In 1994, New Zealand sent a cross-party delegation of five MPs to Timor-Leste on a fact-finding mission. It made a real difference, and could do again for West Papuans, writes Cat McLennan.
When France refused to halt nuclear testing in the South Pacific and continued to detonate bombs at Moruroa Atoll, New Zealand sent a frigate to bear witness to the explosions.
The Otago was dispatched to Moruroa in July 1973 on the orders of then-prime minister Norman Kirk, who said its voyage would publicise France’s actions “so as to stimulate world opinion further and attract wider support for the rights of small nations”. Cabinet minister Fraser Coleman sailed as a high-level government representative on board the vessel.
In 2020, the New Zealand government could again stick up for the rights of the small and powerless – if it chose to act.
In another part of our region, West Papua has been occupied by Indonesia since 1963. Hundreds of thousands of West Papuans have been killed, while others have suffered torture, beatings and intimidation.
There is a striking parallel between what is happening in West Papua and what occurred earlier in Timor-Leste: both in the actions of Indonesia, and in New Zealand’s silence and acquiescence.
Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in 1975 and annexed it in 1976. Amnesty International estimated that up to 200,000 people died on the island prior to, during and in the aftermath of the invasion.
Our government offered up no protest or condemnation of Indonesia’s actions, and abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Indonesian invasion. New Zealand also continued its links with the Indonesian military, including training pilots.
This country accepted the Indonesian position that Timor-Leste was the 27th province of Indonesia, with then-prime minister David Lange saying in a 1984 media interview that the situation in Timor was a good deal better than Indonesian critics painted it as being, and it was not for this country to interfere in Indonesia’s internal affairs.
Indonesia adopted a policy of “transmigration” in Timor, flooding the country with new residents from different parts of the archipelago. The same policy is currently being followed in West Papua, with the indigenous population being swamped by new arrivals.
The Indonesians believed that Timorese resistance to their rule would gradually diminish, and that building infrastructure such as roads and schools would win the hearts and minds of the occupied. That proved to be completely wrong. The Timorese never stopped fighting for their country to be free from Indonesian rule.
The Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, in which at least 250 Timorese independence demonstrators were killed, stoked further international concern about the situation in Timor. One of those killed in the cemetery was New Zealander Kamal Bamadhaj, a political science student and human rights activist based in Australia.
Undercover footage of the massacre was filmed and smuggled out of Timor and later used in the 1992 documentary In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor. John Pilger’s documentary, Death of a Nation, was also filmed undercover and aired in 1994.
And, also in 1994, New Zealand sent a cross-party delegation of five MPs to Timor-Leste on a fact-finding mission. The visit was arranged following talks between then-Indonesian President Suharto and then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger, during which the president invited New Zealand MPs to travel to Timor and observe the human rights situation for themselves.
The group was led by National MP Roger McClay and also comprised National MP Nick Smith, Labour MPs Phil Goff and Jim Sutton, and then-New Zealand First MP Tau Henare.
I was one of the journalists who accompanied the delegation, at a time when reporters were barred from visiting Timor. Indonesia at first refused to grant visas for journalists to travel with the parliamentarians, but relented at the last minute.
The delegation travelled first to Jakarta for high-level Indonesian government meetings, including with Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, members of the House of Representatives and the chair of the National Commission on Human Rights.
We then flew to Dili, where the MPs had talks with the Governor of East Timor, the Speaker of the East Timor Provincial Legislative Assembly, the Rector of the East Timor State University, the Chief of the Wira Dharma military command, and the head of the Roman Catholic community, Bishop Belo.
The delegation also visited the Becora correctional institute and New Zealand-funded development projects in Lautem.
The MPs and journalists were given a hard sell by the Indonesians about how material conditions were improving in Timor. The East Timor provincial military commander, Colonel Syahnakri, told us there were 348 underprivileged villages in Timor and “the one single important role of the armed forces over here is to try and improve the living standards of human beings.”
A New Zealand diplomat backed up the positive picture presented by Indonesia. The official consistently put to the MPs the Indonesian view on any issue on which they received contrary information. Persistent efforts were made to discourage journalists from accompanying the delegation on the more sensitive calls. The official also tried to dissuade delegation members from visiting Santa Cruz, warning that it would provoke a diplomatic backlash from Indonesia. Eventually, it was agreed that the MPs would make a discreet visit by themselves.
Despite the propaganda exercise, it did not take long to see another side to the positive picture being sold. Belo said there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Indonesian troops stationed in Timor – the Indonesians gave a figure of 5000. We constantly saw truckloads of soldiers driving around, including commandos in dark blue berets.
One military barracks was located directly across the road from the university. When we visited the university, we spoke to some students, who were keen to follow up further with us.
We reluctantly decided not to meet with them again, concerned about the repercussions for them as we were certain all of our movements were monitored. We assumed that the drivers who transported us also reported back on our activities.
The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) had well-established channels for communicating with visitors. A message smuggled down to us said there were still 1680 people in the hills carrying on resistance. A go-between tried to bring one of them down to meet with us at night, but the attempt was abandoned because of the heavy Indonesian presence.
Belo said that the Timorese did not care about the infrastructure being developed by Indonesia.
“For the East Timor people, it doesn’t matter if you have big buildings and streets – the people are not happy. They feel they are not at home.”
At the end of the trip, McClay said that development of Timor was much better than he had expected. The picture presented of life and development tended to be blurred and negative, but “after seeing them on the spot they are in fact quite good”. Another MP said he was satisfied torture was no longer occurring in Timor.
I was less sanguine and wondered how he could be sure.
Of course, a tightly-controlled three-day trip to Timor did not enable the delegation to reach an accurate picture of what was occurring there.
But the visit and the reporting kept attention on the situation in Timor, and the fact that a parliamentary delegation had made the trip enhanced both New Zealanders’ and the New Zealand Parliament’s interest in, and concern for, Timor.
Ongoing international pressure on Indonesia about Timor led to a United Nations’-sponsored referendum in 1999. When the Timorese voted for independence, the Indonesian military destroyed half of the country’s infrastructure, killed 1500 people and displaced more than 300,000.
Timor-Leste became independent on 20 May 2002.
A visit by a delegation of New Zealand MPs to West Papua in 2020 would similarly draw attention to the situation there, and focus a public, political and media spotlight on what should be done in future.
The 1994 parliamentary delegation to Timor provides a clear model for New Zealand’s MPs in 2020: all that is required is the will to make it happen.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2018 told Indonesian President Joko Widodo during his state visit to this country that New Zealand supported Indonesian control of Papua.
She was wrong then, just as our government was earlier wrong over Timor.
Parliament could act in 2020 to ensure that it is on the right side of history over West Papua.
Cat MacLennan is a barrister and former political journalist.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.