Rob Wesley-Smith has been the most continuously identifiable public face of East Timor political activism in Darwin since 1974. CHART’s John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert examined his Timor papers in July and will assist him to prepare the collection for long-term preservation and access.Known universally as ‘Wes’, Rob Wesley-Smith is a unique identity in Australia’s Asian-frontier city, Darwin. An agronomist by profession, Wes brought unbounded energy to his formal work and to his persistent public commentary on Darwin or Northern Territory issues. Driven by principles of social justice, he was directly involved in Aboriginal issues, including the landmark Gurindji/Wave Hill events in the 1960s and 70s. And then there was Timor….
Wes’ Timor work began sometime in 1974. A fragile and fading document in his archive shows the early Australian activist Denis Freney asking Wes and unionist Warwick Neilley to arrange public meetings for Jose Ramos-Horta’s visit to Darwin in December 1974 and suggesting they establish the Campaign for Independent East Timor (CIET) at the same time.
Following the 7 December 1975 Indonesian invasion, Wes became an inveterate letter-writer and key organiser of public demonstrations. He was involved in monitoring and conducting radio communications with the Fretilin-led resistance inside Timor, though not without some frictions with Communist Party of Australia activists such as the legendary Darwin unionist and activist Brian Manning.
Breaking the blockade
Wes was directly involved in several attempts to break the Indonesian blockade around East Timor and get humanitarian aid to the territory. All attempts failed; the most notable one occurring in late 1976 when he and three others, including former World War II commando Cliff Morris, were forcibly prevented by armed naval and customs officers from going to Timor.
Arrested and charged, under political direction, with exporting medicines and weapons, the four were initially convicted but the verdict was overturned on appeal. This story of the ‘Dawn’ venture, summarised here, is worth a more detailed telling.*
Keeping the faith
From the late 1970s until the dramatic resurgence of Australian activism following the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Wes continued to raise the issue and lead public demonstrations wherever possible. Along with others in the 1990s, he was a key presence in the newly-formed Australians for a Free East Timor (AFFET) in Darwin.
Wes was banned from visiting Timor in the lead-up to the 1999 independence ballot, but then spent months working with NGOs in the post-ballot chaos. His account of 117 days in East Timor offers great insight into his energy, commitment and not-always-welcomed passion for East Timor.
Rob Wesley-Smith’s personal Timor archive is a unique and irreplaceable record of his actions and that of Timor activist activities in Darwin. In addition to a large volume of correspondence, media releases and news clippings dating from 1974 the collection also includes photographs and some rare copies of resistance radio contact.
CHART has produced a preliminary guide to material examined so far. Several institutions in Darwin have expressed interest in eventually holding the collection for long-term preservation and access.
‘Dawn’ venture will be the focus of a future article on this website. See also John Izzard’s colourful 2010 account.