Wes: Timor archives of key Darwin activist

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.

Konfrontasi: Wes being arrested outside the Indonesian Consulate, Darwin, 1999. [Source: Rob Wesley-Smith]

Konfrontasi: Wes being arrested outside the Indonesian Consulate, Darwin, 1999. [Source: Rob Wesley-Smith]

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….

Timor activism

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

ntnews-1976-caa-18Wes 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.

The archives

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.

3 Responses to Wes: Timor archives of key Darwin activist

  1. Patsy Thatcher says:

    Great article on Wes, it brought back so many humorous memories. Congratulations on you taking the time to collect some of the things that individuals did that actually did make a difference. Regards, Patsy Thatcher

  2. Victor Kaye O.A.M. says:

    Rob Wesley Smith should be awarded an Australian Knighthood for his profound Humanitarian Australianism .
    His actions should be held aloft in schools as an iconic example of true decency and heroism in the best Australisn sense.
    Australia , as a nation still has a long way to go before our Honour is restored , so badly defrayed over the East Timor invasion ,occupation , and rapacious genocide by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999.
    I was in Timor Leste for the Independence plebiscite in 1999 and experienced the Holocaust first hand; so I speak with authority on this subject.
    All the Best Wes. Victor S Kaye O.A.M.

  3. rob wesley-smith says:

    Thanks Patsy and Victor, great comments; couldn’t have put it better myself. I missed the worst post ballot violence but saw the results; see my “117 days in East Timor”.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: