Australian diplomats: behind the scenes

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) holds voluminous and content-rich records of the inner workings of successive national governments and their underlying bureaucracies. While there remain significant restrictions on access to NAA’s Timor-related holdings, there is still much detail to be learned from the open records.

CHART’s John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert recently spent a day at NAA’s main reading room in Canberra. We present here a few snapshots of the day-to-day Timor work by officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) in the late 1970s.

A. Massive population displacement – 1978
The 1978/1979 famine in East Timor was a direct result of major Indonesian military campaigns from late 1977 – especially as it resulted in huge numbers of East Timorese moving into camps under Indonesian control but without adequate humanitarian aid.

Click to see document

In early 1979 officers of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta received an Indonesian Red Cross document purporting to detail some 300,000 East Timorese ‘returning’ from the bush during 1978. This data was not made public at the time. It may now provide useful research data to help understand the scale of tragedy which unfolded.



‘Lets see first what the Canadians give us.’

B. Sharing information with allies
Ambassadors from several countries who visited East Timor in September 1978 saw the first signs of an emerging famine in the territory (see our earlier article). The archival record of what governments like Australia did and did not do to push for the much-needed entry of international emergency humanitarian aid is a key issue that CHART will explore further.

For now, however, a minor sideshow: Behind the scenes DFAT officers decide which of Australian ambassador Tom Critchley’s reports on his Timor visit are to be shared with Canada and New Zealand. The record shows the department ensuring it gets reciprocal information benefits from the sharing. Click image above to view.



C. Jim Dunn and the Fraser Committee
NAA holds a packed lever-arch Jakarta Embassy file entitled “Dunn allegations”. While CHART had insufficient time to explore its full contents, the file clearly shows Jim Dunn’s contribution to the public debate was of great concern to the DFAT officers trying to manage the Timor issue.

Dunn’s March 1977 appearance before the US Congressional Sub-committee on International Organisations (known as the ‘Fraser Committee’ after its chairman, Donald Fraser) to report on human rights violations in occupied East Timor was a cause for much cable traffic between Canberra and Jakarta. The samples we show here are Ambassador Richard Woolcott’s reportage on conversations with the US Ambassador to Jakarta and a senior Indonesian Foreign Affairs official.


D. 1977 US Congressional visit – a “snow job”
Indonesian government alarm at Jim Dunn’s testimony before the Fraser Committee in March 1977 quickly led to a short, arranged visit to Timor by US representatives William Goodling and Helen Meyner. Media coverage of the April 1977 visit provided the headlines satisfactory to the Indonesian side (see example here); Meyner’s formal report and personal testimony to the same Congressional committee in July was somewhat more guarded.

The views and observations of the US embassy officers in Jakarta who accompanied Meyner and Goodling to Timor were communicated to the Australian embassy. The record of that conversation reports the US officers describing the visit as a “snow job”. The officers said they were telling more to the Australian embassy officers than they had communicated to Washington; they include reported claims against Jim Dunn and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) – the latter accused of supplying military aid to Fretilin. Click image to read the conversation record.

And a curious sideshow to the July meeting of the Fraser Committee: It seems that off-the-record back room work was done by Australia’s Washington Embassy to delay the meeting. The reason was to ensure the meeting did not coincide with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s Washington visit in mid-1977. But why Ambassador Flood thought it necessary to avoid standard diplomatic cables to report this seems puzzling.


E. Keeping Fretilin / Ramos-Horta out of Australia
The Fraser Government decided in 1976 to no longer allow members of Fretilin’s external delegation to visit Australia. The ban was overturned by the Hawke Labor Government in 1983. Several attempts were made by Jose Ramos-Horta to enter Australia in those intervening years – without success.

We provide here a small window into DFAT consideration of such applications and the form of its recommendation to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Andrew Peacock (who initials his agreement to deny Horta entry).

Christopher Dunn: Please, Mr Peacock....

Christopher Dunn: Please, Mr Peacock….

The file also contains a sweeter note: the original hand-written letter to Andrew Peacock by young Christopher Dunn (son of Jim) ‘asking very nicely’ for ‘my friend Mr Horta’ to be allowed to make a ‘little visit’.


National Archives of Australia References:

[A] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/11/2 PART 6. Portuguese Timor – Visits of Australians to Portuguese Timor

[B] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/11/2 PART 5. Portuguese Timor – Visits of Australians to Portuguese Timor

[C] NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/10 PART 1.  Jakarta – Timor – Dunn allegations – Australian reactions – Australian parliamentary activity

[D] NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/10 PART 2. Jakarta – Third country relations – East Timor – Dunn allegations

[E] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/3 PART 5. East Timor Fretelin [Fretilin] and pro Fretelin [Fretilin] activities in Australia

One Response to Australian diplomats: behind the scenes

  1. rob wesley-smith says:

    I can still clearly remember the angry response over Radio Maubere by Alarico Fernandes who lambasted Mrs Helen Meyner feeling like a queen as Timorese were forced to line up and wave Indonesian flags as she passed by.

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