Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Australia's engagement with East Timor

Published: Jul 27, 2007

Vannessa Hearman

For the 25 years of East Timor’s struggle to be free from Indonesia, Australian solidarity played an important role, resisting the Australian government’s policy of supporting Indonesian rule over East Timor.

Since 1999, the Australian government has been keen to rewrite history by trumpeting its ‘generous’ aid to East Timor. The plaque outside East Timor’s parliament building, generously refurbished with Australian aid funds, testifies to Australia’s apparent support for an independent and democratic East Timor — a far cry from the reality of Australian diplomacy over the previous 25 years.

Australia has contributed peacekeepers as part of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), as well as funded a number of aid programs. A small number of scholarships were made available to Timorese students. Australia’s official aid program has also concentrated on the budget and treasury areas of government. Public servants from the Australian Treasury and Department of Finance were seconded to set up counterpart departments in East Timor.

Australia is supportive of the agenda for development put in place by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which places a heavy emphasis on private sector involvement and entails ideologically-driven solutions, such as a small public service, regressive taxation, the use of prepaid meters in electricity and other anti-people economic measures. The IMF’s advice to the government of East Timor is not to put in place minimum wage mechanisms for example, but to allow the free market to regulate wages. The IMF also opposed price and rent controls, though the large number of foreign workers and the scarcity due to the large-scale destruction resulted in big price increases during the UNTAET phase.

In the UNTAET phase (1999–2002), the priorities of international solidarity shifted. The sheer material needs of the population meant that solidarity was largely expressed in material aid. From Australia, a flurry of containers were sent to East Timor and various other community-level projects were initiated. Friendship Cities and Schools projects have been established.

New forms of political solidarity took some time to be worked out, in consultation with Timorese activists. At a meeting sponsored by the Timorese NGO La’o Hamutuk in Dili 23 May 2002, priorities for solidarity were identified by Timorese activists, as being: campaigns for an international tribunal, economic development, social justice and just access to Timor Gap resources.

Australians can continue to play a vital role in helping the Timorese secure a better future for the people in East Timor. Australia is a key regional power. Notwithstanding the devastation of the country, the Australian government wants to play hard ball in terms of oil and gas resources from the Timor Gap.

Three key issues remain to be addressed in terms of future Australian policy towards East Timor. First, there is the question of just access to the oil and gas from the Timor Gap. The Australian government publicised with much fanfare the signing of the Timor Sea Arrangement in July 2001 in order to show the goodwill of the Australia government in agreeing to split the proceeds of the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA). The split was 90–10 in East Timor’s favour. Much of the oil and gas resources lie outside the JPDA.

But there was not so much fanfare with the Treaty signing in May 2002, where pressure from Australia was key in forcing the Timorese to sign. The Timorese government wanted maritime boundaries between the two countries to be re-drawn. If as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has set out, the boundaries were re-drawn from the mid-point between the two countries, much of the oil resources would then be located within East Timor’s waters.

In the lead up to the treaty signing in 2002, it became clear that Australia was intent on robbing East Timor of billions of dollars of oil and gas revenues. None as clear as the decision to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to adjudicate on maritime boundaries between the two countries. Australia has indicated that its method for deciding such boundaries was to ‘negotiate’. If previous accounts of so-called negotiations are any indication, Australia has sought to bully the Timorese government on account of its ‘generous’ aid to East Timor in the past four years. Australia’s aid package through AusAID over four years was only US$90 million from 1999–2002. Compare this to the billions Australia and its companies would stand to make from the theft of Timor’s oil.

On the eve of independence in May 2002, Australian and Timorese activists in Dili joined forces to demonstrate against Australian Prime Minister, John Howard and this theft of Timor’s resources by the wealthiest country in the region. We need more protests like these and to demand an answer as to why Australia is giving with one hand and robbing with the other. The East Timorese government has indicated that its signature on the Timor Sea Treaty is a ‘temporary’ measure pending other courses of action, including a re-examination of the maritime boundaries.

The second key issue is the status of East Timorese refugees in Australia. On June 3 this year, Minister for Immigration Phillip Ruddock was reported to have agreed to grant visas to allow 379 Timorese asylum seekers to stay. The issue has now largely disappeared from Australian media reporting, but a bureaucratic nightmare still awaits those who have been given the nod by Ruddock.

It is not clear what type of visa will be granted and therefore what restrictions are attached to these visas. Ruddock has refused to issue all the Timorese asylum seekers with a special category visa, preferring to review each case which has been rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Similarly, being Australia’s nearest neighbour and a new, war ravaged country in great need of assistance, it is important that the Timorese have leniency to travel to and stay in Australia. Australia is one of the key gateways into East Timor. Similarly, Australia is an important port for Timorese to access the rest of the world. Visa requirements include bringing in chest X-rays which can be difficult in a country where even the National Hospital does not always have access to X-ray machines. Prohibitive application fees also seem to be another bureaucratic hurdle for Timorese who want to come to Australia. The Australian embassy needs to provide assistance for Timorese to make it easier for them to come to this country, to access further education and training, to take part in meetings and seminars and so on. Portugal provided scholarships for 314 Timorese students to study at Portuguese universities and 100 at Indonesian universities. Timorese students spoke of the difficulties of accessing Australian scholarships, of which ‘up to 20’ are available each year. There was a one-off scholarship program for 56 students launched in 2001. The Australian government must dispose of the perception of our poor neighbours as the ‘yellow hordes’, which need to be kept out of the country as much as possible, as Ruddock’s ‘Pacific Solution’ and his treatment of Timorese asylum seekers suggest.

Finally, there continue to be demands from within East Timor for the establishment of an international tribunal as the best mechanism to obtain justice for the victims of 1999. This was the theme of a protest at the American Embassy in Dili on 4 July this year. In the light of the farcical trials of TNI officers in Jakarta, where acquittals have been the overwhelming result, an international tribunal is seen as necessary, though the Timorese government fears that it would have repercussions on its relations with Indonesia. Following the revelations that Australian intelligence was aware of Indonesian plans to raze East Timor to the ground in the event of autonomy being rejected, Australia does have a measure of complicity in the events of 1999.

Oil and gas resources give them the chance to be free from debt, though the IMF and the World Bank may not allow this to continue. The number of community initiatives in Australia aiming to support the people of East Timor is testimony to the goodwill towards East Timorese. By ensuring they have access to their own gas and oil resources and the right to enter Australia freely like our other white neighbours in New Zealand, we can play a part in ensuring East Timor’s economic and social development, that is based more on human dignity.

Vannessa Hearman (vhearman@bigpond.com)is an Indonesian-born solidarity activist who lived and worked in East Timor for 2 years. She is involved in Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP) in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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