Ten years on from independence, East Timor still has plenty of problems.

But progress is being made, as Damien Kingsbury outlined on Friday, and there’s clearly no desire to go back to the past. Nor can anyone be found in Australia who now says that East Timorese independence was a bad idea — so much so that it’s hard to believe what a controversial issue it once was.

On Friday evening there was John Howard himself, popping up on SBS News, to say how proud he was of the role his government played. “It’s one of the more noble things Australia has done on the international front for many years,” he said.

Coincidentally, and writing about a different subject, Richard Woolcott was also in the papers on Friday. He was one of the most prominent of the foreign affairs mandarins that spent two decades telling us that East Timorese independence was an impossible pipe dream.

But it won’t do to just blame the bureaucrats. From Gough Whitlam on, every Australian prime minister was a willing accomplice of Indonesian imperialism. Under the Fraser government, the Labor opposition argued in favor of self-determination for the East Timorese, but quickly went cold on the idea once elected — despite the occasional grumbling of its own left wing.

Howard entered office with as little intention as anyone of upsetting the status quo. When the dictatorship of General Suharto tottered and fell in early 1998 — the essential precondition for movement on East Timor — Australia remained loyal almost to the very end, having previously shown no interest in democratisation. But new Indonesian president B.J. Habibie, hoping to end the running sore of armed conflict, proposed offering the East Timorese a plan for autonomy.

It was at that point that Howard wrote to Habibie expressing support for the idea and suggesting that at some point in the future (he said 10 years, diplomatic code for indefinitely far away) East Timor could also be offered the choice of independence — on the (no doubt unrealistic) assumption that they would be sufficiently conciliated by autonomy to vote against it.

Habibie reacted in quite an unexpected fashion, deciding that the choice between independence and autonomy would be offered immediately. From that point things moved quickly — to a UN referendum, followed by bloodshed, foreign intervention and ultimately independence.

No one really understands Habibie’s motives. It may have been a sudden dummy-spit; it may have been that Howard’s letter was seized on as a convenient excuse for what he planned to do anyway. But if the loss of even a small measure of Australia’s long-standing support really was the touchstone for the offer of independence, it makes us all the more culpable for not having tried to use that influence in the previous two decades.

Yet Howard seems genuinely proud of the part he played. It’s an interesting window onto a man whose career was not otherwise noted for sympathy with the poor and dispossessed. But it’s also a lesson that his successors have comprehensively failed to learn.

Howard’s experience shows that supporting self-determination is not just the right thing to do; it’s also best for everyone in the long run, including the leader’s own historical reputation and peace of mind. Yet whether it’s West Papua, or Fiji, or Tibet, or Kashmir, our government still sides with the oppressors against the oppressed. The East Timorese just happened to get lucky.