Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

History curriculum perpetuates East Timor myths


This month the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority completes its consultation on the draft senior secondary Australian Curriculum for English, Mathematics, Science and History.

Although I applaud the inclusion of two mentions of East Timor in the Draft of the Australian Senior Secondary Modern History Curriculum, I believe that the history of the relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste is not sufficiently represented. 

Any teacher wanting to teach East Timor in the Curriculum unit 'Movements for Rights and Recognition in the 20th Century' would find investigation points which rightly outline the global forces affecting the many countries and issues suggested for study. But in the case of East Timor, omitting any specific mention of Australia’s role could easily lead to false impressions. 

Many people’s opinions are shaped by notions championed by various political forces and media, and therefore some actually believe that regarding East Timor, Australia has been unremittingly courageous, generous and exemplary. That Australian soldiers went into Portuguese Timor in 1941 ‘to protect the Timorese’, for example, and that Australia ‘saved’ East Timor in 1999.   A study of the history would allow students to have these perceptions challenged by examination of the facts. 

If Australia’s relationship with East Timor was given prominence, students would be able to fulfil the other aims of the curriculum i.e. how to inquire, how to use sources and how to defend well-researched positions, all by using a line of inquiry which has relevance to the place of Australia in the modern world and in this region in particular.  

In 'Unit 4 'The Modern World Since 1945' East Timor again appears as one among others in a study of 'Movements of People', which refers to conflict and persecution in 1975 and 1999.  Without specific reference to Australia’s role, however, the tendency to portray Australia as the champion may not only remain unchallenged, but may be strengthened. 

It is true that students can transfer historical skills learned with respect to one set of material to other content. But transference of skills could be as adequately served if the Australia/Timor relationship was included as a choice, for example, in Unit 4 of the 'Engagement with Asia' section. Students could learn their skills in relation to Timor’s history and so be equipped to understand Vietnam, or indeed, cultural and sporting ties with Asia, topics for which the present Draft Curriculum provides. 

If students are to engage in valid participation in contemporary debates, they require an understanding both of history and of its relevance to the present. Without this there is the danger that current political realities will cloud historical inquiry, and that Australian students will pass through schools with little knowledge of a history which has peculiar relevance to how Australians see ourselves, to demonstrated facts, and to the current effects of those facts. 

Timorese poverty, among the most dire in the world, is the result of recent regional history in which Australia played a pivotal role.

Many issues concern Australia and East Timor, for example unresolved justice issues, the building of Timorese systems and structures, ongoing Australian roles in Timor-Leste, the increasing presence of China there, the questions of maritime boundaries and the resources of the Timor Sea.  Unless students are given the impetus to study the modern history that makes these questions relevant, they will remain likely to repeat the stereotypical thinking which affects those with a veneer of historical understanding. That can sometimes be heard from westerners in the eating houses of Dili.

To introduce a meatier engagement with the region, in the 'Engagement with Asia' section the relationship between Australia and East Timor could be presented as a free standing element in these terms: the significance of Australia's policies concerning East Timor, including the effects of the Australian presence in World War II, the Balibó Five, the invasion and occupation by Indonesia, Timorese independence, and the resources of the Timor Sea.

Students would find here a wealth of content from which to draw conclusions and develop the skills of historical inquiry.  The inclusion of the relationship between our two nations in the Curriculum would both educate the young and encourage Australian educators to grapple with this unique chapter of modern history.

The Draft Senior Secondary Curriculum available for anyone to read and comment until 20 July 2012.  

Susan ConnellySusan Connelly is a western Sydney-based Sister of St Joseph who for many years has been the prime mover in the advocacy work of the Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission.

Topic tags: Susan Connelly, East Timor, Timor L'Este, Curriculum, Secondary Education, AREA



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Susan for recognising this distortion in the proposed national curriculum. Is this today's version of writing our own version of our shameful treatment of indigenous people? At the heart of my involvement in TL is awareness of Aust's position post WWII, 1975 & now the oil/gas issue. Not an admirable record, as these failures to provide genuine support to the people of TL have contributed to poverty & inadequate resources for the enormous of building a nation from the ground up. Gabrielle Kirby BMETS

gabrielle kirby | 10 July 2012  

Having spent 3 months in East Timor last year I really appreciated this article. I also feel that students may be encouraged to help East Timor more if they were given the correct information in their studies. Thank you for this article.

