Susan Connelly | 23 April 2017
In the great traditions of Australian war remembrance we remember all those Australian youngsters who died in the World Wars and since. What is often forgotten, however, is the toll on the Timorese people in World War II on behalf of Australians.
Fearful of the southward thrust of the Japanese, the Australian government entered East Timor against the wishes of its Portuguese colonisers not to protect the Timorese, but to thwart possible attacks on Australia.
A band of intrepid Australian soldiers, never numbering more than 700, successfully held off thousands of Japanese in Timor, but only because they had the support of the local people.
The East Timorese could have handed the Australians over to the enemy, but they didn’t. Between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese died as a result of Japanese reprisals for their friendship to Australians, and because of Allied bombing on Japanese positions.
Fearful, self-protective and oblivious Australia contributed to the demise of those tens of thousands of civilians. Leaflets were dropped all over Timor declaring ‘Your friends do not forget you.’ Yet this extraordinary historical episode receives little attention in Australia.
Thirty years later, Australian security was again served by the Timorese people. Massacres, starvation, torture, rape and killings were all part of the 24 years of Indonesian annexation, yet the demise of a huge proportion of the Timorese population found little protest from Australia over the quarter century.
Intelligence reports were concealed and statements of witnesses were ignored or belittled as Australian governments doggedly pursued appeasement of Indonesia, until 1999 when political realities and a disgusted Australian population caused the reversal of the policy.
Even now, it is officially stated that the Australian position right through the Indonesian occupation was for Timorese self-determination. It is unknown whether this claim is made with a straight face.
“The Timorese are not asking for handouts, special treatment, nor even remembrance of the history. They are simply asking for a fair deal in accordance with current international law.”
Australians in all walks of life, including academics and politicians, would do well to bone up on this history, especially when it comes to the fraught questions over the settlement of a fair and permanent border in the Timor Sea between Timor-Leste and Australia, and Timor’s desire to secure management of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.
The Timorese are not asking for handouts, special treatment, nor even remembrance of the history. They are simply asking for a fair deal in accordance with current international law.
The NSW Timor Sea Justice Forum has made available a petition asking that the border be finalised as soon as possible. It will be available as an online petition on the parliamentary website in June, but this version is useful in the meantime for those who wish to print it and invite family, friends, neighbours and strangers to sign.
Ordinary Australians rose to the occasion for the Timorese in 1999. It is time to rise again.
Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph, the Catholic Religious Congregation founded by St Mary MacKillop. After years teaching scripture in Catholic schools and in state schools, she spent 17 years with the Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies.