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Issue #1672      February 11, 2015

Vale Tom Uren

Courageous champion for justice and human rights

Tom Uren was one of the greatest politicians Australia ever had. I first came across him at Vietnam rallies when I lived in Sydney in the early 1970s. He was a very powerful speaker - eloquent, articulate, persuasive, rational and warm.

Tom was very sincere, totally opposed to human rights abuses committed against all people and strongly on the side of those who suffered tyranny. This is why he supported the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, the East Timorese and the West Papuans.

Yes, he was a supporter of left and progressive politics. To him, this meant following the politics of social justice, human rights, equality for all, fairness between nations and caring for the environment.

At a time when most of the ALP had sold out the East Timorese, he was one of a few who supported the liberation struggle of our former, valiant WW2 allies. Others in that group, of course, included Richie Gun and Ken Fry.

Because of his strong support, CIET (SA) – now AETFA SA, asked Tom to officially open the East Timor, Australia and the Region Conference. This conference was an international one and it was organised by CIET SA and held at Adelaide University in 1979. Tom made a great contribution.

Frequently, he spoke out about what was happening in Timor and always gave support to activists working in solidarity with the East Timorese.

I see that Bill Shorten has described Tom as a giant in the ALP, which is true. But, I also remember being at an East Timor Activists Conference in the early 1980s as the right was becoming far more dominant in the ALP. At a party organised by Tom to which he invited conference delegates, I remarked to an ALP staffer that he must be very proud working with people like Tom Uren. His response was that Tom was a fool for supporting East Timor and that he was working with others in the ALP to get rid of old fools like him!

Is it any wonder that the East Timorese got very little support from the ALP leadership during their struggle? It was rather ironic that towards the end of their struggle, it was Laurie Brereton, a key figure in the NSW right of the ALP who turned around the Party’s policy on this issue. Sadly, this did not follow through and when the ALP took office in 2007, there was no support from ALP MPs to reverse the Liberal Party’s policy to refuse to recognise the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in relation to Timor-Leste – although Australia recognises the UNCLOS principle with NZ and the Solomons. This has resulted in Australia taking a lot of the oil and gas from Timor-Leste’s half of the Timor Sea.

Tom Uren always stood for human decency in relations between people and was totally opposed to racism.

Even though he was a victim of the Japanese military during WW2, he did not harbour anti-Japanese sentiments. Tom had been captured in West Timor and sent to work on the infamous Thai Burma railway as a POW and later he worked in a slave camp in Japan not far from Nagasaki, where he saw the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from a distance.

During the official recognition of the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2, I saw Tom being interviewed at Hellfire Pass, a part of the railway in Thailand. The interviewer asked him what the conditions were like. Tom’s reply was that it was like hell on earth.

“We were expected to pick and shovel through solid rock to make this cutting. We worked long hours on extremely meagre rations. Many of the men were extremely sick. A huge number had dysentery and they were literally shitting their lives away. There was virtually no medication for the sick. I saw men on many occasions drop dead while they were on the job.”

The interviewer then asked Tom what he thought about Japanese people because of his experiences. His answer was: “I hated every last one of them and I would not have cared if they had been all wiped out!”

He was then asked if he still had the same attitude. His answer was a definite “No!” Tom then went on to say that “I did not keep that opinion for long.

Later, I was transferred to a slave camp in Japan. There I met Japanese political prisoners. These people had the courage to oppose Japanese fascism on its own grounds. They were very courageous people. They were my brothers. They were my comrades. Many people who harbour ill-will to all Japanese people because of WW2 do not understand one important fact. And that is that during WW2, we were not fighting the Japanese people, we were fighting Japanese fascism and there is a great difference.”

His analysis of the conflict between Australia and Japan avoided the racism against all Japanese that Bruce Ruxton’s analysis embraced.

Because of his experiences during WW2, Tom became a devoted peace activist and was opposed to nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry.

His quest for social justice led him to be a strong advocate for socialism. Tom Uren was a giant physically, but a gentle one. He was also a boxer, but more importantly, he used his strength and energy to fight for a fairer and safer world.

Farewell, Comrade Tom. You will never be forgotten.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock
Information Officer
Australia East Timor Association SA Inc

Next article – Culture & Life – Pro-democracy thugs, political prisoners & the destruction of NHS

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