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East Timorese heroes of Australian wars



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.

Australian commando in East TimorFearful 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 ConnellySusan 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.

Pictured: Australian commando in East Timor

Topic tags: Susan Connelly, Anzac Day, East Timor



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Existing comments

Bravo Susan! Mary MacKillop would be proud of you. During the long years of Indonesian occupation I seem to remember many ex-servicemen who had been assisted by the Timorese raise their rights in protest. We do have a special bond of friendship with the Timorese in which the Catholic Church does play an important and highly creditable role. We, as a nation, need to deal justly with them. Always.

Edward Fido | 25 April 2017  

and let us not forget our West Papuan friends

Michael Godfrey | 25 April 2017  

Susan Many thanks for this - to me - enlightening understanding of the situation. Congrats to you and your colleagues in the Institute. God bless

Richard Dunleavy fms | 25 April 2017  

Thank for drawing attention to our treatment of Timor Leste over the past 75 years. My father was part of the 2/2 Company in East Timor in WW11 and bore the guilt of the abandonment of his criado for the rest of his life, as he knew the withdrawal of the Australians guaranteed death for the Timorese who had supported them. He was appalled by the role of the Australian Government in the Indonesian takeover. He had died before the Howard government's flagrant disregard for international law when the maritime borders were drawn up but he would have been outraged. It is time for Australia to gain a moral compass with respect to Timor Leste and put right the wrongs we have perpetrated in the past through acts of pragmatism and self-interest. Shame, Australia - let's redress the wrongs with some compassion and good neighbourly behaviour.

Jan Hamilton | 25 April 2017  

Well done, Susan. I hope that, once again, the Australian people will become aware of the truth and show justice and well earned gratitude to our neighbours in East Timor. With hope, Maria Dunell.

Maria Dunell | 25 April 2017  

I wonder what the East Timorese, Papua New Guineans and indeed the children of Australia would have to say of the last 75 years if the Australians had not done what they did at the time. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that just about everything this country has ever done was unequivocally bad. We do have good weather, however, at this time of year.

john frawley | 25 April 2017  

Thank you Susan for the accompanying factual material. One person sows and another reaps and I hope this harvest comes in your lifetime.

Kay McPadden | 25 April 2017  

Congratulations to Sister Susan for a very important and timely article on the WW2 debt that we owe the East Timorese for the great sacrifice they made for Australia. Their loss of about 70,000 people out of a population of 1/2 a million was a much greater loss that Australia's which was 40,000 out of 7 million. Then for Australian governments (both LNP and ALP) to sell these people out during the illegal Indonesian invasion and occupation during which East Timor lost nearly 1/3 of its population was a very cruel and shameful betrayal indeed. Some say that Australian leaders turned a blind eye to what was happening, but this is not true. Australian security organisations monitored the actions of the brutal Indonesian military (TNI) and our leaders said nothing. This did not stop them from giving military aid and training to the TNI as it committed genocide. Australia aid to the TNI continues even though it is committing genocide and gross human rights abuses in West Papua. Now the Turnbull Government is intent on continuing its unfair policy of taking oil and gas from Timor-Leste's 1/2 of the Timor Sea. Recently it convened an inquiry into the ongoing treaty between Australia and T-L on resources in the Timor Sea and only highlighted submissions that supported its position. Let us remember our valiant East Timorese WW2 allies and sign Sister Susan's petition and lobby our federal politicians to change the policy.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 April 2017  

What an appropriate article at this time when we are remembering ANZAC day. Thank you Susan. I am signing the Petition.

