My weekly Guardian column:
The Australian government recently successfully blocked the release of sensitive documents that would have revealed the complicity of Indonesian forces in massive abuses during their occupation of East Timor.
Canberra directed the National Archives to refuse the request of University of NSW associate professor Clinton Fernandes to see internal Australian files on Indonesian military actions in Timor more than 30 years ago. Administrative appeals tribunal president justice Duncan Kerr argued that “ongoing sensitivities” between Canberra and Jakarta were part of the reason for his decision. In other words, secrecy was preferable to transparency and justice.
The case proves that history remains threatening. The issue revolves around Indonesian actions in late 1981 and early 1982, when Indonesia forced around 145,000 conscripted East Timorese civilians to form a human chain to march across huge areas of land with the military behind it to find hiding guerrilla forces. The operation resulted in a massacre in Lacluta, Viqueque.
The Indonesian military then made a concerted attempt to smear the leader of the Catholic church in East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, who had expressed serious concerns of a famine because the conscripted subsistence farmers were unable to plant their crops in time for the next harvest. During it all, the Australian government provided military aid to Indonesia, and is specifically said to have continued to supply Nomad aircrafts, despite knowing that Indonesian forces were using them in East Timor, in violation of Indonesia’s formal undertaking not to do so.
Fernandes tells me that if proven, Canberra’s complicity would speak volumes about its selective belief in applications of justice. Offenders would have to be punished, he says, not just for deterrent purposes but because international crimes must be highlighted.
“This case is not a contest between Australians and Indonesians”, he says. “Rather, it is a contest between those who want justice to prevail and those who want to cover up. The fact remains that East Timor suffered perhaps the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust. To ignore this is to mock the dead and make cynics of the living.”
Needless to say, Timor barely features in the media anymore – it’s a historical footnote with a story that ends with Canberra as the saviour of the nation in 1999, when rampaging Indonesian thugs were destroying the capital, Dili. To this day, the mainstream media continues to praise then prime minister John Howard as the brave warrior intervening to save Timor. Fernandes shows that it’s a yarn that isn’t based on fact in his compelling 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour.
The Timor case is a textbook case of political rhetoric versus reality, and shows how the lack of decent media coverage can further obscure the thin line between facts and government-mandated narratives. Take another example: in Vietnam, the effect of the chemical Agent Orange used by Washington during the war continues to deform children, yet there has never been any serious prosecutions for the horrific crimes committed in the name of “fighting communism.” It took 40 years for the US to announce they would launch a project to clean up a dangerous chemical, after the government spent decades questioning the extent of its toxicity.
Such disparities between narratives is a problem that continues to dog corporate media in the post 9/11 age of embedded journalism.
Look at Iraq, which more than 11 years after the US-led invasion, remains mired in political corruption and violence. Very few reporters bother visiting the country anymore. This makes the trip of Australian peace activist Donna Mulhearn in early 2013 all the more remarkable. She didn’t just see Baghdad but found a way to Fallujah, and witnessed the disturbing sign of birth defects likely caused by US-fired depleted uranium.
Unfortunately, such first-hand, on the ground reports are increasingly far and between. Instead, most of our media landscape is polluted with former military generals and so-called experts, some of them who led the wars in the first place.
While unrelated to the above conflicts, take Jim Molan, former commander of Australian forces in Iraq, supporter of more troops in Afghanistan and key adviser in drafting the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders against asylum seekers. The Australian Financial Review noted his work in its 2013 Power List; the ABC regularly relies on his analysis. What is noticeably absent from this fawning are any difficult questions regarding the time he spent on deployment.
Scott Burchill, senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies, tells me that the rise of Molan reveals a notable lack of curiosity into his past: “Jim Molan can write a book boasting about his leadership of the allied attack on Fallujah in Iraq and become a ‘go to guy’ for the ABC on Australia’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has consistently supported an escalation of the conflict”.
And yet to my knowledge, Molan has never been asked by a mainstream journalist about his role in Fallujah. Why not? If I was to interview him, I would ask him about the high number of civilian casualties, and demand details about the 2004 US-led siege imposed on the city – and that’s just to start with.
There’s a similar lack of curiosity in the public arena into the recent career of Australian counter-insurgency figure David Kilcullen, offered fawning profiles in the press celebrating his apparent skills in defeating insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan while working for the Pentagon. Even this year, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a complete disaster for western forces and interests (let alone the locals in both nations), Kilcullen is asked questions in Foreign Policy, but sadly evades answering them: “We’ve had our heads down chasing bad guys around Iraq and Afghanistan.” Burchill tells me that for sections of the media, Kilcullen “remains an ‘expert’ and a ‘highly sought-after consultant’”.
The legacy of our foreign military adventures don’t stop when journalists and editors either lose interest, or don’t pursue stories aggressively enough. It would be nice to see them demanding answers – and backing Fernandes’ quest to find the truth about East Timor wouldn’t be a bad place to start.