How has Australia's relationship with East Timor, both before and after the latter achieved independence in 1999, been affected by its ties to Indonesia?
Australia is an interesting country in terms of its Anglo-Celtic heritage sitting squarely in the midst of nations of Asian-Pacific ancestry, and for whom Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, and Communism are all prominent features of the political, cultural and ethnic landscape. Its origins as a British penal colony and evolution as a Western-oriented country – aboriginal peoples having been subjected to the same kind of marginalization as in other former West European colonies – place it (along with New Zealand) in a rather unique status. It’s western culture and political orientation has made it something of an odd-man-out with regard to the neighborhood in which it sits. Additionally, its strong political and military ties to Britain and the United States, including its active participation in every major conflict in which the United States has been engaged since World War I, including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has made it a virtual outpost for Western geopolitics within the region.
Indonesia, despite being the world’s most populous Muslim country, is tied closely to the United States and to Australia by virtue of its post-1965 anti-Communist purge and the establishment of a secular government in which a moderate form of Islam is the rule. Indonesia and Australia have maintained close ties for many years. The main interruption in that relationship occurred over the issue of East Timor independence. Pro-Indonesian militants, supported by the Indonesian military, wreaked havoc in East Timor – a Christian enclave amid the vast Muslim Indonesian archipelago – with the resulting violent deaths of hundreds of East Timorese and the creation of thousands of refugees. Indonesia’s brutal 1975 invasion of East Timor and subsequent occupation was marked by atrocious human rights violations. During its 24-year occupation of East Timor, the Indonesian military, according to a 2005 United Nations report, employed starvation as a means of control, resulting in an estimated 180,000 civilian deaths, in addition to its use of napalm and chemical weapons to poison food and water supplies. [“UN Verdict on East Timor,” The Australian, January 19, 2006] Consequently, the 1999 referendum on independence, while unsurprisingly supportive of independence, nevertheless precipitated a new round of violence directed against the people of East Timor.
Australian support for the East Timorese and its highly visible role in the U.N. peacekeeping force that deployed to East Timor angered Jakarta, which responded by abrogating a security treaty with Australia. This represented, as noted, the nadir Indonesian-Australian relations.
The underlying convergence of national interests of the two countries, however, has proven more influential than Indonesia’s resentment of Australia’s role in East Timorese independence. The two countries have since resumed normal relations, with occasional hiccups like the issue of a shipload of Afghani war refugees seeking asylum that became a political hot potato between the two countries, and the bombing of a discotheque in Bali in October 2002 by Islamist extremists that killed over 80 Australians. A new security agreement was signed between the two countries in 2006, the Lombok Agreement, and close cooperation on other security and law enforcement matters, in addition to growing trade cooperation, has cemented ties between Indonesia and Australia in as close a relationship as has existed.