Liz Morris | 25 April 2017  

Dear Susan. Please accept my heartfelt thanks for your work with the Institute and your writing of this article. Its publication this week is a timely reminder of the senseless futility and the harsh reality of the self serving commercial and military vested interests behind most wars. I was vaguely aware of the deceit and denial behind the position stated by Australia's leaders on Indonesia's brutal occupation from the times of Whitlam and Fraser. While aware of the moral and financial debt we owe PNG for its peoples' brave help at Kakoda, I was unaware of the role by Australia in the tragedy which unfolded in East Timor. I shall circulate this issue of Eureka to a circle of friends and suggest that they might do as I intend, to sign the petition and, as a separate exercise, inform the relevant politicians in Canberra that we expect Australia to deal fairly and honourably from now on (as it has not until now) with Timor-Leste on the allocation of the Timor sea's oil and gas resources.

Michael Kennedy | 26 April 2017  

Thanks Susan for remembering the Timorese people, especially those who fought alongside their friends to protect Australia ... your kind thoughts in such occasion, is truly appreciated.

Verdial Maia | 26 April 2017  

A powerful invitation, Susan. My mother served in NG during the war. She used weep that we had ignored the role of the Timorese in the allied 'victory' - with their profound loss of life, as you describe. Thanks for reminding us that our responsibility continues.

vivien | 26 April 2017  

Well done Susan !!

Brian and Dawn Phillips | 26 April 2017  

Well done Susan. Education about the history of Timor is essential so that we are made aware of Australia's criminal neglect. The great sacrifices by the Timorese when protecting our soldiers serving on the island during the Japanese occupation, and also how the indigenous resistance hampered the enemy's plans to attack the Australian mainland, must be recognized. Furthermore, when Timor's struggle for independence long after the WW 2 was so cruelly suppressed during the Indonesian occupation, Canberra made no attempt to comment on the injustice and brutality. Eventually our government belatedly supported Timor's independence, but after it was established, Canberra once again, neglected the poor struggling nation. Australia continuously avoided a solution to the maritime boundary issue, therefore compromising Timor's claim to its undersea resources. Although recently Canberra has bowed to considerable pressure to resolve the problem, we must be vigilant to ensure that there is no further procrastination. It is also notable that Australian society failed to appreciate the sacrifices made by its own indigenous soldiers in the wars "defending democracy". Are these Australian values?

Richard Gregory | 27 April 2017  

Congratulations on the efforts to publicly air the story not well understood in Australia. I was Rotary Australia Liaison officer based in Dili in 2003 & am most keen to support my dear Timorese mates. It is so well deserved. Eric Smythe of 2/2 Company was my initial source of my better comprehension of Timor. He explained that the Timorese liked us more than the Japs, BECAUSE WE DIDN'T KILL THEM>

Tony Devlin, Dongara, West. Aust. | 27 April 2017  

Thank you for this article. I was in Timor Leste in 2012. The Timorese have not forgotten the vital role they assumed in the protection of the Australian soldiers, nor the terrible sacrifices they paid for this. They have memorials with detailed narratives of what happened then, and the consequences they paid. You can also visit the cells in which prisoners were kept and tortured. It is a harrowing experience. The rookie of successive Australian governments has been truly despicable to this day. Yet the Timorese people are among the warmest and friendliest towards Australian visitors and aid workers.

Marion Gevers | 01 May 2017  

Thanks to all who commented on this article. And thanks for signing the petition! We've only got three months to get as many signatures as possible, and in getting them, we are telling the untold story.

Susan Connelly | 01 May 2017  

Where do I sign the petition? I would have thought the current Governor General would be a great advocate of this cause of recognition given his past role in Timor

Terry Earle | 18 May 2017  

I am ashamed at Australian conduct for two historical events: Gough Whitlam's recognition of Timor as part of Indonesian Territory. and the sad treatment of the Timorese with regards Oil and Gas deposits and the recognition of fair international boundary.

Peter | 19 May 2017  

My older brother was severely disabled in fighting against the Japanese in 1945. He forever spoke for the rights of the Timorese people. Were he still alive he would be disgusted by the attempts that the Australian government makes to deprive the people of Timor Leste of their rights.

Peter Lee | 05 June 2017  

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