Book Review: ‘Last Flight out of Dili’

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 8 February 2006

On January 12, 2005, East Timor and Australia signed a treaty to share equally the revenues of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea. This brought prolonged negotiations to an end but left in abeyance for up to 50 years a final determination of the seabed boundary between these two neighbours. To the uninformed, this might sound like a fair agreement between David and Goliath but the real winner is Australia which will receive the benefits of processing the oil and gas in Darwin.

In addition, there are many who believe the bulk of the hydro-carbon resources in the Timor Sea rightly belongs to East Timor. The Australian Government recently withdrew from the jurisdiction of the World Court, in relation to the Law of the Sea, to avoid the possibility of an international juridical determination on a boundary between our two countries.

Last Flight out of Dili provides a good introduction to relations between Australia and East Timor over the last 30 years. It gives a backdrop against which the politics in our region can be gauged. It is a personal memoir rather than an attempt to present a socio-political analysis and it describes in considerable detail, David Scott’s dealings with East Timor’s Foreign Affair Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta as well as many Australian East Timor activists.

As a personal account, this book has all the directness and vitality that an acute observer of human nature like David Scott can muster. Yet by its nature, it leaves out parts of the story which he did not know. In relation to some of the significant events, David has also relied on what has been written by others and in particular on the Documents in Australian Foreign policy: Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor published by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2000.

He describes several internecine disputes among various factions in East Timor which erupted after the breakdown of the first Coalition Government of Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) in early 1975. David Scott was there when the Fretilin Government declared independence from Portugal in late 1975. He does not gloss over the brief civil war which transpired just prior to the Indonesian invasion. He provides sketches of many of the bloody disputes between East Timorese factions which occurred at various times in the 24-year struggle against the Indonesian occupation.

Some of the disputes between pro-East Timor activists in Australia, particularly those between members of the Communist Party of Australia and more politically moderate citizens, are discussed at length. David conveys his personal antipathy to Communist Dennis Freney (who died in 1995): the storyline would not have suffered had some of the more indulgent comments about Dennis been omitted. There were, after all, many errors of judgment made by all the factions in Australia during the long fight to free East Timor.

Last Flight out of Dili provides an interesting account of what David Scott terms Australia’s “Four Betrayals”:

  • despatching troops into East Timor during WWII, which ended East Timor’s neutrality and provoked the Japanese invasion of that country, leading to the deaths of 40-60,000 Timorese;
  • Gough Whitlam’s “acquiescence” to the integration of East Timor into Indonesia;
  • not ensuring security in East Timor prior to the Independence vote in 1999; and
  • not protecting East Timorese people from the Indonesian Army and the militias’ onslaught after the vote.

Scott forensically demolishes Whitlam’s justification of his failure to respect the sovereignty of East Timor. He provides detailed accounts of his, and subsequent Australian prime ministers (and their officials), intentional misleading of the Australian public. Anyone who thinks that any Australian prime minister since 1974 has acted with integrity in relation to East Timor would be well advised to read this book.

In late 1998, Prime Minister Howard wrote to President Habibie of Indonesia supporting the idea that the East Timorese be allowed to vote, at some stage, to determine their future. Some commentators have criticised Habibie for his December 1998 “rash” decision to hold a plebiscite on integration or independence in 1999. David Scott provides significant evidence that there was nothing hurried or stupid about President Habibe’s decision.

Last Flight out of Dili is a memoir which is well worth reading. It is an informed personal account by an author who has played an important part for many decades in social welfare and foreign aid circles in Australia. He describes the extent to which the lives of many Australians and East Timorese were affected by the tumultuous events in our near north. This book provides an easily accessible basis for understanding some of the issues which will emerge between our two countries in the years to come.

Last Flight out of Dili: Memoirs of an accidental activist in the triumph of East Timor by David Scott. Pluto, North Melbourne.