Chapter 42 – The East Timor Tragedy


To The Limits of Cruelty

1. The ‘Dangerous’ Fretelin
2. The Canberra Debates
3. A Voice of Reason, Bill Pritchett
4. The Whitlam Apologists
5. Crunch Time 
6. Going Public
7. The Renouf Factor
8. The Devious Mr Renouf
9. The Remorseful Mr Woolcott?  

The 1960s and 70’s had seen the gradual breakup of Portugal’s colonial empire. A decision had to be made on the future of East Timor. 

Normally it should have been allowed to join the growing list of former Portuguese colonies being granted self-government and independence.

But Whitlam, despite his enthusiasm for granting independence to Portugal’s colonial empire in Africa and elsewhere, had decided Australia should go along with Indonesia’s demands for the territory. 

This, despite the fact that East Timor already had an active independence movement – Fretelin. 

But in Canberra improving relations with Jakarta was seen as more important.

1. The ‘Dangerous’ Fretelin

Even more important, it seems, was the fact that Canberra’s military hawks had decided Australia could not tolerate the mildly leftwing Fretelin taking over in East Timor. 

They saw these people as the thin edge of a dangerous communist wedge only a few miles to the north of Australia. 

The Indonesian generals were very happy to agree with them.


In fact, Fretelin was no more dangerous than what we had seen in so many other decolonisation situations earlier. 

Facing a conservative and often rightwing colonial regime, many of the more politically active in the decolonisation movements were attracted to leftwing positions. 

The big powers, including the colonisers, then used this leftwing bias as an excuse to prevent the anti-colonialists from gaining the power they deserved and for which they had often fought and struggled for decades. 

Intervention, with tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, killed or tortured to death, was a frequent answer – in Vietnam and Indonesia, the Congo, Algeria and more. 

And it was clearly going to happen again in East Timor if the Indonesian generals were to have their way. 

Even more suspicious was the enthusiasm for the Indonesian takeover coming out of Washington, Kissinger especially. 

The US earlier had been mainly responsible for allowing and perhaps orchestrating the 1965 slaughter of 500,000 to one million leftwing and pro-communist Indonesians by the generals. 

Then came the killings after the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile, the slaughter in Indochina and the dreadful chaos in the several African and Latin American nations where the US had chosen to intervene. 

Now they wanted to condemn the East Timorese to the same fate. 

Indeed, on a per head basis what was to happen in East Timor would be far worse than what happened in Indonesia in 1965, or even in Vietnam. 

On that basis there would have been few worse atrocities in human history. 

And it was all highly predictable. 

And it was all to happen just a few hundred miles from Australian territory.

And Australia would be partly responsible.

2. The Canberra Debates 

But in Canberra there had at least been some debate. 

Whitlam’s ambassador to Jakarta, Dick Woolcott, was in favour of an Indonesian takeover. He saw it as sensible real politik. 

With Foreign Affairs urging, Whiltam seemed to agree.

But Menadue was not entirely happy about the Woolcott/Whitlam position. 

He asked me to prepare a paper, which I did, urging that Canberra do nothing to encourage Jakarta even if it could not directly prevent an Indonesian takeover. 

I heard nothing more, so I assume the paper was rejected. But in preparing it I had to check out the position of other departments. 

Renouf in Foreign Affairs claimed to be neutral, but in fact he went along with the Woolcott line. 

3. A Voice of Reason, Bill Pritchett 

The only strong voice against the handover to Indonesia came from Bill Pritchett, then in charge of Defense Department. 

Pritchett had come from Foreign Affairs and I had known him quite well in the late fifties.

It was he who, when in charge of EA administration, had sent me to Point Cook to learn Chinese, and had later gone out of his way to help me in my move to Hongkong. 

He believed strongly that Australia had to do something quickly to get some China expertise. 

And while he could not be called a dove, he was very much a person of principle. 

This had led him to oppose even his own Defense Department hawks over East Timor. 

From a previous posting to Jakarta, he also knew quite a lot about Indonesia, including the propensity of its military hawks for murderous behavior – something Woolcott seemed not to have noticed.

