Australia set to undermine East Timor (once occupied and now “free”)

Is there truly anybody who still believes Wikileaks is not releasing essential information to better understand our world?

The revelations just keep on coming and indicate a government in Canberra that is more than willing to play the post-colonial game. From simply fighting with the big boys in Afghanistan to creating trouble themselves closer to home:

Leaked diplomatic cables sent from the US embassy in Lisbon, Portugal in June 2006 have revealed that a leading Portuguese intelligence official told American diplomatic officials that the Australian government had repeatedly “fomented unrest” in East Timor, in order to advance its “geopolitical and commercial interests.” The extraordinary exchange occurred two weeks after Canberra had dispatched a military intervention force to the oil and gas rich state, as part of its “regime change” campaign against Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

The Australian government, then led by John Howard, targeted Alkatiri because of his perceived alignment with rival powers, especially Portugal, Timor’s former colonial ruler, and China. The Fretilin party leader was also despised by Canberra for his extraction of unwelcome concessions during negotiations over the division of the Timor Sea’s energy resources.

In February and March 2006, about 600 Timorese soldiers, known as the “petitioners”, mutinied. President Xanana Gusmao then issued a provocative speech on March 23 in which he denounced the Alkatiri government as corrupt and dictatorial. In April, various criminal and ex-Indonesian militia elements joined the petitioners and staged a series of violent attacks on soldiers and security forces who remained loyal to the state. The Australian government seized on the unrest to demand Alkatiri’s removal.

An Australian occupation force, comprising 1,300 troops and police backed by armoured vehicles and attack helicopters, was ordered into Timor on May 24. At the same time, the Australian media went into a frenzy, demanding Alkatiri’s resignation. The ABC’s “Four Corners” broadcast a lurid report featuring bogus accusations that the prime minister had formed a “hit squad” to assassinate Fretilin’s opponents. On June 26, Alkatiri capitulated, handing power to Canberra’s favoured candidate, Jose Ramos-Horta.

Concurrently with these developments, the World Socialist Web Site characterised what had happened as an Australian-inspired political coup. The WSWS concluded that there was no doubt that Australian military and intelligence operatives in Dili had advance knowledge of, and likely encouraged, the petitioners’ mutiny and violent protests. (See: “How Australia orchestrated ”˜regime change’ in East Timor”)

The WikiLeaks-released diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Lisbon, published in the Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso, have provided important new evidence confirming this analysis.

The key cable was sent by the US ambassador to Portugal, Al Hoffman, on June 12, 2006, i.e. 19 days after Australian troops were sent into Timor and 14 days before Alkatiri resigned. Headed, “Portugal: An Intel View of East Timor”, the cable reports on a discussion between a US embassy official (identified only as “Pol/Econ DepCouns”) and Jorge Carvalho, chief of staff of Portugal’s Intelligence Services (SIRP). The cable—which noted that Carvalho is Portugal’s equivalent to the US Director of National Intelligence—was marked “priority” and was widely circulated. Copies were sent to the US embassies in East Timor, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia; in Washington, to the Secretary of State, Defence Secretary, National Security Council, and Central Intelligence Agency; and to the US military’s Pacific Command and Joint Intelligence Centre in Hawaii.

The cable read: “Carvalho commented that Australia had not played a productive role in East Timor, underscoring that Australia’s motives were driven by geopolitical and commercial (e.g. oil) interests while Portugal’s main interest was to maintain stability.”

The analysis presented by the Portuguese intelligence chief was clearly self-serving—Lisbon was and is just as preoccupied as Canberra with geostrategic and commercial concerns in East Timor. Carvalho’s remarks underscore the long-standing and bitter rivalry between Australia and Portugal over who would play the dominant role in so-called “independent” East Timor. However, his frank exchange with the US embassy official also demonstrates that the real motivations of Australia’s military intervention in 2006 were clearly understood by those in power internationally. The Howard government’s claims of a “humanitarian” operation aimed at providing security for the Timorese people were purely for domestic consumption in Australia.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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