The Controversy of East Timor

The controversy of East Timor has been considered as an important issue throughout much of its history. Over time, the history of East Timor has been shaped by a number of crucial occurrences, from the decolonization Portuguese Timor that prevailed in the early of 1970s; the decision of East Timor to integrate its territory with the Republic of Indonesia; to the establishment of East Timor as an independent country in 1999.

It is interesting to see that these occurrences have been inevitably contentious among the international society, particularly in the views of Australian foreign policy. It is the aim of this essay to examine the Australian foreign policy on the East Timor crisis of 1999.

Before turning to the examination, this introductory section briefly sketches an outline of this essay. To provide a comprehensive analysis, the first part of this essay will elaborate the involvement of Australia in shaping East Timor history from the early 1970s onwards. An analysis on Australian foreign policy in the East Timor crisis of 1999 will form the second part of this essay.

This analysis includes the discussion on some aspects of foreign policy failures, such as the Howard’s letter to Habibie suggesting the possibility of autonomy in East Timor followed by self-determination after a period of time; the notion of security and resource priorities in Indonesia; and the Australian domestic politics in 1999, particularly the controversial statement of Labor Politician, Brereton.

It will also briefly allude to the debate of Australia’s involvement on INTERFET in 1999 with some ASEAN perspective to the crisis. This essay will conclude that there have been marked failures of Australian foreign policy during the period of East Timor crisis under discussion, the main failures being in relations to the timing, security and resource priorities.

The East Timor Timeline

There are no two neighbours anywhere in the world are as different as Australia and Indonesia, in terms of history, culture, population, language and political and social traditions. However, it is clear that Indonesia is Australia’s closest neighbour. Hence it is difficult to separate the Australia’s security from Indonesia. Even for Australian policy-makers, protecting good relations with Indonesia is always being the Australia’s highest diplomatic priorities.

Contrast to other neighbours, Indonesia is a heavily populated country with the world largest Muslim population. The Australia-Indonesia relations were started by the Labor Government supports to the Indonesian war of independence in 1945. The relations inevitably have faced some stages from the Menzies policy to be an ally in the Cold War as opposed to Sukarno with his notion of Non-Aligned Movement, to the harmonization in the Suharto’s New Order, particularly the formation of ASEAN and the issue of East Timor in the early 1970s.

As mentioned above, the issue of East Timor has been a serious concern between both countries until finally as the beginning, in September 1974, Whitlam and Suharto met in Yogyakarta. Both leaders preferred integration with Indonesia but also self-determination without the use of force. Through a number of incidents like the negotiation between Indonesia and Portugal as well as the awful Balibo murder of 6 Australian journalists, the East Timor eventually was integrated to Indonesia in 1975, regardless of some pro-East Timorese independence voice.

It should be noted that the integration was led by Indonesian invasion namely ‘Seroja’ (Lotus) in December 1975 to the east and west of Dili. Only three years after the integration, Australia granted de jure recognition of Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor. The phase was continued to some important events such as the Timor Gap treaty and Dili massacres in 1991 along with the agreement of Australia-Indonesia security treaty in 1995. Moreover, the tension for East Timorese independence in the late 1990s rose sharply, particularly after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Foreign Policy Analysis

Turning to Australian foreign policy analysis on the East Timor crisis of 1999, it is important to see that the letter from Howard inescapably triggered the turbulent situation of Indonesia-Australia relations. The letter was sent to Habibie in December 1998 suggesting the possibility of autonomy in East Timor followed by self-determination along the lines of the Matignon Accords for French New Caledonia. Surprisingly, Habibie prompted this letter through announcing an accelerated self-determination instead of giving free live for ten years at the Indonesia’s government cost, before the real independence given to the East Timorese.

It is argued that Howard’s letter caused a bad impression to Australia in the views of Indonesia, since Australia always became a supportive friend in terms of East Timor as an integrated part of Indonesia. It is also found that Australia’s suggestion on East Timor was sent on inappropriate time, owing to the fact that Indonesia still faced a multidimensional crisis, such as political instability after the fall of Suharto, regional economic crisis, and further separation movement from Aceh and Irian Jaya.

In the second place, it should be noted that Australia’s further failure on the East Timor crisis of 1999 was also reflected from the contingency plans of INTERFET (International Force in East Timor) that authorized under a strong Chapter Seven mandate from UNSC. This finding strengthens the impression that Australia denounced its 23 years supports to Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor.

