The Australian and United States governments knew Indonesia was prepared to use napalm against the people of Timor Leste but made no protest, according to secret documents unearthed by an Australian researcher.
Associate Professor Clinton Fernandes from the Australian Defence Force Academy has found previously classified Australian diplomatic papers that call into question repeated Indonesian denials that incendiary weapons were used in Timor Leste during Jakarta’s 24-year occupation of the former Portuguese colony.
The discovery is a breakthrough in Dr Fernandes’ long running research to establish the extent of the Australian Government’s knowledge of Indonesian war crimes in East Timor.
One of the documents found by Dr Fernandes at the National Archives of Australia is a September 1983 letter from the Australian consul in Bali, Malcolm Mann, to Dennis Richardson, then counsellor in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, to report a conversation with the United States consul in Surabaya, Jay McNaughton.
The American had told Mr Mann that he had “seen intelligence reports that the Indonesians were fitting napalm tanks to their F5 aircraft for use in Indonesia”.
The Indonesian Air Force had acquired from the United States a dozen Northrop F-5 ground attack aircraft three years earlier. Mr McNaughton explained that “American experts had been asked to help with the fitting of the napalm tanks as the Indonesians were having difficulty in trimming the aircraft”.
Mr Richardson asked the US Embassy in Jakarta to confirm the Indonesians had approached the United States for assistance in fitting napalm tanks and was told that US contractors had been engaged “because the napalm tanks were made in Italy and modifications were needed in order to fit them to F5s”.
In early November 1983 Richardson forwarded a report to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra in which he added that “the United States assumed that, given the recent military build-up in East Timor, the approach had been made in connection with East Timor”.
Following international outcries generated by the use of napalm in the Vietnam War, use of the incendiary weapon against civilians was effectively banned by a 1980 United Nations convention that prohibits conventional weapons which are “excessively injurious” or have “indiscriminate effects”.
However Indonesia did not and has not signed the convention.
The Department of Foreign Affairs files examined by Dr Fernandes show the Australian Embassy in Jakarta took no action to protest against Indonesia’s use of napalm and there was no reaction in Canberra, where then prime minister Bob Hawke’s Labor Government was eager to improve relations with Indonesia and open negotiations with Jakarta on the oil and gas resources of the Timor Sea.
In 2006, following the publication of allegations of Indonesian napalm use against Timorese civilians in the report of Timor’s United Nations-sponsored Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then Indonesian defence minister Juwono Sudarsono declared that such attacks “never happened”.
“How could we have used napalm against the East Timorese? Back then we didn’t even have the capacity to import, let alone make napalm,” Mr Sudarsono.
One witness quoted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Lucas da Costa Xavier, recalled: “The trees and grass would burn when the bombs hit them … Many civilians died from drinking the water contaminated with shrapnel from bombs dropped from the planes, and many died of burns – it was the dry season, so the grass burned easily.”
Dr Fernandes said the Foreign Affairs department documents were significant “because they are the first hard evidence of napalm from the official records, and not just the testimony of survivors.”
“The documents show that the East Timorese and the small group of international activists who supported them were telling the truth,” Dr Fernandes said
“The Labor government that came to office in 1983 knew that the Indonesian military were committing crimes against humanity, including burning people alive with napalm, but they said and did nothing.”
Dr Fernandes has been engaged in a protracted legal battle in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court to secure the declassification of Australian intelligence and diplomatic records relating to Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.
The Australian government claims declassification of the papers would reveal still sensitive intelligence and damage Australia’s relations with Indonesia. Much of the government’s evidence has been suppressed following the issue of a “public interest certificate” by Attorney-General George Brandis.
“The current government should declassify all relevant records so that the full truth can come out,” Dr Fernandes said.
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