(Or did some ugly people in the US encourage him not to notice? Woolcott’s close links with the US were no secret.)  

And as it turned out, the hawks, and Woolcott, were to have their way. And Whitlam was to have his day as an arbiter in world politics. 

In a fateful meeting with Suharto in Townsville in February 1975, he had indicated strongly that Australia would not oppose the takeover. 

The rest is history, very ugly history. 

4. Whitlam Apologists

Apologists for Whitlam have since claimed he gave no green light to Indonesia, that he simply accepted the inevitable.  

But in that case why did Canberra have to go out of its way later to try to help Jakarta side-track Portuguese and Latin American resolutions in the UN condemning the takeover and Indonesian brutality? 

(The idea that even the Latins were more aware and conscience stricken than us Australians over the fate of East Timor does not seem greatly to have affected the Australian conscience, even today.) 

Why did Canberra do everything it could to muzzle refugees from East Timor arriving in Darwin? 

The full record of these and other efforts by our hawks to help crush or weaken the incredibly brave East Timorese resistance to Indonesian occupation – guerrillas fighting in the jungle and living underground for years on end, as in Vietnam – will probably never be told. 

But the little I knew at the time was disgusting enough. 

The Whitlam policy over East Timor ranks along with the support for the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia (another ugly US inspired initiative) as dark blots on his record. 

They reflect the ease with which Washington, relying on pro-US operators such as Renouf in the top levels of the bureaucracy, could dictate his policies.

That the mistaken East Timor policies had to be reversed years later by a rightwing LCP government in Canberra with some twinges of conscience and commonsense says it all. 

5. Crunch Time 

The Timor decision upset me badly. 

For me it was worse than Vietnam – the decisions to allow the killing were actually being taken in front of my own eyes. 

And as with Vietnam, there was no point waiting till thousands had been killed before beginning to wring one’s hands in impotent indignation. 

One had to do something, and quickly, while there was still some chance of policy change. 

My efforts within the bureaucracy to stop the Indonesian atrocity had got nowhere. Perhaps I could do something outside. 

6. Going Public

I had been invited in late 1975 to give a talk to Canberra University College students. I used the talk to criticise the government policy over East Timor. 

As proof I was able to refer to a cable Woolcott had sent to Canberra urging compliance with Jakarta. 

It had already been leaked to the media by some voice of conscience in Foreign Affairs. 

It showed, better than anything I could say, the grubby real-politik that dominated so much Foreign Affairs thinking at the time. 

The Canberra Times ran a report of my talk to the students. 

Renouf was furious and demanded that Menadue formally rebuke me for breaking the ban on public servants criticising government policy. 

This, incidentally, was the same Renouf who earlier had gone public with the claim that he welcomed criticism of Australia’s foreign policies by concerned citizens, but who later slapped a defamation writ on the one journalist, Jonathan Gaul, who took him seriously and criticised him by name for his policies. 

(Renouf’s perverse excuse for the defamation suit was that his policy attitudes were dictated by the government of the day, not by himself. 

(But in that case, why go public saying you welcome criticism?) 

Woolcott was infected with the same legalism. 

After the talk to the students, he sent me a letter threatening legal action because the Times had quoted me as saying he had attended the Townsville meeting where Whitlam had given the green light to Suharto. 

He withdrew the threat only after I proved that the Times had misquoted me on this point. 

But his leaked cable did far more to reveal his ugly complicity in the East Timor atrocity than anything anyone could have said about him being in Townsville. 

7. The Renouf Factor 

Renouf’s position was crucial over East Timor. 

With Menadue and Pritchett having doubts, he clearly held the balance of power so to speak with Whitlam. 

He may have pretended to be neutral on the issue. But the violence of his reaction to my Canberra speech showed what he really felt. 

Of all the mistakes made by Whitlam, and they were many, hiring Renouf to run his foreign policies was one of the worst. 

Whitlam’s vanity made him a bad judge of human beings. 

Renouf had been among the guiltiest of them all when, as number two in Washington earlier, he had gone out of his way to pressure the Americans into upgrading their Vietnam commitment. 

