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It was always on the books that John Howard, the master spinner and denialist of all manner of things, from climate change, to the stolen generation, to matters relating to the truth of children overboard, was likely, when the opportunity arose, to rewrite history to make himself the man of steel that he wasn’t or the visionary that he could never be.

For reasons unclear Paul Kelly has written a book in which he has allowed Howard to make unchallenged assertions that from January 1999 both he and his gormless foreign minister, Alexander Downer, worked secretly to bring about independence for East Timor.

So secret in fact, that neither the Department of Defence nor the Department of Foreign Affairs knew anything about this cunningly hatched plan.

Kelly says that, “The Defence Department was not privy to such views and acted on the official policy: that East Timor should remain within Indonesia.”

Of course it is nonsense, the figment of a small mind. I do understand Howard seeking a grander role than he was able to master as Prime Minister, what is harder to understand is that the self confessed cynical realist, Paul Kelly, was prepared to humour Howard to the extent of committing to print a contrivance easily revoked.

If we allow that Kelly is a serious journalist then perhaps the only explanation is that he believed Howard and that in itself is a worry.

Howard and Downer dragged their feet over East Timor, refusing to acknowledge that the militias were armed, trained and in some instances led by the Indonesian Army, the TNI.

Reluctantly they were forced by mid 1999 to concede that the militia in East Timor might not be what they claimed to be, East Timorese opposed to Independence.

None the less they were determined not to get militarily involved in East Timor, protecting the East Timorese against TNI orchestrated violence in the run up to the ballot.

In order to avoid a military commitment they failed to tell the United States what they knew about TNI activities and sought to convey the impression that the lead into polling would be peaceful. The United States were nonplussed and urged Australia to accept its regional responsibilities.

The level of denial being run with the US backfired badly when Lieutenant-Colonel Merv Jenkins the DIO liaison officer in Washington was accused of passing on to his US contacts facts relating to TNI control of the militia. Shortly after being ‘questioned’ by Australian officials, flown in to conduct an investigation, Merv Jenkins committed suicide.

If Howard and Downer were running a secret agenda to foster a move to independence in East Timor they surely would have welcomed covert contact with the US that might have assisted in their aims rather than running trouble for a valuable conduit.

Kelly, Howard, Downer, et al, have conveniently consigned to the ample dark corners of their minds the role of the Australian people in pushing for East Timorese independence, expressed through public and church meetings, letters to the editor, talk back radio, petitions and lobbying of parliamentarians.

It was the overwhelming strength of public opinion and pressure from the US which eventually forced a reluctant and fearful Howard and Downer to act.

Laurie Brereton, the shadow foreign minister, took the Labor Party from April 1998 to a position far in advance of the coalition. In September 1998 he proposed the release of Xanana Gusmao and the appointment to East Timor of a special envoy. In October he called for “a permanent international presence in East Timor.”

This rewriting of history leaves hanging why Howard and Downer pursued decorated AFP Officer Wayne Severs, working as a UN intelligence officer, and AusAID worker Lansell Taudevin for publicly stating they had first-hand knowledge of TNI backing of the militia.

Until the middle of 1999 Howard and Downer ran a policy actively appeasing Indonesia until it collapsed in the face of public pressure.

Notice how silent both have been on the proposed AFP investigation into the Balibo murders.

What is enlightening whether real or made up is that Howard would encompass the notion of keeping a key government department in the dark over a matter of national importance.

It says something of the character of the man and of the author for not challenging it.

Without intending to, Kelly has given us another unlovely insight into this later day Walter Mitty.

We await with some interest the Howard historical spin on children in detention.

Was it really all Ruddock’s doing and was Howard bullied into going along with a policy he secretly loathed?

It was always only going to be a matter of time before Howard attempted to rewrite his role in the making of history. Paul Kelly, who opposed Australian intervention on behalf of East Timorese independence, has written a book, “The March of Patriots – the Struggle for Modern Australia”, colluding with Howard and Downer to place themselves not only in a better light but as key players in bringing about the independence of East Timor.

Selective passages in The Australian, 5-6 September, claim Howard and Downer were convinced by January 1999 that independence for East Timor was inevitable and from that point on they quietly, if not secretly, worked to achieve it. Favourably reviewing his own book Kelly says that Howard and Downer kept this belief to themselves, “The Defence Department was not privy to such views and acted on the official policy: that East Timor should remain within Indonesia.”

