Cowards of Oz

27 July 1999

Few care about their subjection to the Queen. But they're jumpy about the Asiatic hordes.

In November, Australians will vote to keep the Queen as head of state, or become a republic. According to a poll last week, most appear not to give a damn. "There isn't enough energy in the republican issue," said the premier of Queensland, with an eloquence long associated with his office, "to change a light bulb." Perhaps my compatriots smell a dead marsupial. A president of the republic is unlikely to be elected, as most people want, but appointed by the same political elite whose public standing is a fraction higher than that of Serbia.

In any case, the Australian establishment has always been happy with a veiled colonial status. The declaration of a federation in 1901, far from being a bold act of independence, was a desperate cry to Mother England to stay on and defend her most distant colony from the "Asiatic hordes" who, as everybody knew, were about to fall down on them as if by the force of gravity.

These days, official fear of Asia is disguised by a stream of pseudo-academic literature warning of non-existent threats, the language suitably tempered so as not to offend Asia's dictators and autocrats; for not offending them is the basis of a frequently bizarre policy of appeasement and collaboration which, as the historian Manning Clark put it, "stinks in the nostrils".

The love affair with Suharto surpasses all others. In 1965-6, Suharto took power in Indonesia in a bloodbath described in a CIA report as "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century". Having monitored the slaughter of half a million people from a spy base near Darwin, the Australian government raised not a word of protest. On the contrary, as files just declassified reveal, the Australian embassy in Jakarta expressed "encouragement" at the "cleansing operation". Ministers and academics competed to praise the "free market stability" of the new dictatorship, while Australian tourists set about converting Bali to their very own Benidorm, its car parks concealing mass graves.

On the eve of Suharto's invasion of the Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975 and the extermination of a third of the population, the regime tipped off the Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, who cabled Canberra that "we leave events to take their course ...and act in a way designed to minimise the public impact in Australia", while showing "private understanding to Indonesia and their problems". He added that Australia should "take an interest" in occupied East Timor's vast oil and gas resources.

This was to be translated into a treaty celebrated in 1989 by Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, toasting each other in champagne as they flew over their plunder off Timor. The irony was searing. Australian air force planes had also flown here in 1943, dropping leaflets that read, "We shall never forget you." More than 40,000 East Timorese had died fighting to prevent a Japanese invasion of Australia.

Paul Keating, the prime minister who loudly promoted Australian republicanism and nationhood, never mentioned his country's debt to the island people whose flickering lights can be seen on a clear night from Darwin. Described in the Australian press as Keating's "father figure", Suharto was the grateful recipient of a video of the prime minister's more pugnacious performances in parliament, during which he called the opposition "piss-ants" and "criminal garbage". The dictator, reported the Sydney Morning Herald, was "mightily impressed".

Since the resignation of Suharto last year, the East Timorese have been told they can vote for autonomy or independence in a UN-sponsored referendum next month, the integrity of which is to be "guaranteed" by the very military that has been killing and torturing them for 23 years. Jakarta's intentions could not be clearer. Last week, with a warship offshore, an Indonesian air force Hawk fighter-bomber made a low, intimidating pass over Dill, the capital - days after Tony Blair had repeated the foreign office lie that British-supplied Hawks were not used in East Timor.

Keating's successor, John Howard, is selling out the East Timorese in secret. On March 4, he was given an intelligence report of Indonesia's planned violence in the run-up to the UN vote. He remained silent. In 1998-9, his government authorised a record $A6,446,000 (?2.7m) on military "co-operation" with Jakarta; in the past, this has included training those special forces responsible for the worst atrocities in East Timor.

The tragedy is that East Timor is probably the only major foreign policy issue in which Australia has real influence. All of the historical evidence, now emerging, is that the long nightmare of the East Timorese might never have happened had governments in Canberra not given Suharto the green light and collaboration he sought. With the UN vote three weeks away, the least Australia can do is demand that the invaders and murderers get out now. Claiming a proud new republic, while denying the right of life and freedom to a neighbour, is a craven charade.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library