Australians atone for decades of guilt by helping E. Timor; Years of shabby treatment exacerbated war debt


DARWIN, Australia -- In leading a peacekeeping force to rescue East Timor from the ravages of anarchy, Australia is repaying a 57-year-old debt to a people who provided this nation with heroic support during World War II -- and then were largely abandoned.

In 1942, Australia covertly inserted a guerrilla force into East Timor to harass Japanese bombers who struck Darwin 64 times during the war, killing 264 people and forcing the evacuation of the city's civilian population. The small Australian unit reportedly killed more than 1,000 Japanese while suffering relatively few casualties.

The East Timorese -- who, at great personal risk, provided the Australians with shelter, intelligence and supplies and, in some cases, supported them in combat -- paid dearly when the Australians quietly withdrew. As many as 60,000 died at the hands of the Japanese.

In a country where friendship is a creed, Australia has long been haunted by a sense of guilt for its treatment of the East Timorese.

Meanwhile, the government followed an unofficial "white Australia" policy until the early 1970s, generally denying even tourist visas to East Timorese and other Asians. And Australia deserted the East Timorese in their hour of greatest need: the 1975 invasion by Indonesia, which has ruled the territory since.

Australia, along with the United States, gave a subtle nod of approval to the invasion. A year later, wanting to curry favor with Indonesia, Australia became the first country to recognize the annexation. More than 200,000 East Timorese died of starvation, warfare and torture in the decades that followed.

"A lot of us have felt the guilt," said Don Graham, a Darwin businessman. "I, for one, am glad we're finally evening accounts. I think most Australians feel that way, and that's one of the reasons the peacekeeping mission has been supported so enthusiastically."

Polls show that more than 72 percent of Australians approve of sending troops to restore order in the former Portuguese colony. Almost daily rallies -- including the biggest in Darwin since the Vietnam War -- have been held to protest the killing and looting carried out in East Timor by Indonesian-backed anti-independence militias. Indonesian consulates have been stoned and Indonesian flags burned.

Australia will supply 4,500 of the 7,500 peacekeepers.

That Australia would make such a significant military commitment to an Asian population reflects the dramatic changes that have swept the country since the days a generation ago, when Australia was as racist as old South Africa and Australians spoke openly of the "yellow peril."

Today Australia is, by design, a multicultural country with a large Asian population.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad