Review: ‘Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand’s Complicity in the Invasion and Occupation of Timor-Leste’ by Maire
280 pages $34.99Craig Potton Publishing
Reviewed by Cameron Walker
In this book, long time anti-nuclear and East Timor solidarity activist, Maire Leadbeater, draws largely on official
declassified documents to paint a clear picture of the NZ state’s shocking role in backing Indonesia’s 24 year long
occupation of East Timor (now known as Timor Leste).
Between 1975 and 1999 the Indonesian Military is estimated to have killed 183,000 people in East Timor – nearly one
third of the population. During this time both Labour and National Governments voted against UN resolutions supporting
the Timorese people, attempted to blacken the image of the Timorese resistance movement and invited the Indonesian
Military to visit NZ to learn ‘counter-insurgency’ techniques and how to lay landmines from the NZ Defence Forces.
Reading Negligent Neighbour you come to realise that much of New Zealand’s foreign policy is made behind closed doors by
diplomats and bureaucrats, without any care for what the public might think. It is shocking the racist contempt that
many NZ diplomatic staff held for the Timorese. In 1978 New Zealand’s then ambassador to Indonesia, Roger Peren, in
official diplomatic communication, said of the Timorese people ‘considered as human stock they are not at all
If you still have illusions about New Zealand being a ‘good international citizen’, be prepared to have them dashed.
Even David Lange, who is remembered fondly by many as the Prime Minister who stood up for nuclear disarmament, was a
happy cheerleader for the brutal occupation of East Timor.
However, this book is certainly not completely a show case of what’s wrong in our World. Leadbeater’s account of New
Zealand’s East Timor solidarity movement and its eventual ability to change government policy is extremely inspiring.
She writes of one incident in 1995 where government officials had to write an apologetic letter to Indonesia postponing
a joint ‘ground attack skills’ exercise (read bombing East Timorese villages from the sky). After anti-military ties
posters appeared around Wellington the government was scared it would be used as an opportunity for activists to raise
awareness about East Timor.
Maire Leadbeater was in the final stages of writing her book when last year’s violence in Timor Leste broke out and NZ
and Australian troops were sent to intervene. However, she does tackle this issue. She writes ‘While apparently welcomed
by all political forces in the country, the troops of Australia, New Zealand and other countries are, at the time of
writing, taking on something of the nature of a colonial occupation.’ She reiterates the calls of Timorese NGOs for a
fair distribution of resources and for people at the grassroots to be in control of development, not suited businessmen
The epilogue describes how East Timor is now a supposedly independent nation but, like many other developing nations,
the World Bank has come to control its economic policy – making the Timorese economy work for multinational corporations
not the Timorese people. Things haven’t been helped either by Australia’s theft of oil and gas resources in the Timor
Sea. Whoever ends up winning the recent Presidential election or the Parliamentary elections later this year will have
to cater to institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
Towards the end of the book Leadbeater says New Zealand should retain its ban on defence ties with Indonesia.
Unfortunately this is now out of date. Despite the fact the Indonesian Military is still mass murdering people in West
Papua and cracking down on progressive forces within Indonesia, an Indonesian Military officer shall be attending the NZ
Defence Force’s staff and Command College from May 14th this year.
Negligent Neighbour is a brilliant book that reminds us NZ foreign policy, like that of other Western capitalist
nations, is too often on the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed.