Inside Story

Fire, ash and official secrecy

The authorised history of Australia’s role in East Timor’s 1999–2000 crisis reveals as much about Canberra as it does about Dili

Graeme Dobell Books 5 June 2023 4494 words

Australian troops sweeping Dili for militias after their arrival in East Timor in September 1999. Mike Goldwater/Network/Alamy

Craig Stockings’s work on the official history of Australia’s role in the bloody birth of Timor-Leste was bedevilled by Canberra’s triangular relationship, vexed but vital, with Indonesia and East Timor. As an emblem of that tension, the definitive account of Australia’s 1999–2000 East Timor peacekeeping operation became what the official historian calls a “difficult” encounter with government departments.

How much dangerous truth could be told in Born of Fire and Ash: Australian Operations in Response to the East Timor Crisis 1999–2000? The line-by-line redaction attempts added up to a three-year battle about how the record of the past might influence the future.

The wrangle echoed previous interdepartmental contests, including Australia’s choices in the lead-up to Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and its role in bringing about East Timor’s independence vote in 1999. In each case, a strong Australian prime minister shifted Jakarta’s thinking in not quite the intended way. The element linking the two vastly different leaders, Gough Whitlam and John Howard, was Australia’s desire that East Timor should be Indonesian.

What Australia achieved in East Timor in 1999 was a triumph for the Timorese, but triumphing on the basis of serendipity is a nerve-jangling way to do strategy. Howard’s diplomatic initiative in support of Australia’s core policy — that East Timor should remain in Indonesia — suffered a spectacular crash. As Stockings observes in the line that gives his book its title, happenchance delivered a victory Canberra never wanted: “Within the tragic storm of devastation and destruction wrought upon them, the Indonesian province of East Timor was set on the path towards the independent nation of Timor-Leste — born of fire and ash.”

Stockings’s history opens with the “strategic and policy context” of the 1975 invasion. Using a cold war frame, Australia gave scant regard to East Timorese aspirations: “In Canberra’s view, East Timor was small and inconsequential. Indonesia was large and influential.” With Indonesian stability and prosperity seen as essential for Australian wellbeing, “the imperative of good relations with Jakarta grew into an article of faith.”

After Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in April 1974, Lisbon offered its colonies self-determination and independence. When Whitlam met Indonesia’s President Suharto in September 1974, he expressed his personal view that Portuguese Timor should become part of Indonesia because it was too small to be viable.

Suharto’s ominous response was that an independent East Timor would be “a thorn in the eye of Australia and a thorn in Indonesia’s back.” Whitlam later told Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta, “I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination.”

The two elements of Whitlam’s Timor policy — incorporation and self-determination — were in conflict. Indonesia “consulted” with and briefed Australia as it prepared to invade in 1975. Canberra’s detailed foreknowledge was read as acquiescence. Whitlam’s “obeisance” fig leaf was swept aside.

Australia hadn’t given a green light for Indonesia’s annexation, but Stockings judges that

Australian policy-makers not only regarded the Indonesian incorporation of Portuguese Timor favourably from the very beginning, but played an active role in encouraging — or at least not discouraging — actions and activities in this direction. An Australian desire for self-determination in East Timor was real and Whitlam’s commitment in this regard was genuine, yet such competing considerations were not in balance. The desire for incorporation was considered more important in 1974–75 than the aspirations of the local population.

Suharto — whose long-serving foreign minister, Ali Alatas, eventually wrote a book about Timor called The Pebble in the Shoe — was right about the place becoming a thorn. By the time he fell from power in May 1998, the pebble was a rock weighing down Indonesia’s reputation.

The new president, B.J. Habibie, was “bombarded with questions from international visitors and journalists asking what he was going to do about East Timor,” Stockings writes. “Everywhere he went, especially in the US and Europe, no matter what he talked about, questions turned towards the province.”

Such was the atmosphere that prompted John Howard to write to Habibie in December 1998 “to make some suggestions about the East Timor situation.” His letter became one of the most consequential in the annals of Australian foreign and defence policy.

Australia’s support for Indonesian sovereignty was unchanged, Howard emphasised, but Habibie’s “offer of autonomy for East Timor [within Indonesia] was a bold and clear-sighted step that has opened a window of opportunity to achieve a peaceful settlement.” A settlement would “put the issue behind you,” Howard said, and “make a substantial difference to Indonesia’s standing.” He cautioned against “an early and final decision” on the province’s future, advocating a deal to defer any referendum on final status “for many years.”

Howard’s “open window” let in what Stockings calls “a perfect storm.” Seeking to defuse the problem, Australia had instead detonated it.

The mercurial Habibie scribbled across Howard’s letter, “Why not independence?” If East Timor “becomes a burden” to Indonesia, he wrote, then it could be “honourably separated.” On 27 January 1999, Jakarta announced that East Timorese would get an immediate vote on their political future. It was, as Stockings notes, “the exact opposite of Howard’s suggestion.”

Many in Indonesia’s military were shocked by Habibie’s announcement. So was Australia’s defence department. Howard’s letter had emerged from the prime minister’s department and the department of foreign affairs and trade, or DFAT: “Defence was not consulted over its potential ramifications; and indeed, it did not even know of the letter’s existence.” No one thought to inform Defence, explained the head of the PM’s department, “because no one anticipated a need for military force.”

When defence leaders in Canberra did eventually learn of the initiative, they were variously “gobsmacked,” “aghast,” “stunned” and “blindsided.”

The Indonesian military mobilised militia groups in an effort to win the 30 August vote in favour of special autonomy within Indonesia. If the vote went the other way, the United Nations would oversee a transition to independence.

“An extraordinary 98.6 per cent of those registered cast their votes” on that day in August 1999, writes Stockings. When the result was announced on 4 September, 21.5 per cent (93,388 voters) had cast their ballots for autonomy within Indonesia and 78.5 per cent (344,580) had chosen independence. “It was a staggering and unequivocal expression of popular will, and one whose strength in the face of pre-ballot intimidation surprised policymakers in Canberra as it most assuredly did Jakarta.”

The extraordinary vote launched an extraordinary September. Indonesia’s astonishment turned to fury, and its military launched what the UN called an “eruption of violence” — a systematic, comprehensive and coordinated operation to loot and destroy public and private buildings. The aim of this “scorched earth” policy, said the UN, was “to empty East Timor of much of its population, killing those who were identified as pro-independence.”

Once martial law was declared, on 7 September, the Indonesian military “could no longer hide behind the facade of police control,” writes Stockings. “The tragic truth of hundreds of deaths, thousands missing, and huge swathes of Dili in ashes was impossible to hide.” Australia’s consul in Dili, James Batley, told Canberra the operation was akin to what had happened in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took power.

Stockings points to Australia’s detailed understanding of how Indonesia’s military had armed and directed the campaign. The chief of the Australian Defence Force, admiral Chris Barrie, dismissed the idea of “rogue elements” in the military, saying the hard evidence revealed “a campaign of terror.”

Stockings notes multiple studies concluding that the Indonesian military sponsored the militias and “provided training, arms, money, safety and in some cases drugs; they also encouraged the campaign of violence, and organised the wave of destruction and deportation which occurred between 5 September and 20 September.”

The horror of the rampage played out on TV screens around the world:

Aside from the killings and deportations, the rape and sexual assault of hundreds of women was also an abhorrent method of control, punishment and intimidation; so too the assault and beating of thousands of civilians; the forced recruitment of thousands of East Timorese into militia groups; the burning of over 60,000 homes; the looting of vast amounts of civilian property (including almost all motor vehicles and valuable manufactured goods); the theft or killing of large numbers of livestock; and the wanton destruction of the majority of public infrastructure, including hospitals, most schools, water installations, electric generators and other equipment necessary for supporting the well-being of the civilian population, for no military purpose.

As the violence continued, the Howard government laid down four conditions to be met before Australia would send in the ADF at the head of a peacekeeping coalition: “Indonesian consent; UN authorisation; a clear endorsement by a significant proportion of ASEAN members; and active US support.” It was a checklist of the bilateral, the regional, the multilateral and the alliance.

Senior ADF planners settled on what they wanted from the United States: some small key capabilities but not combat ground troops, “for these might dilute the appearance of Australian leadership and undermine efforts to flesh out the force with ASEAN contributions. US force protection doctrine was also seen as overly restrictive, and infantry could be found from other troop-contributing nations.”

The prime minister’s office and his department pushed back at “Defence arguments for as little US presence as possible on the ground,” fearing Defence did not fully appreciate the politics of a large US presence — not least, the implied threat that the US involvement would present to the Indonesian military and its militias.

But Howard’s push for “a firm US commitment” had a shaky start:

Howard rang [US president] Clinton on 6 September to specifically discuss what assistance the US might provide for any Australian-led intervention and to emphasise his personal preference for US boots on the ground. The prime minister was surprised by Clinton’s reply, which emphasised the overstretched nature of the US military and the hostility within Congress to further interventions. “I was very taken aback,” recalled Howard.

Foreign minister Alexander Downer, “stunned” by Clinton’s response, went hard in an interview with CNN, “emphasising his disappointment at the negative sounds emanating from Washington.” Policymakers at the Pentagon got the point: “Australia had been there for the US in the past and was expected to be there in the future,” writes Stockings. “It was now time for some quid pro quo.”

The international centre of gravity for any action then moved to the APEC summit in Auckland, happily being held from 9 to 13 September. Foreign ministers put “the screws” on Indonesia during a meeting chaired by New Zealand’s foreign minister, involving Indonesia, Australia, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN. The foreign ministers urged international action if Indonesia could not restore order.

That coincidence of summit timing galvanised action, not least by extracting a firmer nod from Bill Clinton after he arrived in Auckland. The meeting became the message, and for Indonesia it was a powerful one. “From this point it was clear to both Canberra and Jakarta that there was a critical mass of international ‘in-principle’ agreement as to the need to act decisively in the troubled province.”

Downer’s view was that APEC had concluded there would be an international force — the only question was when.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called on Indonesia to seek help to restore peace. Otherwise, he said, it “could not escape responsibility for what could amount to crimes against humanity.” After a lengthy telephone conversation with Annan, Habibie announced on 12 September that Indonesia would accept peacekeeping forces. He told Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta, John McCarthy, that he had battled “enormous resistance” from Indonesia’s military, “to the degree that he feared a military coup.”

Australia scrambled to assemble a peacekeeping force that it feared might have to fight Indonesian troops and militias — the “doomsday” scenario for Australian planners. Jakarta’s anger at Canberra was underlined by the announcement on 16 September that Indonesia had torn up the bilateral security treaty signed in December 1995. The ambitious Australian–Indonesian “Agreement to Maintain Security” was another item reduced to ash.

Australia’s plan for what became known as the International Force East Timor, or Interfet, was quickly born in the period from 5 to 14 September. As with much else that happened at the time, it had “a difficult gestation,” says Stockings, indicating “haste and rusty planning processes.”

The army was so busy thinking about its needs that it didn’t consult the other two armed services until a meeting on 14 September. Its “plan” was a wish list of what it wanted done by the navy and the air force rather than a consultation on what they could do with available ships and planes. The meeting between those wearing blue, white and khaki uniforms is described variously as “a hiccup” and “a disaster,” resulting in a direction that the plan be reworked within forty-eight hours.

The hiccup/disaster descriptors set the scene for much else. The ADF was woefully unprepared. Yet what could have been disasters were repeatedly dealt with, on the fly, in ways that turned them into mere hiccups.

The plan that emerged by 19 September was the product of adhockery and muddled process, “confused command chains” and the differing cultures of the three services. Old assumptions were challenged as “an essentially peacetime or peace-oriented ADF was shaken suddenly from its stupor.” Canberra had taken a peace dividend out of the ADF — “a decade’s worth of diminishment” — and Timor revealed how much that had hollowed out supplies, logistics and Australia’s ability to project and sustain its forces.

As the unfolding crisis began imposing pressures of a “size and scale” not experienced for decades, the relationship between defence minister John Moore and his departmental secretary, Paul Barratt, had already exploded. Moore dismissed Barratt in August, saying he no longer had trust and confidence in him. Timor was not the main cause of the schism, yet the Timor history points to the “impact” and the “turmoil” the sacking caused in the department. A deputy secretary of defence, Hugh White, stepped up to take over as acting secretary. Amid crisis, the department had to improvise at all levels.

Stockings records the ADF’s “sprint to Dili” following a UN Security Council resolution on 15 September establishing the multinational force: “This force was to be under a ‘unified’ command structure, which essentially translated to Australian control, even if Australia was not explicitly confirmed as a ‘lead’ nation.” Interfet would grow to be a coalition of twenty-three nations.

The Interfet commander, major general Peter Cosgrove, flew into Dili on 19 September. Reflecting his “robust” orders, he set the tone at a press conference in Darwin: he was going to get peace, not to seek a fight; but force could and would be used if needed.

Stockings judges that Cosgrove’s leadership was “fundamentally important.” With a mixture of “intelligence and occasional ruthlessness,” he was a commander who “had to straddle the operational/strategic divide and sell the operation to domestic and international audiences.” While meeting the UN mandate, Cosgrove had explicit orders from Canberra that he must also protect Australia’s future relationship with Indonesia. This was the most challenging of straddles.

By 20 September, the first Australian troops were in Dili. In those tense early days, the fear was that promises of cooperation from Jakarta would be undone by violence on the ground: “One or two gunfights in Dili might have turned the tables and changed the strategic scene dramatically. Thankfully, this did not happen. The doomsday scenario had, for the moment, been avoided.”

The chapter headings in the history’s section on “The Planning Cauldron” include “A Bit of Doing It on the Run” and “By the Skin of Our Teeth.” The section on the arrival and consolidation in Dili has chapters headed “Lucky to Get Away with It” and “The Psychological Ascendency.”

By the end of September, militia activity in Dili had ceased. Australia had 3300 personnel on the ground in an international force of 4300. Night-fighting equipment gave Interfet the hours of darkness, helicopters gave vital mobility and “armoured vehicles provided a powerful sense of resolve and technological dominance.”

Dili was “largely ceded to Interfet, not taken,” Stockings notes, as Indonesia’s military stuck to the agreement and ordered its battalions and militias to disperse towards the West Timor border.

Australia’s work in Timor-Leste in 1999–2000 was its largest mission under the UN. The ADF provided more than 9300 personnel to the coalition, with as many as 5500 in Timor at any given moment. “It was the single largest deployment of ADF personnel since the Second World War,” Stockings writes, “larger than the commitment to the Vietnam War at its peak in 1967”:

Crucially, it was also one not nestled within a larger or lead nation’s logistics and administrative support. It was also the first time Australia had led such a large multinational force; and all from a standing start. In short, Interfet was the most complex strategic challenge Australia had faced, at least since the 1940s.

Interfet was the first time Australian women “were operationally deployed in large numbers on active service. At its height this figure approached around 420 of 5500, a high percentage, although one still lower than the overall proportion of women in the ADF in 1999.”

The 157-day mission was “a type of maturing” for Australia in Southeast Asia, says Stockings — and, for that moment, at least, “a step out from under the strategic wing of the United States.” Defence and the ADF, however, were “rocked” by Timor reality checks. The ADF might not have stumbled in East Timor “because it was never seriously pushed,” but the mission exposed “how much it had atrophied since the 1970s” — “how hollow the organisation had become, how unsuited to a large-scale overseas operation.”

Some gaps in training — including the accidental firing of live rounds from weapons — were potentially deadly. Australian personnel were formally disciplined for fifty-eight of these “unauthorised discharges,” though the actual total was higher because other cases were dealt with informally. The general standard of weapons handling within the army was poor, “possibly below the level of recruit qualifying standard.” Asked about the dangers he faced in Timor, one corporal remarked that militia activity “rated a distant second to the danger of unauthorised discharges.”

When Peter Leahy was promoted to chief of army in mid 2002 he acted to “repair” the army. The problems and weaknesses exposed by Timor were, he remarked, “such a big lesson, such a wakeup call.”

“Yet,” Stockings reflects at the end of his history, “East Timor felt like victory — from initial deployment to welcome home parade.” The 1999 crisis gave the Howard government “greater knowledge of and perhaps confidence in the application of military force than had previously been the case.” Had operations in East Timor not gone so well, Stockings speculates, later Australian commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq might have been different.

The ADF had been fortunate:

Everything that could have gone right just about did go right, while serious problems that might have emerged stayed hidden. The enemy in East Timor was never as it seemed, nor did militia groups alone possess the innate will to exploit Interfet’s weaknesses, seriously challenge its monopoly on the use of force, or place stress on the coalition.

Good fortune helps, but people make success. For that, the historian points to the “stamina, initiative, discipline and commitment of soldiers, sailors and air personnel,” good and flexible middle management, and the professional competence of senior ranks:

[T]he memories of East Timor for the vast majority of Australians deployed in 1999 and 2000 were not of strategic and political calculations, policy enigmas, operational missteps, logistical problems, or even the horrific results of the militia strategy. Rather, it was the faces of the locals — smiling children, families rebuilding their lives amid the rubble that had been bequeathed to them — that were the enduring images of Interfet. The feeling of helping a desperate and grateful people was what Interfet veterans carried home with them.

In that penultimate paragraph of the history you might glimpse a younger Craig Stockings, who served in Interfet as a captain and second in command of Bravo Company of 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, in Dili, then the border, and the Oecussi enclave.

Professor Stockings is the official historian of Australian operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor, and Fire and Ash is the first in a series of volumes. This is the sixth such official multi-volume history produced by Australia, and Stockings is the sixth official historian. A deep and valuable tradition has been built on the great foundations laid by Charles Bean with the fifteen-volume official history of Australia in the first world war.

Research on the Timor history began in 2016 and the result was scheduled to be published in 2019. But the timetable was stymied by what some called “unprecedented resistance” by government departments. Stockings had to wage a long and unusual struggle to protect this “official history” from the knives of official Canberra.

Unlike the earlier historians, Stockings faced “sensitivities and security considerations associated with the unprecedented impact of intelligence and intelligence agencies on tactical military operations.” The authors of the works on the Vietnam and Korea wars emphasised the lack of any censorship and the full cooperation of officialdom. Stockings, by contrast, details how Canberra stakeholders created “a difficult journey towards publication.” The history was well funded and resourced, but “I am perhaps not as ‘free’ in terms of externally imposed governance as some of my predecessors.”

The philosophy of the series, though, followed tradition:

Official histories are, in many ways, a record of government actions and decisions based on government sources. They are not government stories, however… They are the product of historical investigations by independent researchers. The government pays the bill — it does not decide what is written.

He didn’t self-censor, he says, and included the good with the bad in an effort to be “truthful, not necessarily triumphal.”

In the process of reviewing and “clearing” the official history for publication, government departments could seek amendments on national security and national interest grounds. “Some stakeholders have proved more invested than others in this regard, and the process has sometimes been difficult. Nonetheless, no changes have been wrought that threaten the overall truthfulness, credibility, legitimacy or integrity of the volumes.”

One document suffices to show how Canberra officialdom fights the battle of review and redaction. Released by the National Archives of Australia in 2021, it is a submission titled “East Timor: Post-Independence Scenarios” that went to the Howard cabinet in August 2000. More than twenty phrases and paragraphs were blacked out twenty-one years later because they would “cause damage to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth.” Even with those black bars, though, the paper is a fascinating discussion of the enduring responsibility Australia would carry for Timor-Leste because of the intervention.

I’ve reported for decades on the annual release of cabinet documents by the National Archives, and a recurring feature is that papers dealing with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are more than likely to have bits blacked out or be withheld completely. Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia; PNG does the same for the South Pacific. Twenty-year-old cabinet papers dealing with these vital neighbours touch the present and the future as well as the past. DFAT is vigilant in using its review veto.

My interpretation of the redaction fight over the Timor history is that official Canberra’s resistance had four strands: fear of offending Indonesia; a wish to defend the department’s reputation and the Timor “triumph” legend; a desire to protect intelligence capabilities; and official Canberra’s deeply embedded culture of secrecy.

On the culture of secrecy, the New York Times has plenty of evidence to back its headline “Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy.” Australia may have a freedom of information law, but Canberra bureaucratic practice turns this into freedom from information.

The culture of secrecy obviously suffered culture shock when confronted by an official history more interested in the history than the secrecy. And Stockings wasn’t just writing history. He was up against diplomatic imperatives that will forever place Indonesia at the heart of Australia’s strategic calculations. Add in the secrecy culture and a measure of bureaucratic arse-covering, and you get a volume — both important and sensitive — that took twice as long as scheduled to produce.

In one footnote fusillade, Stockings fires off at DFAT’s own history of the challenge of East Timor, published in July 2001. He calls the book

an interesting case-study of the shaping of public discourse. The department seemed keen to ensure its own view of the events in 1999, based on a selective reading of its own documents, be released soon after the event. The book was not authored by DFAT’s historical section but rather by those who had worked on the East Timor crisis as it unfolded. When considering the launch of this book the department reached out to academics it believed would be “supportive in their views” and sought to avoid the standard practice at commercial publishing houses of referring draft manuscripts to external assessors. Such a practice was thought might “detract from Department’s control.”

The lack of much documentation, up till now, has conspired to leave Interfet and the 1999 crisis with “only a limited historiography in English,” Stockings writes. What has been written divides into two camps. The dominant view presents Interfet “as a triumph of Australian military, strategic and diplomatic action.” The other side “with far less mainstream traction and influence,” interprets Interfet as “a cynical end of twenty-five years of disgraceful acquiescence to the Indonesian occupation.”

In his magisterial work, Stockings encompasses both camps, showing how the vital and vexed dimensions of Australia’s approach to Indonesia and East Timor collided in 1999. He follows the tradition established by Bean in offering history as seen by the soldiers on the ground as well as the officers and officials. The story of the tactical engagements is the sinew of the strategy and international policy. The mishaps and stuff-ups are recorded as the counterpoint for all that was achieved.

The crisis wind in 1999 kept blowing the Howard cabinet into new territory. Rather than cement East Timor as it planned, Australia helped deliver an independent Timor-Leste. By its actions, Australia gave the new nation a de facto security guarantee, a point quietly understood by the Howard government. The terms of that guarantee endure.

Turning potential disasters into hiccups, the ADF achieved one of the most successful of all UN missions. Many things that could have been disastrous turned out right. An institution usually defined by the different cultures of its three military arms and a complex civilian bureaucracy, the defence department delivered for Timor and for Australia — and ultimately, for Indonesia. •

Born of Fire and Ash: Australian Operations in Response to the East Timor Crisis 1999–2000
By Craig Stockings | Australian War Memorial & NewSouth | $99 | 976 pages