He and the other hawks in Canberra had been terrified that the US might go soft on Asian Communism, and leave Australia exposed to the China threat. 

(We learned all this later with the mass leaking of FA documents of that period – Canberra’s belated equivalent to the Pentagon Papers.) 

Then when Whitlam looked like becoming PM, Renouf about-faced and began writing articles praising the former ALP leader, Dr Evatt. 

The Whitlamites were naively impressed. 

The Whitlamites also claimed naively to be impressed by his handling of recognition approaches to the Chinese in Paris in 1972-3. 

There he was simply doing his job as ambassador, including anything he did to improve or hasten terms of recognition. 

That Whitlam could be taken in by all this to want to see him as a progressive, and to appoint him as head of Foreign Affairs, says much about Whitlam’s foreign affairs weaknesses. 

Or maybe he was still caught up in the CIA soft-power Quadrant/Congress for Cultural Freedom nexus of his pre-PM days.

At the very least, his foreign policy mistakes should detract greatly from his Australian reputation as a great prime minister. 

8. The Devious Mr Renouf 

I knew Renouf in his younger days, back in the fifties, when I had just joined EA. 

Then he had had a reputation as one of the Young Turks opposed to the Suez expedition, West New Guinea policy and to the excessive conservatism of the Menzies era in general. 

But to move from that to being to the right of Washington over Vietnam, and then to move back and pretend to have been a great fan of the ALP all along, and then to promote hawkish policies as Foreign Affairs head…. that takes some beating. 

A three way switch of principles, with one more to come.

It also says a lot about the way Australian values do not seem to put much importance on ideological consistency. 

I too had been a target of his two-faced attitudes. 

Part of his efforts to curry favour with the Whitlamites back in 1973 had been that promise to me during the Whitlam visit to Beijing in November of that year. 

He had taken me aside to say that he very much wanted people like me and Fitzgerald back in Canberra to help set Foreign Affairs on a new and more progressive policy track.

Needless to say, I never heard anything from him once he got back to Canberra.

I doubt also if Fitzgerald heard much more.


Back in Canberra a little more than a year later I made a few tentative moves to open a relationship with my old Foreign Affairs alma mater, and even possibly to organise an eventual shift back to FA when the PMC bonanza ran out.

And I was not sure if I would be going back to Japan. 

In particular, I wanted to get back to using the Chinese and Russian I had learned with such effort. 

I could only do that in Foreign Affairs.

But by this time Renouf was already well-established.

He made sure my approaches got nowhere. 

Indeed, soon after my arrival in Canberra he made it clear to Menadue that he regarded my appointment to PMC as a hostile move, and that he would not tolerate any contrary foreign affairs advice from me to the PM, or to the people around Whitlam.


Later Renouf was to justify FA’s reluctance to train language speakers by pointing to the way the department had already lost the two Chinese speakers it had trained at great expense, Clark and Fitzgerald. 

Meanwhile he was doing everything he could to make sure that Clark and Fitzgerald could not get back into Foreign Affairs. 

(Fitzgerald was to complain of his own policy initiatives over China being constantly derailed.) 

How devious can you get, Mr Renouf.


Later he was to write a book about Australia being a ‘frightened country’ in its foreign policies. 

This, coming from a man who had endorsed the slaughter of some half million East Timorese simply out of a misplaced anti-communist fear was, as they say, a bit rich. 

This man was not just devious; he was a liar and a hypocrite to boot.  

That he should have been given a key role n the Whitlam administration was tragic. 

9. The Remorseful Mr Woolcott?

The Woolcott position in all this bears study. Initially a firm real-politik advocate he bears much of the responsibility for the East Timor slaughter.

But from personal contact I got the impression his position softened as the extent of the tragedy became obvious.

He was, in effect, let down by his friends in the Indonesian military who may have assured him the takeover would be smooth.

One appreciates the change in attitude (if it was real; he had not got his reputation as Tricky Dicky for nothing ). 

But thank you and no thank you. As over Vietnam, diplomats are hired to tell us what will happen before it happens, not after. 

Even less are they hired to tell us what the US wants.