The Independent Glosses Over the West’s Complicity in East Timor Genocide

The bloody history of Western support for Indonesia’s illegal annexation of East Timor in 1975 is glossed over in a recent news report by Kathy Marks in The Independent (‘Australia bows to East Timor over oil and gas rights’, 5 July, 2001). Australian ministers are portrayed as generous in agreeing to give East Timor 90 per cent of revenues from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, lying between Australia and East Timor to the north. The report fails to explain that the agreement was struck following Australia’s ‘pragmatic’ support of Indonesia’s brutal annexation of East Timor in 1975, leading to the deaths of around 200,000 East Timorese.

Official documents reveal that Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor was supported by the West. In July 1975, the British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office that ‘the people of Portuguese Timor are in no condition to exercise the right to self-determination’ and ‘the arguments in favour of its integration into Indonesia are all the stronger’. (Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p. 219).

As documented by Curtis, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and other commentators, the West – in particular, the US and the UK – actively supported Suharto’s Indonesia in brutally subduing East Timor. But the Australian government was also complicit. Richard Woolcott, the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta in 1975, was tipped off by the Indonesians that the invasion was about to take place. Woolcott secretly cabled the Department of Foreign Affairs, proposing that ‘[we] leave events to take their course … and act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems.’ (John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p. 256). Woolcott is quoted in The Independent report as an authoritative ‘analyst’, with no mention of his complicit role in the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese. Instead the report notes that ‘relations between Australia and Indonesia are recovering their traditional warmth …as the bitter memory of East Timor fades.’

The ‘private understanding’ of Australian ministers at the time of the illegal invasion of East Timor clearly assisted in the subsequent carving up between Australia and Indonesia of the considerable oil and gas reserves covered by the Timor Gap Treaty, signed in 1989. Indonesia under President Suharto was a significant market for western arms sales. But by providing ‘political stability’, Suharto also offered Western business interests the opportunity to benefit from the country’s extensive mineral resources.  A few months before the 1975 invasion of East Timor, a Confederation of British Industry report noted that Indonesia presented ‘enormous potential for the foreign investor’ and that, according to one press report, the country enjoyed a ‘favourable political climate’ and the ‘encouragement of foreign investment by the country’s authorities’. (Curtis, p. 225).

Curtis notes that ‘RTZ, BP, British Gas and Britoil are some of the companies that have since taken advantage of Indonesia’s “favourable political climate” ‘. The Independent’s news report notes that Philips Petroleum is ‘one of the commercial driving forces behind the oil and gas exploration’. An executive at Philips is quoted as saying that the new oil and gas agreement should ‘provide a secure legal and fiscal level that supports continued investment’.

However, an honest appraisal of the historical record reveals that the establishment of political conditions conducive to Western corporate interests – using military power either directly, or indirectly with the aid of proxy forces, as in Suharto’s Indonesia – at immense cost to human life has been a necessary condition for economic globalisation in this region.


Please ask The Independent to address the background to the recently announced oil and gas deal between Australia and East Timor; in particular, the role that Australia played in supporting Indonesia’s brutal invasion of East Timor in 1975 and subsequent occupation. Unlike in Kosovo, there was no ‘humanitarian intervention’ for the East Timorese in the subsequent 24 years. Point out that in the run-up to the East Timor independence referendum in August 1999, Indonesian-backed atrocities were running at considerably higher levels than in Kosovo.

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Simon Kelner, Editor

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