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Sheriff of Asia – East Timor (1975-78)

Previously published at the

The Sheriff of Asia

Part One — East Timor (1975–1978)

When US President George W Bush told John Howard that he saw the prime minister and Australia as being his deputy sheriff in Asia it helped to encapsulate perfectly how each nation saw the other. It also helped to define Australia’s position from within Asia, as an alien implant. But most of all it helped the President and many of his die-hard advocates to better imagine the World, as a goody vs baddy western. The President and many American’s viewed the world simply as though it was the black and white theatre of a classic John Wayne film.

Perhaps it was more like America, England and Australia were the Three Amigos. Osama Bin Laden just another El Guapo. For many Australians this was an easy enough scenario in which to indulge. Though they are geographically located below the Asian land mass it has been since before Federation been a perilous position for the Aussie imagination. Often the Australian elites and populace seeing themselves as Westerners with strong attachments to the mother country of Britain and then their big brother the United States surrounded by Orientals. It was with a fear of the coloured and ‘uncivilised’ nations that concerned the new Federation as it developed into nationhood. Australia was a White Man’s Land and European at heart. This history and subsequent policies to the present did not and has not gone unnoticed by our regional neighbours, even if Australians inside of a generation elect to unknow it.

(image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

The young nation of Australia was quick in its willingness to forge a strong military reputation for itself. Eagerly supporting the British Empire in its many colonial wars. From New Zealand to the Sudan, Australia volunteered men and material to help suppress natives as Britain continued to spread its rule, by force. The Boer War saw the new nation send a greater contingent in support of Britain as it fought against the Boers of South Africa. It was then through World War One, into World War Two, through the Korean War, Malayan Emergency, conflict in Borneo, Vietnam War, numerous ‘humanitarian’ interventions, the 1991 Gulf War, supporting of embargoes-sanctions thereafter, invasion of Afghanistan and then the other two Iraq wars of the post 2001 age that Australia has expressed itself with all the military eagerness that would make Britain and then the USA proud. Australia was fast becoming a real Martin Short in the trio of bigger Anglo-American Amigos.

As the Sherriff of Asia, it is assumed that Australia, a liberal democracy imbued with the apparently supreme Western virtues, would help to stabilise the region and inspire freedom and peace. It was in the 1960s that Australia was one of the eager champions for US intervention in Vietnam. Many in Australia believed that if the US became militarily involved in South East Asia then this would in turn assure Australian national security. Seeing that the US strategic focus would shift from Europe towards Asia. Australian defence planning has always been one of relying on big friends to protect it from the Oriental threat. As the British Empire crumbled and socialism decayed the home island Australia, as it had begun to do from 1942 onwards, began to embrace Uncle Sam all the more.

Australia got its wish and was one of the first to invite itself into the Vietnam war. From 1966 to 1972 it sent conscripts and volunteers alike to help the US and its allies support South Vietnam against Northern aggression and VC-NLF insurgents. While Australia and the United States were eagerly fighting in that part of South East Asia against apparent evils. Closer to Australian shores as a coup destabilised a neighbour and a new strongman began to seize control the murder, rape and oppression of millions began to occur throughout Indonesia.

In 1965–66, just as foreign involvement in Vietnam was ramping up, the Indonesian army under Suharto went on a murderous purge as he led a counter coup against communists. As the president Sukarno, slowly lost power, it is estimated that 500,000 were killed throughout Indonesia during this period. The mass killings were of ‘communists’ or those with apparently left leaning sympathies. Though the killing spree ran along racial lines as well, with the Chinese community being especially targeted in lootings, vandalisms to outright murder. The anti-communist witch hunt had the full support of the US intelligence and military apparatus. The CIA is known to have given the Indonesian army a list of 5,000 names who were all brutally executed. Often it was with US and Australian advisement that the Indonesian militaries kill squads would seek out and murder political dissidents because they ‘may’ have been communists. By 1967, Indonesia had a new ruler and the West had a new reliable friend.

After the purges and mass murder, Suharto began to expand the economic potential of Indonesia by inviting Western investors. This gave the regime much a needed pro-Western image that was crucial during this period of the cold war. Murderous dictatorships were tolerated, supported and adored so long as they condemned Moscow and Beijing. As Indonesia became a treasured pearl in South East Asia, relations between it and Australia, the USA and UK remained friendly and with constant diplomatic, military and economic aid.

World meet Portuguese Timor.

(Portuguese Timor Coat of Arms image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As the former colonial powers, slowly relinquished rule over many of their possessions, the Portuguese with some reluctance surrendered their African colonies. It was however in Timor that the Portuguese maintained a degree of benevolent ruler ship. As the aggressive dictatorship of Indonesia began to spread and invoke calamity across its borders, the culturally and religiously different Timorese looked to both their colonial rulers and foreign powers in the hopes of some protection and security assurances. They found none.

In 1974 due to a coup in Portugal the fate of Timor became uncertain. After centuries of being a colony, the small state looked to independence while its Western neighbour Indonesia considered them for colonialisation. A small scale civil war broke out in Timor, mostly focussed around the capital of Dili. In November of 1975, FRETLIN declared victory and East Timor independent.

Indonesia soon sent special forces and ‘guerrillas’ into the newly independent East Timor and began to incite incidence along its border. The Indonesian regime also claimed that East Timor was flirting with communism. From Australia, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam a man who had in much of his bluster and left leaning ideologies supported the rights of small nations to be independent elsewhere, looked at East Timor with disdain and indifference. The Australian Prime Minister travelled to Indonesia and signalled his support for the Jakarta regime in any intervention it should take in East Timor. The Australian Prime Minister citing East Timorese instability and the risk of regional calamity being the reason for his pro Indonesian intent to integrate East Timor into greater Indonesia. This would be later admitted by Jakarta as their green light to invade.

“There is no doubt in my mind that our relations with Indonesia in the long-term are more important to us than the future of Portuguese Timor, especially when the situation in the latter is as confused as it is, and the Portuguese seem to be losing control of the situation. I know I am suggesting that our principles should be tempered by the proximity of Indonesia and its importance to us and by the relative unimportance of Portuguese Timor but, in my view, this is where our national interest lies.” Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, 1975.

(Gough Whitlam during his campaign, Getty images)

President Ford of the United States had also visited Indonesia and provided the Indonesian dictator with many photo opportunities along with both public and private assurances. The United States had promised and honoured subsequent military aid to the Indonesian regime crucial for coming operations into East Timor. From the United Kingdom, the British Government also expressed a cold disregard to the fate of Timor famously summed up by the British ambassador to Indonesia when he said, “we should keep our heads down and let matters take their own course.”

And so after lighter incursions, on 7 December 1975, Indonesia attacked under the guise of anti-colonialism. On that date thirty-four years prior when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour signalled the start of the War in the Pacific, Timor became one of the many victims of Japanese military aggression. It was in Timor that approximately 60,000 Timorese were murdered by the Japanese forces because they had and were protecting or supporting Australian diggers. And now as the grand children of those same Timorese suffered their own invasion, Australia’s government watched on and condoned the invasion.

With paratroopers dropping from US supplied cargo planes with the crews recently trained by the US. From ships and hulks that crashed onto the beautiful beaches so that Indonesian soldiers may land. Bombs dropped indiscriminately onto all below by Indonesian Air Force aircraft. With artillery shells supplied by the Western militaries and with the murderous training learned from US advisors the Indonesian military killed and murdered every and any one. Throwing hand grenades into houses, firing machine guns at schools, gunning down unarmed Timorese in the streets and leading many Timorese to the beaches to be executed. The Indonesian government exterminated civilians with cold disregard. And the Three Amigos knew about it and in many ways supported it.

The Australian government had in fact been given a ‘hit list’ from Jakarta, with the names of those in East Timor that it intended to kill. The list was drawn up alleging that those on it were communist agitators and therefore this apparently legitimised the killings. Some on the list were in fact murdered, others managing to escape. The Australian government along with the list was handed five hand written pages accusing Portugal of spreading communism in the former colony while also suggesting that the Timorese themselves were flirting with communism under the guise of reforms. The anti-communism card was being crudely pulled by the Indonesian regime and as was often the case, murder, war and government control of private property was the response.

(Part of the list given to the Australian government by the Indonesian government depicting their intended kill list. Image courtesy of National Archive of Australia)

As Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge savaged Cambodia at the same time another killing field opened so close to Australia. As reports filtered in and the governments of Australia, USA and UK monitored and observed the calamity and slaughter nothing was done to stop the Jakarta regime as it devoured East Timor. Instead more arms were sent, along with more supplies and more silence. Indonesian special forces, students of US military schools, hunted down the educated and militant Timorese. Hanging them upside down, mutilating their bodies leaving them to dangle to be hacked and stabbed at with short knives until they slowly and painfully died. Severed heads were taken and worn as trophies. There are many images and footage available as proof of these acts.

The women and young girls, the sexual victims in every war, were hounded down and violently raped. In front of their families as or before they were executed. As Two Australian, a New Zealander and Two British journalists defied their own governments requests to not go and the Indonesian ban on any reporting these journalists sent images and reports out to the rest of the world. Their words and visuals were all but ignored. A powerful national military was destroying and wiping out a people and the World remained silent. Even as five brave reporters and an entire populace defied the Indonesian military, the world put its head down and the blood shed went on.

Those five journalists would themselves become victims of the Indonesian regime. The Balibo 5 as they would be known were murdered, their genitals cut from their bodies, hung upside down and slowly tormented with knives until slowly they died. A terrible death for those courageous enough to attempt to report back to apathetic nations. And as those five journalists became martyrs of sorts thousands of faceless, unnamed Timorese shared similar fates and died in unmarked graves or washed out to sea to become fish and shark bait.

British Ambassador to Jakarta, ‘sir’ John A Ford cabled London on 24 December 1975 saying, “Indonesian soldiers have gone on a rampage of looting and killing in East Timor’s capital, Dili. However, if asked to comment on any stories of atrocities, I suggest we say that we have no information”. The British Government used its influence as the chair of the UN to “keep the heat out of the Timor business”.

Ambassador to Indonesia, ‘sir’ John A Ford of the United Kingdom after the murder of the five journalists sent a request to the Australian embassy asking, “We have suggested to the Australians that, since we, in fact, know what happened to the newsmen it is pointless to go on demanding information from the Indonesians which they cannot, or are unwilling to provide. Since no protests will produce the journalists’ bodies I think we should ourselves avoid representations about them.”

In April of 1975, Prime Minister Whitlam said to President Suharto that he, “could not help feeling that the majority of the people of Portuguese Timor had no sense of politics, and that in time they would come to recognise their ethnic kinship with their Indonesian neighbours.” Was it ethnic kinship that the Indonesian soldiers were displaying as they raped, tortured and murdered their Timorese neighbours?

It was Prime Minister Whitlam’s visit and ‘greenlight’ of Indonesia’s intentions over East Timor that gave the Jakarta regime the confidence in its invasion. The Australian ‘OK’ along with US military aid ensured that the Indonesian military regime would have free reign in East Timor and they were right. As they committed so many atrocities and broke supposedly sacred international laws, the three champions of the ‘Free world’ watched on and assisted a vile regime in its unchecked mayhem.

As the corpses of the five journalists remain lost and defiled neither the British or Australian government condemned or addressed the issue with any formal consideration. Instead the five men were left to literally hang, on the wrong side of history. Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. Another Australian journalist Roger East who went to East Timor after the murder of his professional comrades was soon also captured as he reported on the invasion, wrapped in barb wire he was then shot and his body dumped with so many other unknown Timorese victims into the sea.

If the United Nations had any validity to it, it would have done something, anything when Indonesia broke 10 UN resolutions when it invaded and then rampaged throughout East Timor. Instead under Suharto the Indonesian nation expanded and flexed its muscles with absolute confidence. And as always the International community picks and chooses its indignation with all the arbitrariness of governance. Twenty years later another strong man would invade a smaller nation and while the allegations during that invasion were manufactured, the international response was great. In East Timor, the atrocities were very real, the international response, limp and mute.

The East Timorese insurgents fought back as best as they could, the people that were not kidnapped or murdered retreated deep into the mountainous interior where a formal force of approximately 2,500 troops fought against an Indonesian army that was at any time around 35,000 soldiers in Timor, not to mention air support and out of country elements that could reinforce if needed. Despite being outnumbered and with little support the Timorese managed to draw the Indonesian military into a stalemate throughout 1976 and into 1977.

In early 1977, Indonesia received from the USA OV-10 Bronco counter insurgency aircraft which had been deployed by the USAF with success during the Vietnam war. For the Indonesian military, the OV-10s operated with success against the Timorese insurgents. The Indonesian Navy at that time had also began receiving attack and patrol boats from numerous sources (Australia, USA, Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan) and submarines from West Germany. Each of these nations knew that the Indonesian regime was fighting an ‘illegal’ war against a popular ‘insurgency’ in a nation that they had recently invaded aggressively. The arms and support continued to flow in.

Through 1977 and into 1978 the Indonesians began an ‘Encirclement’ and ‘Annihilation’ campaign where they would wipe out entire villages and communities accused of supporting the insurgents. Those civilians not murdered were imprisoned in resettlement camps for lengthy and gruelling periods of time. With new tactics, reinforcements and more weapons of war the Indonesians broke the earlier stalemate and found success. It has been suggested that Indonesia used chemical weapons and defoliants during their operations in this period.

The culmination of the Indonesian success came when the Timorese president and insurgent military leader Nicolau Lobato was killed in an Indonesian heliborne raid on 28 December 1978. The disgusting conduct of the Indonesian military against the small unique population of Timor was deplorable. What one considers to be a genocide is determined by political pragmatism but as the journalist Robert Fisk asked in regards to Israeli killings of Palestinians, “what constitutes a massacre? How many does it take to make an atrocity?” is very much apt in East Timor also. In the end to the dead and their mourning loved ones it does not matter what it is called. It does not change one bit what they have felt and experienced.

To those beyond Timor and Jakarta, those nations of the West who so readily invade and conquer on the grounds of International Law, violations of human rights and out of sheer aggressive war. East Timor 1975–78 was at best a putrid hypocrisy. At its worse it was just another example of the nature of politics and the conduct of states. So long as a tolerable and friendly nation conducts itself with the impurity of arms against a weaker and smaller neighbour it does not matter what vile atrocities or human rights violations are committed. Instability and War are the hallmarks of Stability and Peace for the pragmatic.

How well did the Sherriff of Asia conduct itself as the people of East Timor suffered? When President Bush fantasised about his Western Movie depiction of the wider world, he deputised Australia and his coalition partners to help him smoke out and bring to heel the wicked outlaws that harmed the USA in 2001. Would the simplistically minded ‘W’ have cared that the Indonesian ‘El Guapo’ was in fact aided by the ‘Three Amigos’ when the Timorese ‘Santa Poco’ was attacked? Unlike how the world may appear inside many minds, like President W’s, reality is always tainted and bloody. More akin to a brutal spaghetti western with imperfect villains and victims, but certainly no heroes and what sheriff there is you can guarantee him to be corrupt and just as wicked as the outlaws.

Kym Robinson, 2016

Sources and Further reading


Indonesia & East Timor‘hit-list’/6979268


John Pilger, Death of a Nation, 1994.

John Pilger, Blood on our hands, 1999.


The War against East Timor, Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong, 1984

East Timor- Nationalism and Colonialism, Jill Jolliffe, 1978

Indonesia’s Forgotten war, John G Taylor, 1991

Death by Government, R J Rumfield, 1994

War for the Asking, Michael Sexton, 1981

Published inAll Articles and EssaysWar, History and Foreign Policy