March 1982: Whitlam & Hastings in Timor

Thirty years ago, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam threw his considerable public weight behind the case for East Timor’s integration into Indonesia.

His robust submissions* and appearances before an Australian Senate Inquiry in May 1982 and the United Nations Decolonisation Committee in November that same year were somewhat influential in the Australian debate on Timor at the time.

Whitlam’s public interventions were based largely on a visit he made to East Timor in March 1982. We present here an annotated selection of primary source materials on that decidedly controversial visit.

Media Conference, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, Jakarta.        From left: Peter Hastings, Gough Whitlam and Jusuf Wanandi.     Source: Sinar Harapan, 5 March 1982

Gough Whitlam and influential veteran defence and foreign affairs journalist Peter Hastings travelled to East Timor on 1 March 1982. They were in Timor for two nights, returning to Jakarta late evening on March 4. In Timor, they were able to travel by International Red Cross (ICRC) helicopter, in the company of ICRC delegate Cedric Neukomm. Based in Dili, they visited Ermera, Suai, Maliana, Atauro, Natarbora, Dilor, Lospalos and Luro. Both men held a joint media conference in Jakarta on March 5.

The main focus of Whitlam’s attention was to show that Australian media reports in January 1982 of ‘famine’ in Timor were false. It is reasonable to assume that these reports, ultimately attributed to the head of Timor’s Catholic Church, Monsignor Lopes, were a primary trigger for the trip. The forthcoming Australian Senate Inquiry may also have been a factor behind the visit.

The available public record does not show who exactly initiated plans for the Timor visit.  Peter Hastings was invited to visit Timor by the Indonesian Embassy (Editorial, Canberra Times, 13 March 1982) though the participants and organisers remained rather coy about the underlying decision-making. At the Indonesian end the visit was organised and facilitated by the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) which, since 1974, had been directly connected to Indonesian special operations to achieve East Timorese incorporation into Indonesia.
Article, Herald (Melb.), 3 March 1982
Article, The Age, 4 March 1982
Article, The Australian, 4 March 1982

The ‘famine’ claim
Australian media reports in January 1982 of ‘famine’ in Timor were based on a media release from Australian Catholic Relief (ACR). The ACR media release was in turn based on a November 1981 exchange of correspondence between Monsignor Lopes and Bishop John Gerry who was then ACR Chairman. The documents show that Mgr Lopes’ passing reference to ‘expected famine’ is a repeat of a term (the origins of which are unclear) used originally by Bp Gerry rather than an outright claim by Lopes of  ‘famine’. The ACR media release and subsequent media headlines appear to carry more responsibility for the ‘famine’ claim than anything directly attributable to Mgr Lopes.
Bishop JJ Gerry letter to Mgr Lopes, 11 November 1981
Mgr Lopes reply to Bishop Gerry, 19 November 1981
ACR Press Release, 6 January 1982
Article, The Age, 11 January 1982
Article, Northern Territory News, 11 January 1982
Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 12 January 1982

Whitlam and Hastings reports
Whitlam and Hastings both published or broadcast their findings and opinions. Whitlam’s attentions were focussed on Mgr Lopes, notably calling him in an ABC interview (see below) “a liar..(and)..a mendacious and malicious correspondent”. Hastings’ accounts contained much more detail on actual conditions in the occupied territory.
Transcript of Whitlam/Hastings press conference, Jakarta, 5 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, SMH, 6 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, SMH, 8 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, SMH, 8 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, SMH, 8 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, The Age, 8 March 1982
Peter Hastings article, SMH, 9 March 1982
Gough Whitlam interview on ABC Radio, 26 March 1982
Gough Whitlam article, The Bulletin, 30 March 1982
Peter Hastings interview, ABC Radio, 20 April 1982

Media reportage of visit
The visit itself attracted brief media coverage in Australia and Indonesia, including some editorials on the significance of the trip and its reported findings. While Indonesian media reports were uncritical of the Whitlam findings, some other mainstream media were less certain of them.

Article, The Age, 6 March 1982
Editorial, Sinar Harapan, 6 March 1982
Article, The Indonesia Times, 8 March 1982
Editorial, The Indonesia Times, 8 March 1982
Article, The Age, 12 March 1982
Editorial, Canberra Times, 13 March 1982
Article, Far Eastern Economic Review

In Australia, Mr Whitlam’s assertions in particular attracted the most analysis and commentary from advocates for East Timor. A feature of the more detailed commentary was to use Peter Hastings’ Timor visit accounts to demonstrate shortcomings in those of Mr Whitlam. Whitlam’s case found some public support, including from Bob Santamaria who – since 1975 – had actively campaigned publicly (through his Newsweekly periodical) and privately in Catholic circles against advocates for East Timorese self-determination.
Bob Richards (unpublished?) letter to the editor, 7 March 1982
ACFOA (unpublished?) Letter to Editor, 12 March 1982
Newsweekly Editorial, 10 March 1982
Newsweekly Editorial, 17 March 1982
Jim Dunn article, The Age, 17 March 1982
David Scott (unpublished?) letter to Editor, 25 March 1982
Pat Walsh notes for ACFOA Chairperson, 30 March 1982
Former WWII Commando, Cliff Morris letter to Whitlam, 30 March 1982
Peter McCawley letter to Editor, Canberra Times 31 March 1982
Letters to Editor, The Bulletin, 20 April 1982
Jose Ramos-Horta Letter to Editor, SMH 22 April 1982
Pat Walsh article, Arena, No.60, 1982
Timor Information Service article, March/April 1982

International Red Cross
A surprising element of the Whitlam/Hastings trip to Timor was the involvement of International Red Cross (ICRC). The visitors travelled to parts of Timor in the ICRC helicopter accompanied by an ICRC delegate. Much was made of this fact in Mr Whitlam’s claims about conditions in the territory; he was able to effectively draw on ICRC authority to support his assertions. The Australian Council for Overseas Aid certainly wondered about ICRC’s involvement in a visit which became an overtly political exercise.
ACFOA Draft letter to ICRC (undated)

Concluding comment
Gough Whitlam’s direct attack on Mgr Lopes probably aided calls in Indonesia for the monsignor’s removal from Timor by the Vatican in 1983. He also had some transient impact on the public debate in Australia and inside the Labor Party, but other events in 1983 – a formal ceasefire and subsequent major Indonesian military offensive – rendered his 1982 claims outdated.

The documentary record of the Whitlam/Hastings Timor visit remains valuable. It offers a good insight into the approach of Mr Whitlam who, at the time, was one of the very few public figures to campaign publicly in Australia against East Timorese self-determination. Combined with the sample of reactions to Whitlam’s assertions, the record also provides an insight into the nature of the debate in Australia about East Timor at that time.


* Records of these submissions can be found among a series of Timor documents available online through the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney.

Sources: The selected documents presented here come from the archives of Timor Information Service and the ACFOA Human Rights Office. Both collections are in CHART custody in Melbourne and will be subject to an extensive digitisation program during 2012.

Note on Copyright:  If any original creators of the materials presented wish to assert their copyright ownership and object to our usage here, please contact us immediately and we will remove the item.

4 Responses to March 1982: Whitlam & Hastings in Timor

  1. donjustdoit says:

    Great work in putting all this together John, I congratulate you & your team.

  2. James Dunn says:

    It was indeed a sad affair. Several Timorese he met later informed me that Gough showed no interest in probing beyond the organised scene that greeted him. Even the late Peter Hastings later confirmed that to me. Whitlam later was to address the UN Decolonisation Committee of the UN in New York where he dismissed claims that human rights violations had been perpetrated in East Timor. Now, thanks largely to UN investigations and the CAVR report that most of the almost 200,000 deaths had occurred in the four or five years prior to Whitlam’s visit. It was a sorry episode, but such is Whitlam’s stature, that chapter in our diplomatic history has not been fully acknowledged, nor investigated.

  3. yvonne langley walsh says:

    Bravo John and team.
    The pull of anger from long ago rears again – even now the Labor Leader mouths ‘support for Timor’s Independence’ – hypocrisy of the highest order indeed.

  4. This is an Australian shame. I hope Mr Whitlam takes this disgraceful performance; and the fact that he turned his back on the East Timorese knowing well in advance of the Indonesia invasion plans in 1975 three weeks before he himself was thrown out of office to his grave. Mr Whitlam’s selfishness and cowardice cost 10,000s of Timorese lives. That blight will not read well on his Epitaph!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: