MP. In the Labour-Alliance Government Mr Robson was the Associate Minister for Foreign Affairs


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