Breda O'Reilly | 10 July 2012  

I sometimes think after speaking with groups and writing that I don't publicly recognise sufficiently the effort which so many Australian groups and individuals are putting into Timor-Leste. As someone said to me once, the people are doing what the Government won't do. One only has to speak to people like the CWA who are looking at East Timor as their country of study in 2012 to know how the story affects people and how mystified many are that they hadn't heard it before. Then when they know some of the facts, a number of them take off and do something, because the Timor story is so much our story too. We're slogging away doing our level best, and we know that so many others are doing the same, groups like BMETS (you're great, girls) and so many who have visited, like you, Breda. I just heard tonight what a couple of our current soldiers have done, and there are so many more who know the promise that has to be kept, "Your friends do not forget you." But with over 60% of under 5s in Timor stunted through lack of proper food, there's a lot to be done.

Susan Connelly | 10 July 2012  

An excellent article, Susan. Well done.

Ian MacDougall | 12 July 2012  

WW1 was a brawl between the imperialist powers, out of which came the Russian Revolution. WW2 was a continuation of WW1. Out of that came the Cold War and the Chinese Revolution of 1949. The Vietnam War began as a colonial war (1945-54) and then became the arena of the main armed conflict of the Cold War (1955-75). Indonesia's imperial expansion by invasion into East Timor was rationalised by Suharto and the rest of the military junta in Cold War terms: ‘to avoid a Cuba on our doorstep'. It was supported by the leaderships of the major political parties in both the US and Australia, and most enthusiastically by the Keating Labor government. To omit the role played in support of Indonesia by the successive Australian governments (Fraser to Keating) amounts to brainwashing the youth. Out of an East Timorese population of around 700,000, the casualties of the Indonesian occupation were horrendous. The subsequent East Timorese Commission for Resettlement and National Reconciliation (CAVR ) put the number of civilian deaths at between 102,800 and 183,000: on a pro-rata basis, comparable to the performance of the Nazis in Poland. Arising from all that and the ‘human rights violations’ (read systematic murder, rape, torture, assault and robbery) of 1999, not one Indonesian soldier or official was ever put on trial, let alone found guilty. The indications are that Australian politicians have learnt nothing: they are back spending our taxpayer revenue on training Indonesian troops and providing them with expensive equipment. The most notable instance of this was Gillard’s recent presentation to the Indonesian president ‘SBY’ of four transport aircraft out of the Air Force fleet. These are of course highly likely to be used by the Indonesian military in the course of further ‘human rights violations’ in the Indonesian colony of West Papua. CAVR ”engaged top statistical experts and collected new data, but was only able to establish in a scientifically-defensible matter the lowest possible number of conflict-related civilian deaths which it put at 102,800. CAVR did not estimate an upper limit though it speculated that this could have been as high as 183,000.” 1. http://www.cavr-timorleste.org/en/cavr.htm 2. http://www.cavr-timorleste.org/en/Brief.htm

Ian MacDougall | 13 July 2012  

Eureka Street's comment processing software is apparently of the stream of consciousness variety, averse to any paragraph breaks supplied by commenters. The results are like extracts from Finnegan's Wake.

Ian MacDougall | 13 July 2012  

I think, Susan, you probably have a more detailed knowledge of the history of TL, as well as continuous active involvement in the area, than whoever framed the fairly broad Draft Curriculum on Modern History. One of the things many historians do is to try to remain objective. Writing purely objective History, in the spirit of Leopold von Ranke, is, I think, a hard call. I think there does have to be an underlying theme and I think the theme you would wish to follow is social justice and how our engagement in TL did, or did not, contribute to this. The Draft Curriculum sets out fairly broad guidelines which could be fulfilled by a variety of approaches. A lot depends on the sources used by particular schools to actually teach the course. I think someone like you could be useful in getting the Catholic and other secondary school systems to consider a wider range of sources and to focus on topics which might otherwise be ignored. There may be conscious, or subconscious, efforts to steer clear of topics in the course which seem inimical to our political aims in the area and the interests of our nearest and most powerful neighbour in Asia. This has to be resisted but with some subtlety. Many people still involved in the internal politics of TL seem, at times, to be somewhat morally ambiguous and perhaps not the cardboard cut-out heroes we once thought them to be. Ditto some past and current Australian and Indonesian politicians. Like the History of Germany in 1945, or of India just post-Independence, this is a complex field and I suspect we have not yet established sufficient space to treat it both as objectively and as sympathetically as we should.

Edward F | 13 July 2012