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Friday, September 17, 1999 Published at 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK

East Timor: Australia's sense of guilt

Australia is leading the UN peace-keeping force to East Timor

By Red Harrison in Sydney

My own experiences of East Timor are slight.

I sailed there from Darwin in a rusty bucket a few years ago with a fiery group of East Timorese and Australian protesters.

East Timor
As we approached the port of Dili, an Indonesian warship closed to a couple of hundred yards. Sailors ran to machine guns as a loud-hailer ordered us to turn back.

A frightened Indonesian woman journalist hugged my arm.

"Don't worry," I said from the depths of my ignorance, "they won't fire."

"You don't know Indonesia," she said.

She was right of course, but we were lucky - we could turn and run away.

Shock and outrage

Few of the East Timorese who voted for independence had that luxury.

As the militia, watched by the Indonesian army, began its wave of slaughter, many thousands of Australians even less informed, perhaps, about Indonesian politics, took to the streets in shock, in outrage and anger, in fury and sadness.

They marched through cities, stopping traffic, burning Indonesian flags, attacking the prime minister's office, preventing holiday-makers boarding airliners for Indonesia, putting union bans on Indonesian diplomatic missions - all demanding that Australia send troops to stop the killing and destruction at once.

No matter that the prime minister warned that doing this without Jakarta's approval would be an act of war. No matter that analysts exposed the suicidal absurdity of sending a couple of thousand Australians against about 26,000 Indonesian troops.

Sense of guilt

There is, indubitably, widespread and deep distress at the scale of the killings.

Yet behind the hand-wringing there is also, I feel, a sense of guilt - at least on official levels.

Australia did nothing to stop these killings and it did nothing to stop slaughter of perhaps a quarter of the population when Indonesian paratroops invaded East Timor in 1975.

Indeed, Australia remains one of only two countries - the other is India - to accept the legitimacy of that annexation.

Canberra took the view, meekly, that it was irreversible and the Timorese would gradually learn to accept it.

Well, 80% of them made nonsense of that idea last week - and many paid with their lives.

Nearest neighbour

With a population of more than 200m, Indonesia is Australia's nearest neighbour and successive governments in Canberra have been careful to avoid direct confrontation - even withholding information sometimes that might hurt Indonesian interests: Don't mention the massacres.

They have boasted that the two countries have a special relationship, an idea now being described as an institutionalised form of self-delusion.

What reinforces the notion that some of the rage and frustration is inspired by guilt is that evidence of what would happen if the Timorese chose independence has been around a long time.

The former military commander in Dili, General Suratman, warned on Australian television that everything would be destroyed.

Leaked intelligence reports have exposed the determination of the militia and the army to set the earth on fire.

Other reports show that senior military elements in Jakarta were determined to sabotage the independence vote.

Australian optimism

But Australia, with its trusting, Panglossian view of the world, continued to believe that the army would - as it promised - maintain order before, during and after the vote.

Now it is clear that what you see with the Indonesian army is not always what you get.

The historical question is whether Australia should have pressed President Habibie to put the referendum question at this time - even the independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, wanted to wait a few years to let emotions cool down.

More immediate are the questions of whether President Habibie will still be on his throne when the Indonesian parliament meets in November. And who will succeed him - an army general, perhaps?

What might that mean for the unrest and dissension elsewhere in Indonesia? And what might it mean for Australia - especially if peace-keeping turns into bloodier peace-enforcement?

I'm not the first to wonder if Australia might be about to experience the worst of all possible worlds.

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