Secret documents found in the Australian National Archives provide a glimpse of how one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century was executed and covered up. They also help us understand how and for whom the world is run.
The documents refer to East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, and were written by diplomats in the Australian embassy in Jakarta. The date was November 1976, less than a year after the Indonesian dictator General Suharto seized the then Portuguese colony on the island of Timor.
The terror that followed has few parallels; not even Pol Pot succeeded in killing, proportionally, as many Cambodians as Suharto and his fellow generals killed in East Timor. Out of a population of almost a million, up to a third were extinguished.
This was the second holocaust for which Suharto was responsible. A decade earlier, in 1965, Suharto wrested power in Indonesia in a bloodbath that took more than a million lives. The CIA reported: “In terms of numbers killed, the massacres rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.”
This was greeted in the Western press as “a gleam of light in Asia” (Time).The BBC’s correspondent in South East Asia, Roland Challis, later described the cover-up of the massacres as a triumph of media complicity and silence; the “official line” was that Suharto had “saved” Indonesia from a communist takeover.
“Of course my British sources knew what the American plan was,” he told me. “There were bodies being washed up on the lawns of the British consulate in Surabaya, and British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops, so that they could take part in this terrible holocaust. It was only much later that we learned that the American embassy was supplying [Suharto with] names and ticking them off as they were killed. There was a deal, you see. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the [US-dominated] International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were part of it. That was the deal.”
I have interviewed many of the survivors of 1965, including the acclaimed Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who bore witness to an epic of suffering “forgotten” in the West because Suharto was “our man”. A second holocaust in resource-rich East Timor, an undefended colony, was almost inevitable.
In 1994, I filmed clandestinely in occupied East Timor; I found a land of crosses and unforgettable grief. In my film, Death of a Nation, there is a sequence shot on board an Australian aircraft flying over the Timor Sea. A party is in progress. Two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. “This is a uniquely historical moment,” babbles one of them, “that is truly, uniquely historical.”