Size is not the issue: Maire Leadbeater examines New Zealand's defence ties with Indonesia and its failing of the victims of human rights abuses in East Timor and West Papua.

AuthorLeadbeater, Maire
PositionWest Papua, Indonesia

New Zealand has failed to compensate the East Timorese for backing Indonesia during the time East Timor was under occupation. From the 1970s to the 1990s government officials attempted to keep defence exchanges out of the public eye to avoid domestic debate and controversy. This lack of transparency is on-going. New Zealand's defence ties with Indonesia are being strengthened, but the government withholds background information supporting this decision. Given that the Indonesian military has not been held to account for past crimes or for its continuing human rights crimes against the people of West Papua, this decision cannot be justified.


The New Zealand military establishment has a naive faith that it can train other armies to serve their people and protect the innocent. New Zealand is still training Iraqi government soldiers despite the evidence that the Iraqi Army commits vengeful war crimes without being held to account. Witness the Guardian expose of an orgy of killing' in the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul last year. (1) We should have learnt the lesson from East Timor when Western military support enabled Indonesia to terrorise the people for 24 years. Close to 200,000 Timorese people died unnaturally from violence or starvation and New Zealand shares the moral blame because we were one of Indonesia's key backers.

In 2002 Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Goff acknowledged that New Zealand took the wrong path over the Indonesian takeover of East Timor in 1975. He said that New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, 'explicitly indicated to Indonesia acceptance of its intention to invade' and subsequently failed to condemn the invasion. However, what the minister did not say was that New Zealand's complicity with Indonesia's brutal military occupation persisted right up to 1999, regardless of which New Zealand political party was in power.

The New Zealand government contributed financially to East Timor's much acclaimed Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. New Zealand also made a selection of declassified government documents available to the commission, but it has never addressed the relevant recommendations in the commissions 2005 report Chega!. This recommends that all countries that co-operated militarily with Indonesia should apologise to the Timorese people for failing to uphold internationally agreed fundamental rights and freedoms in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation'. The report also recommends that such governments help to fund reparations for victims. (2)

In the year prior to the Indonesian invasion, Indonesian foreign affairs and defence officials gave their New Zealand counterparts frank briefings as the take-over plans were formulated. New Zealand's carefully coded messages let Indonesia know that any opposition from New Zealand would be little more than token. As early as November 1974, New Zealand diplomats were assuring their US colleagues that New Zealand wanted to see the right of self-determination upheld but would not 'raise a fuss' over any takeover 'which does not raise a world-wide outcry.' (3) By September 1975 New Zealand diplomats were in no doubt about Indonesia's preparations for armed intervention. Yet the message fed to the media emphasised the 'restraint' that Indonesia had shown in not intervening sooner to prevent a takeover of East Timor by the left-wing Fretilin movement. After the invasion New Zealand accepted that 'integration' had taken place while expressing some concerns about the way Indonesia had taken control. The accepted mantra soon became 'the occupation is irreversible'.

New Zealand offered military training aid to Indonesia under the Ministry of Defence's regional Mutual Assistance Programme (MAP), which was launched in 1973. Over time New Zealand's defence co-operation increased and it included arms exports. The training of military dentists was among the first MAP programmes for Indonesia to get under way. At a time when advanced dentistry in Indonesia was largely a military preserve and military dentists served the civilian community, this aid programme had a humanitarian component. However, it also served as a kind of camouflage for other training aimed at improving lethal skills, and...

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