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What Australia doesn't want East Timor to know

  • 05 April 2012

On 20 March, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon agreed to a Department of Foreign Affairs request to block public access to 34-year-old cables on the famine that ravaged East Timor early in the Indonesian occupation. Roxon reportedly believes that release of the material would prejudice Australia's international relations.

Given that Suharto and his regime have gone and that many other sensitive cables on the Timor question have been released over the last 12 years without damaging Australia's external relations, the decision is puzzling.

As someone who has spent many years working with both East Timorese and Indonesians to understand their shared history, I would argue that rather than cause for concern, the release of the cables would be generally welcomed in both countries as part of the free flow of ideas and information that both now enjoy.

Australia, as one of few witnesses to these events, should contribute what it knows so that these dark times are better understood and learned from in East Timor, Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere.

The famine of 1977–79 cut a swathe through East Timor's civilian population like the third horseman of the Apocalyse. Having failed to subdue the Timorese, the Indonesian military opted to starve them out. In addition to destroying food sources, forcing the population to flee and abandon gardens, the military also blocked international agencies from delivering aid until the army had achieved its military objectives.

When the US Catholic Relief Services was permitted to survey the situation in May 1979, its representative found conditions as critical as anything he had encountered during his 14 years experience in Asia. The famine, he reported, was not only claiming the very young and very old; many in their prime were also dying.

Most of the over 100,000 civilian deaths in East Timor during the 24 year war occurred at this time.

The significance of the famine to the Timorese was brought home in the course of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation's (CAVR) inquiry conducted after independence. Witnesses explained that Timor was no stranger to malnutrition, seasonal hunger or other tragedies, but this was the mother of all catastrophes. Whole families and communities were wiped out by starvation.

'In August 1977 in Idada we buried 80 bodies in one day,' Manuel Carceres da Costa told CAVR. 'They died of starvation. They died with swollen and aching stomachs, unable to walk.'

Maria Jose da Costa's account was reminiscent of a 1950s rabbit drive in Australia: the military sprayed