By Michael Carrier
This post is based on archival documents held by Rob Wesley-Smith in Darwin, NT, Australia.
Australians for a Free East Timor is an organization that endured for many years fighting to get the information out. In their efforts, AFFET published media releases that reminded Australians and AFFET’s audience the details of the invasion in 1975, and the sacrifice Timor-Leste offered when they fought with Australia in the Second World War. Indonesia’s administration deliberately limited Timor-Leste’s contact with the outside world, keeping news of the nation’s suffering, and the humanitarian crisis in the dark.
AFFET never stopped advocating for Timor Leste’s independence. They demanded Indonesia give access to journalists, open its borders for humanitarian aid from the UN, and free political prisoners like Xanana Gusmao. Their mission continued on, growing stronger after outrage of the Dili massacre in 1991, all the way until Timor Leste gained independence in 2002.
Australia-Indonesia Relations: AFFET reminded its audience of the political corruption behind Timor Leste’s invasion. They explained in detail why the Australian government was complicit with Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. Since there is oil to export from Timor Leste, and Indonesia was Australia’s trade partner, Paul Keating’s administration did not criticize Indonesia. AFFET kept up the criticism of Paul Keating’s handling of the Timor Leste situation, often reminding the readers of the press releases of the humanitarian crisis. Many press releases concluded with the slogan “No Blood For Oil!”, an appropriate message to summarize the situation.
Resistance Groups: Since the invasion, Timor Leste had resistance movements constantly fighting for human rights and independence. AFFET announced the hard work completed by Fretilin (Independent East Timor Revolutionary Front), ETAN (East Timor and Indonesia Action Network), the CNRM (National Council of Maubere Resistance) and also how Australians could help. For example: A press release asking for help from young people who were familiar with communication technologies.
AFFET helped share a Timorese peace plan and reported the status of their fight with the Indonesians. Reports like these are important as trying to broadcast news off the island was a struggle. Radio contact with Fretilin was cut off between 1979 and 1985, and was difficult to keep afterwards. Regardless, Fretilin kept on and did not give up. The Fretilin organization lived on to see their nation reach Independence. Throughout the 1990’s, AFFET relayed their important messages to Australia and the rest of the world.
The CNRM also had representation in AFFET’s media. In 1993, AFFET shared the CNRM’s elaborate peace plan which included the steps to reduce aggression and how to initiate the process for Timor Leste’s independence. AFFET monitored the Australian government’s response to CNRM’s efforts, and CNRM’s breaking news from Timor Leste, such as their report on the cause of January Unrest of 1995. They shed light on issues in Timor Leste that Indonesian media hoped to distort by being the only source of information. .
Dili Massacre: On November 12th, 1991, protesters held a demonstration that marched to the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, Timor Leste. The Indonesian military open-fired on the protest, killing hundreds. AFFET reported constantly on the event, making sure the information of the tragedy got out. Thanks to AFFET’s reporting, the facts were able to reach the Australian government. They also published interviews of eye-witnesses of the demonstration, the military attack, and the mass graves where the Timorese bodies were buried. AFFET consistently throughout the years collected information on the incident, able to report the names of those who died.
UN Declaration of Humanitarian Crisis: AFFET kept track of the humanitarian crisis in Timor Leste and reported on the UN World Conferences. From the beginning of the Indonesian invasion of Timor Leste, humanitarian aid and journalists had been barred entry to keep information from getting out of the country. AFFET kept repeating the message of the need for awareness on the issue. After the Dili Massacre, AFFET started the ‘Free Xanana’ campaign. They monitored the situation and kept tabs on the state of the political prisoners in Indonesia and the need to permit the Red Cross to enter the country.
Relevant News Clippings: Rob Wesley-Smith, spokesperson and one of the writers for the AFFET media releases archived relevant news articles from Australia, Indonesia, and from around the world. This collection helps contrast the way incidents were reported, like the Dili Massacre, and the UN Charter votes. The conflicting narratives demonstrated how vital AFFET’s work was to get the word out.
Political Cartoons: Rob Wesley-Smith also archived relevant political cartoons, usually illustrated by ‘Wicking’s View,’ and ‘Tombstone Territory.’ The cartoons commented on the barring of journalists into Indonesia, and the trade-relationship between Indonesia and Australia.
AFFET built a network of communication with the people of East Timor, the Australian government, the resistance movements, and organizations around the world. Their constant reporting and endurance brought awareness of a humanitarian crisis, and helped broadcast the voices of a small nation when others tried to silence them.