Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

Australian treachery, again

Published: Jul 29, 2007

This time, says an experienced activist, it's over oil and gas

Robert Wesley-Smith

'Australian treachery against East Timor again' was the title of a public statement by Australians for a Free East Timor on 1 April 2002. I am writing this because during my lifetime Australia has been treacherous to or deserted East Timor six times.

The first was my year of birth 1942. Australia withdrew its troops from East Timor in the face of overwhelming Japanese force, leaving not only the whole population to its fate but also guaranteeing death for most of the young men who had adopted Aussie commandos and been their eyes and ears and much more. During the Japanese occupation about 60,000 Timorese (12% of the population) died from attack and privation.

Earlier this year Japan sent its forces back to East Timor, but they do not want to talk about their wartime occupation, much less say sorry or pay reparations. Several thousand surviving East Timorese are directly affected. Much work by Japanese and Australian activists has not made a huge impact on this issue yet.

The family I grew up in was always well aware of aspects of WW2 history and the need to relate to Southeast Asia. My father had been a senior intelligence officer. He then had a lifetime of involvement with Asian students through the Colombo Plan at the University of Adelaide. He also studied in Indonesia. Ironically, us boys had a differing perspective on the Vietnam war. This introduced my brothers and I to human rights and the politics of Southeast Asia.

We learned that the early years of the Indonesian Republic created a liberal democratic society, with Mohammed Hatta somewhat of a hero. We were thus always able to distinguish between the people and the military regime which ruled to its own advantage, from the repression in Aceh and Papua to the invasion of East Timor.

I combined my busy job as a rural scientist in the Northern Territory with involvement in the growing struggle for the human rights and a decent standard of living for the indigenous people there. I mixed with young people from all over the Territory through playing and coaching sport. Gradually I managed more work opportunities with them, and I became involved in the land rights struggle with the pioneering Gurindji at Wattie Creek, now called Daguragu.

In 1975 I was there when Prime Minister Whitlam poured sand into the black hands of my friend Vincent Lingiari in recognition of his people's land rights. Later I lived to regret the way the government 'recolonised' aboriginal affairs using its money and power, without the community having the strong counter-backing of their activist friends. I see history repeating itself in East Timor.


After the Carnation Revolution in 1974, Portugal allowed political parties in its East Timor colony for the first time. Party activists such as Jose Ramos Horta visited Darwin to seek support, and I got drawn in. I believe in being involved in one's 'backyard' as a priority. However, Cyclone Tracy devastated our city at the end of that year, disrupting normal life. From Dili came an official offer to help in any way possible.

I missed the great rallies in Timor in May 1975, but saw film of it and heard the call of freedom. Unfortunately stupid people, egged on by malicious ones in neighbouring countries, created a brief civil war which began and ended in August. We helped out with some aid via Acfoa and CAA. I engaged in a verbal battle with the mayor of Darwin to hold an appeal for East Timor - it didn't happen. Forward-thinking activists set up a radio link to East Timor in case the worst happened and normal communications were cut.

But the die was cast, and Indonesia moved towards a full-scale invasion, with support from the Whitlam ALP government and then the Fraser Liberal government. I was amazed and appalled. Treachery number 2. Around Australia and in a few other places East Timor support groups were established.

Then began three years of helping run Radio Maubere. We received the broadcasts from the mountains of East Timor sent by the Fretilin/ Falintil resistance. We also occasionally went to our countryside and did two-way broadcasts, whilst keeping a wary eye out for government telecommunications police, as we had been denied a licence. The information went to Sydney and Maputo/ Lisbon, and was published in East Timor News. But it was mostly met with indifference by the world press and governments. The details of this experience are in my chapter in Free East Timor (Vintage, 1998).

We heard the horrifying accounts of a nation being systematically torn apart, raped and genocided. Why did the world let this happen? The broadcasts ceased in late 1978, and at that time the Fraser government gave de jure recognition to the brutal Indonesian military occupation of East Timor - Treachery 3.

The 1980s were an isolated and difficult time for the support activists, as well as for the heroic resistance inside East Timor. Xanana quietly reformed the resistance and began to take it into the towns. So the foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas probably thought they were on a winner with the Timor Gap Treaty in 1989 - Treachery 4. Their glee in fact galvanised some who saw the injustice. And as with most treaties and acts conceived and born in injustice, they will unravel.

The Dili massacre at Santa Cruz, 12 November 1991, electrified the world when they saw it on film bravely taken by Max Stahl. Many groups formed or reformed. In Darwin we became Australians for a Free East Timor (Affet). Charlie Scheiner and others formed Etan and the email list for East Timor, which became the main information and linking mechanism. Initially from Jean Inglis in Japan the Ifet link with the UN was formed. Street action, as well as the paper war of lobbying and submissions, grew in Darwin and all over the world.

But Australia signed a defence treaty with the Suharto regime, another one conceived and born in injustice. The Howard government continued to support the Suharto regime despite its military atrocities in East Timor - Treachery 5. Only after the devastation became so great that the world finally cried 'enough', was Interfet created in September 1999. The Keating defence treaty was torn up. Howard now pretends Australia has always been East Timor's best mate.

Oil and gas

Living on the southern shore of the Timor Sea, I have kept an interest in the massive oil and gas reserves, which were part of the reason for the travail heaped upon East Timor by greedy neighbours. We held a conference on these issues back in 1990. The Timor Gap Treaty was always illegal, but it was continued for a while after the 1999 independence ballot, as a starting point for a new agreement. Apart from a bit of coffee, the new nation has few ways of earning hard currency and thus lifting the health and living standards of its people other than from its oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately the inexperienced administration in East Timor, like the Gurindji before them, has been 'dudded' by the greedy and the powerful.

Australia has played hardball once again, with a sneaky formulation of words as a new Timor Sea treaty. There was an effective public expose of this in March/ April 2002, and it was clear Australia was in breach of the international law of the sea. Australia then precipitately withdrew from the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, which guides the settlement of maritime boundaries issues. We concerned activists are continuing a hectic campaign to explain the issues. However the new East Timor government signed this document on 20 May. We can't understand why, it feels like the juggernaut is unstoppable.

But Mari Alkatiri can stop it single-handedly, like Superman! This document undoubtedly will lead to the theft by Australia of most of their seabed resources, valued at over US$30 billion. So, Treachery 6 and continuing. We will keep working with civic society in East Timor and Australia to reverse this and to gain economic justice.

Rob Wesley-Smith (rwesley@ozemail.com.au) is a spokesperson for Australians for a Free East Timor (Affet), Box 2155, Darwin NT 0801, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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