It is also found that some Indonesian ministers suspiciously assumed Australia would also support further separation in Aceh and Irian Jaya, in which this impression built worse turbulence in the Indonesia-Australia’s relations. Besides, there had been serious implications that can be drawn from Australia’s contingency of INTERFET, such as the severance of all-high level governmental and official contacts between Indonesia and Australia, from the military-to-military to the ministerial relations.

These include the termination of Agreement to Maintain Security (AMS), which was signed prior to the East Timor crisis. AMS was discontinued due to the assumption of Indonesian ministers that the Australia’s actions in East Timor were conflicting with the spirit of agreement. In that sense, the outbreak of military force in East Timor symbolized a massive failure of previous Australian policy.

Moreover, Australia’s actions on the East Timor inevitably overrode the security and resource priorities, in which Indonesia as the largest Muslim population country (212 million population) faced a turbulent situation in 1999. These perceptions allowed many Indonesians to assume that Australia threatened Indonesia’s stability and its position in Southeast Asia. This assumption was also supported by the ASEAN’s response to the East Timor crisis, particularly by the Malaysian Prime Minister – Mahathir Muhammad argument. He argued that it was not the best time for Indonesia to create solution for East Timor, since it was struggling to deal with the transition to liberal democracy.

Besides, he questioned the hypocrisy of the West for rejecting Indonesia’s occupation on East Timor, while at the same time being silent to the same offences by other countries. It is also clear that other ASEAN countries such as Burma did not affirm any external actions in East Timor case as well as Vietnam has expressed little eagerness for INTERFET.

Finally, the Australian domestic politics also gave pressure as well as influenced its foreign policy. Evidence of this can be seen in the contentious statement of Brereton (Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs 1996-2001), which support self-determination and independence through seeking troops for East Timor. However, Brereton argument was against the conception of Downer who prefers unarmed police, and more importantly, opposing some senior Labor politicians, such as Gough Whitlam and Gareth Evans.

His controversial argument also automatically made bipartisanship falls over and a split in the ALP. It is argued that the break of bipartisanship had serious implications in influencing Howard to create final policy on East Timor crisis of 1999, which eventually has been called as critical failures in Australian foreign policy.


The relations between Indonesia and Australia have begun from 1940s when Labor Government expressed its supports to the Indonesia war of independence. The development of relations between both countries comes up with harmony and some controversies, such as the Balibo killing of 6 Australian journalists in 1975; the Dili massacres in the early 1990s; and the East Timor crisis of 1999.

To sum up, it has been argued that Australian foreign policy on East Timor crisis of 1999 has been analysed as significant failures, the main failures being in relations to the timing, security and resource priorities. This failure has been reflected on some arguments, such as the unnecessary Howard’s letter to Habibie, which was sent on inappropriate timing when Indonesia was still dealing with multidimensional crisis in the late 1990s.

Besides, the involvement of Australia in the INTERFET also had serious implications such as the termination of Agreement to Maintain Security (AMS), which was signed in 1995 and the severance of both governments contact that was strong prior to the East Timor crisis.

As mentioned above, priorities on security and resource are also part of the failure, since it is clear that Indonesia has massive population and still coped with the transition to liberal democracy in 1999. ASEAN’s response to the East Timor crisis also assumed that the decision to seek solution on East Timor was bad choice in a bad time, reflected on some criticism by Mahathir Muhammad (Malaysia), Burma and Vietnam. It has also been argued that the Australia’s domestic politics inevitably caused an important pressure in its foreign policy output, indicated by Brereton contentious argument, which caused bipartisanship dismantled and separation in ALP.


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Chalk, P. ‘Australia and Indonesia: Rebuilding relations after East Timor’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 23(2), 2001, pp. 233-253.

Cotton, J., ‘The East Timor Commitment and Its Consequences’ in J. Cotton & J. Ravenhill (eds.), The National Interest in a Global Era; Australia in World Affairs 1996-2000, Oxford University Press, VIC, 2001, pp. 213-234.

Dougall, D.Mc., Australian Foreign Relations; Contemporary Perspectives, Longman, Melbourne, 2007, pp. 199-220

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Foreign Affairs and Trade, Documents on Australian Foreign policy; Australia and the Indonesian incorporation of Portuguese Timor 1974-1976, Melbourne University Press, VIC, 2000, pp. 602-9.

Leaver, R., ‘Introduction: Australia, East Timor and Indonesia’, The Pacific Review, Vo. 14, No. 1, 2001, pp. 1-14.

Ricklefs, M.C., ‘Australia and Indonesia’ in R. Manne (ed.), The Howard Years, Black Inc Agenda, VIC, 2004, pp. 267-290.

Oleh: Hangga Fathona
Mahasiswa HI UMY Angkatan 2006


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