Remembering 1979: Canberra & Jakarta public relations

A 1979 submission to Australia’s Fraser Government Cabinet shows that politics, not East Timorese needs, was the principal reason for increasing humanitarian aid to East Timor in November that year.

The stated reason for ‘urgency’ in the submission:

Click to view

Recent publicity about the situation in Timor has led to criticism in Australia of the Indonesian Government and increasing public pressure on the (Australian) government to provide aid. We believe it is in the Government’s interests to respond to this problem as soon as possible.

No reference to the desperate humanitarian situation facing the Timorese at that time. The ‘recent publicity’ was Peter Rodgers’ articles and photographs of mass starvation in East Timor, highlighted earlier on this blog (see Remembering 1979).

The backgrounder attached to the formal submission makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in Australian government policy making on Timor at the time. It also provides an insight into Australian and Indonesian government views on Australian non-government aid organisations – including Indonesia’s alleged (inaccurate) branding of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) as “actively pro-Fretilin”.

The backgrounder also shows the Australian Government knew there was a significant humanitarian crisis in November 1979. Researchers scrutinising the broader set of 1979 official documents now released for access should be able to learn just how early Australia did know about the desperate situation developing inside Timor during 1978/79.

Indonesian government propaganda booklet

Click to view

The cabinet submission background document also shows Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar didn’t care much for the picture revealed by Peter Rodgers’ articles. The articles certainly contradicted the Government of Indonesia’s own preferred international images of what life was like for the East Timorese in 1979.

The Indonesian Department of Information’s ‘To build a better tomorrow in East Timor’, printed on high quality paper in the second half of 1979, conveyed an image of modest but forward-looking progress for the East Timorese. Knowing what we know now about the truth of the situation inside Timor, let alone what most of us already knew in 1979, this Jakarta publication was a perfect example of why Indonesian Government claims about East Timor had to be treated with  maximum scepticism.

Note on sources

The Cabinet Submission is highlighted in this year’s release of the Fraser Government Cabinet records by the National Archives of Australia (NAA). Australian law requires the release of government records to the public thirty years after their creation – though this may soon be changed to twenty years (see earlier blog post).

NAA’s full selection of significant Foreign Affairs and Defence issues put to the 1979 Australian Cabinet can be found here.

The Indonesian Government publication is in the Timor Information Service archives, Melbourne

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