The Sheriff of Asia

Part One – East Timor (1975-1978)

When US President George W Bush told John Howard that he saw the prime minister and Australia as being his deputy sheriff in Asia it helped to encapsulate perfectly how each nation saw the other.  It also helped to define Australia’s position from within Asia, as an alien implant. But most of all it helped the President and many of his die-hard advocates to better imagine the World, as a goody vs baddy western. The President and many American’s viewed the world simply as though it was the black and white theatre of a classic John Wayne film.

Perhaps it was more like America, England and Australia were the Three Amigos. Osama Bin Laden just another El Guapo.  For many Australians this was an easy enough scenario in which to indulge. Though they are geographically located below the Asian land mass it has been since before Federation been a perilous position for the Aussie imagination. Often the Australian elites and populace seeing themselves as Westerners with strong attachments to the mother country of Britain and then their big brother the United States surrounded by Orientals. It was with a fear of the coloured and ‘uncivilised’ nations that concerned the new Federation as it developed into nationhood. Australia was a White Man’s Land and European at heart. This history and subsequent policies to the present did not and has not gone unnoticed by our regional neighbours, even if Australians inside of a generation elect to unknow it.


(image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

The young nation of Australia was quick in its willingness to forge a strong military reputation for itself. Eagerly supporting the British Empire in its many colonial wars. From New Zealand to the Sudan, Australia volunteered men and material to help suppress natives as Britain continued to spread its rule, by force. The Boer War saw the new nation send a greater contingent in support of Britain as it fought against the Boers of South Africa. It was then through World War One, into World War Two, through the Korean War, Malayan Emergency, conflict in Borneo, Vietnam War, numerous ‘humanitarian’ interventions, the 1991 Gulf War, supporting of embargoes-sanctions thereafter, invasion of Afghanistan and then the other two Iraq wars of the post 2001 age that Australia has expressed itself with all the military eagerness that would make Britain and then the USA proud. Australia was fast becoming a real Martin Short in the trio of bigger Anglo-American Amigos.

As the Sherriff of Asia, it is assumed that Australia, a liberal democracy imbued with the apparently supreme Western virtues, would help to stabilise the region and inspire freedom and peace. It was in the 1960s that Australia was one of the eager champions for US intervention in Vietnam. Many in Australia believed that if the US became militarily involved in South East Asia then this would in turn assure Australian national security. Seeing that the US strategic focus would shift from Europe towards Asia. Australian defence planning has always been one of relying on big friends to protect it from the Oriental threat. As the British Empire crumbled and socialism decayed the home island Australia, as it had begun to do from 1942 onwards, began to embrace Uncle Sam all the more.

Australia got its wish and was one of the first to invite itself into the Vietnam war. From 1966 to 1972 it sent conscripts and volunteers alike to help the US and its allies support South Vietnam against Northern aggression and VC-NLF insurgents. While Australia and the United States were eagerly fighting in that part of South East Asia against apparent evils. Closer to Australian shores as a coup destabilised a neighbour and a new strongman began to seize control the murder, rape and oppression of millions began to occur throughout Indonesia.

In 1965-66, just as foreign involvement in Vietnam was ramping up, the Indonesian army under Suharto went on a murderous purge as he led a counter coup against communists. As the president Sukarno, slowly lost power, it is estimated that 500,000 were killed throughout Indonesia during this period. The mass killings were of ‘communists’ or those with apparently left leaning sympathies. Though the killing spree ran along racial lines as well, with the Chinese community being especially targeted in lootings, vandalisms to outright murder. The anti-communist witch hunt had the full support of the US intelligence and military apparatus. The CIA is known to have given the Indonesian army a list of 5,000 names who were all brutally executed. Often it was with US and Australian advisement that the Indonesian militaries kill squads would seek out and murder political dissidents because they ‘may’ have been communists. By 1967, Indonesia had a new ruler and the West had a new reliable friend.

After the purges and mass murder, Suharto began to expand the economic potential of Indonesia by inviting Western investors. This gave the regime much a needed pro-Western image that was crucial during this period of the cold war. Murderous dictatorships were tolerated, supported and adored so long as they condemned Moscow and Beijing. As Indonesia became a treasured pearl in South East Asia, relations between it and Australia, the USA and UK remained friendly and with constant diplomatic, military and economic aid.

World meet Portuguese Timor…..

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