This is an extraordinary claim; a Prime Minister and a Foreign Minister keeping policy from a key department which had a vital interest in the issue. By not passing their views to Defence they allowed the official harassment of Colonel Merv Jenkins, Australian Military Attaché in Washington, that led to his suicide. Jenkins was accused of passing to the Americans the fact that Australia was aware that the Indonesian military was arming and controlling the militia in East Timor. A fact that Howard and Downer were denying in an attempt to avoid Australian military intervention in East Timor of which there was overwhelming public support expressed in rallies, meetings and media interviews. The strength of public opinion forced a reluctant Howard to eventually act.

Laurie Brereton, the Shadow Foreign Minister, took the Labor Party from April 1998 to a position far in advance of the Coalition. In September 1998 proposed the release of Xanana Gusmao and the appointment to East Timor of a UN Special Envoy. In October he called for “a permanent international presence to monitor military activity and ensure respect for human rights in East Timor.”

Howard, Downer and Kelly’s rewriting of history leaves hanging why they vindictively pursued decorated AFP officer Wayne Sievers and aid worker Lansell Taudevin for publicly stating they had firsthand knowledge of Indonesian military backing of the East Timorese militia.

Until the middle of 1999 Howard and Downer ran a policy actively appeasing Indonesia until it collapsed in the face of public pressure.

Are we to surmise that Howard and Downer ran a similar secret policy with respect to the AWB and if so, isn’t it about time they fessed up?

The Australian National University

Lecture: Lost Oportunities and Possibilities in Australian Foreign Policy

Bruce Haigh argues that Australian foreign policy has been, and remains, inept in advancing Australia’s national interest. Given the limited independence of Australia’s Foreign Minister, and the trend of governments to be perpetually in election mode, Australian foreign policy is too often managed to maximum domestic political gain by the Prime Minister, with negative fallout reserved for Ministers. What has changed since the election of the Rudd Government? How does Australia manage the dual rise of India and China? What understanding does the Rudd government have of the Middle East, or of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Haigh argues that Australia could be capable of meeting the substantial challenges it faces, but that its governments ceaselessly misuse, bungle or outsource policy formulation. His lecture addressed these problems, and suggested the way forward to a truly Australian Foreign Policy

Listen to podcast::

(Search Title: “Lost Opportunities and Possibilities in Australian Foreign Policy”)

Bruce Haigh joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1972, and undertook postings to Pakistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. He is the author of several books on Australian Foreign Policy, and currently works as a political commentator and correspondent for some of Australia’s most respected media providers.

Published: The Australian National University – ANU Podcasts – ANU News

Published: ABC Unleashed

As they say, history is written by the victors. Equally it might be said that commentary and analysis is provided by those with access to power and influence.

During negotiations over the formation of Israel frustrated Zionists, members of an organisation known as the Stern Gang, murdered the British Ambassador to Egypt, Lord Moyne. In 1946 they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killing 91 guests.

Today, at least in the western media, the role of Zionists in the formation of Israel is not portrayed as terrorism, nor is the role of the Israeli Defence Force in the invasion of Gaza in early January 2009.

The Viet Cong were once referred to as terrorists, but no longer, not since they and the North Vietnamese Army won the war.

Nelson Mandela was convicted of sabotage under white South Africa’s notorious terrorism laws in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island. A substantial shift in power between white and black South Africans saw Mandela become President of South Africa in 1994.

At Mandela’s trial a defence lawyer, Harold Hanson brought to the attention of the judge that the Afrikaner people, to whom both he and the judge belonged, had conducted an armed uprising against the British and had been charged with rebellion and treason.

The struggle in Sri Lanka is a civil war, just as it is in Afghanistan. Without undertaking a detailed analysis the Australian government accepted the position of the Bush government and declared both the LTTE – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam – and the Taliban terrorists. Ignoring that in the case of the latter many were once members of the Mujahidin, supported by the US, in the war to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan appears to defy rational analysis now that the Taliban have been branded terrorists and supporters of Al Qaeda.

The civil war in Sri Lanka began with bullying and attacks on Tamils in the north by the majority Sinhalese not long after Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948. The first act of bastardry was when the Sinhalese Sri Lanka Freedom Party made the demand in 1954 that Sinhala should be the official language. By the election of 1956 it was the dominant political issue.

Under constant and growing pressure relations between the two communities became worse until in 1977 attacks by members of the Sinhalese community killed 125 Tamils. From 1983 the conflict between Sinhalese majority in the south and the northern Tamil minority came to dominate Sri Lankan politics.

And so it continues to this day. The Sinhalese government has a monopoly on military power. The response of the Tamils to this imbalance was similar to the Palestinians and the ANC – African National Congress of which Mandela was once President – they undertook acts of random terror designed to bolster their limited military resources and create an environment for negotiation.

As with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), secret negotiations with organisations deploying terror as a weapon can take many years, in this case complicated by the fact that the Sinhalese also employed the use of torture and terror.

A peace settlement was brokered in 2002 by a representative of the Norwegian Government, Erik Solheim. However by 2006 it had broken down. Backed by the Bush Administration, who provided military equipment and training in the cause of the war against terror, a revitalised Sri Lankan army launched a massive assault against the LTTE in the second half of 2008.

The result was a massacre of Tamils. Around 300,000 were rounded up and put into concentration camps where conditions for the occupants remain in violation of UN Human Rights Conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners of war, women and children. These conditions are a breeding ground for hatred.

The Sri Lankan government argues that it is holding Tamils in detention in order to weed out members of the LTTE, but the process has taken far too long and looks more like retribution.

The media has been denied access to these camps which, in view of recent clandestine evidence of the extra judicial killing of Tamil males by the Sri Lankan military, is understandable.

Tragically Australia has taken sides in the Sri Lankan civil war.

Instead of offering humanitarian assistance to those in the camps it sent the deputy chief of the Navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009 to urge that young Tamils be prevented from coming to Australia. His plea amounted to an endorsement of the continued detention of Tamils in appalling conditions. Kevin Rudd supports this position and said as much in an interview with Greg Cary on ABC Brisbane on July 1 this year.

In the meantime Sri Lanka is in the process of becoming a military state. Despite the ending of the war, the Sri Lankan army will expand from 200,000 to 300,000 to become an army of occupation in the north and east.

The Tamils are the big losers. Hated by the Sinhalese where will they go? They cannot be held in camps indefinitely where the child mortality rate is estimated to be in the hundreds each month.

Another Australian response has been to give the expanding terrorism industry, driven by an unsophisticated and ill-advised AFP, its head. They continue to pursue through the Supreme Court of Victoria charges of terrorism against three young Tamil men for allegedly being members of the LTTE and sending funds to that organisation.

Why pursue the case when the Sri Lankan government says that the LTTE no longer exists? In any case funds despatched to the LTTE when it existed could have been used for any purpose, humanitarian, educational as well as military, given that the LTTE constituted the governing authority in the north.

Australia must protest the continued detention of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It must seek to provide urgent humanitarian assistance of a kind provided after the Tsunami, it must seek the release of Tamils from the camps and allow access by the international media. It must facilitate the processing of detainees for migration who have family and relatives in Australia.

The Sri Lankan government have behaved a lot more badly than the Fijian government; Sri Lanka should be expelled from the Commonwealth.

Australia must protest the conviction of editor and journalist J.S. Tissainayagam by the Sri Lankan High Court for two editorials criticising the government. Dr Sam Pari, spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress said to the ABC that writing against the Sri Lankan government’s war on the Tamil people in their eyes amounts to supporting terrorism.

Dr Pari said Australia should be treating Sri Lanka in the same way that it treated South Africa and place sanctions against Sri Lanka.

In terms of press freedom, Sri Lanka ranks 165 out of 175 countries surveyed by the International Press Institute.

Mr Tissainayagam is the winner of international awards for courageous and ethical reporting and in May, Barack Obama described him as an “emblematic example” of a journalist persecuted for doing his job.

The crushing of Tamil towns and settlements in the north, the murder and continued detention of hundreds of thousands of Tamils in appalling conditions amounts to ethnic cleansing and no amount of hiding behind the war on terror will alter that stark and appalling truth.

What a changed nation we are when we send Admirals to argue for incarceration of innocents rather than act as a vehicle for humanitarian assistance. We have been railroaded by the needs of the terrorism industry which has fuelled apprehension and fear, when what is required is a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of terrorism.

Addressing poverty, racism, the disproportionate distribution of power, abuse of power and the debilitating effect of corruption, would enable the causes of terrorism to be addressed before violence is embraced as a course of action to address injustice.