Australia and Timor, a tortured relationship

I’m an irregular contributor to the Washington Post’s Post Global site (my first piece, on the US/Australia alliance, is here). My second article is now published and it discusses “Australia’s meddling in East Timor“:

During Indonesia’s brutal, 24-year occupation of East Timor, the Western world remained complicit in the oppression. Current President Xanana Gusmao handed the UN a report in January that detailed gross human rights abuses over those years. It alleged that Jakarta’s deliberate policy of starvation and murder cost the lives of between 84,000 and 183,000 people between 1975 and 1999. Furthermore, the Indonesian military used Western-supplied napalm bombs during their reign of terror.

None of the leading Western nations involved – Australia, the US and Britain – have accepted responsibility for their actions nor offered compensation. A further insult has been the lack of international pressure to bring former Western-backed dictator General Suharto to trial for war crimes in Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia.

Although Australian assistance helped end Timor’s occupation in 1999, the world’s newest nation has suffered great instability in the last seven years.

Within Australia, a mythology has developed: Australia is seen as the white knight that arrived to save Timor’s soul. In reality – as pointed out by Australian historian Clinton Fernandes in his incendiary 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour – “Australian diplomacy functioned in support of the Indonesian strategy [of holding onto Timor]. It functioned as an obstacle to East Timor’s independence. When the [John] Howard government was eventually forced to send in a peacekeeping force, it did so under the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage.”

The relationship between Canberra and Dili has always been complex but the ongoing struggle over the Timor Gap – vast oil and gas reserves in the seabed off East Timor – has caused Australia to be accused of exploiting Timor’s future economic prosperity. The country’s former Prime Minster, Mari Alkatiri, was a strong defender of these natural resources, but his popularity within Timor had waned, eventually forcing him to resign.

The recent unrest in Timor resulted in violent clashes between disgruntled soldiers and the ruling Fretelin party. Tens of thousands of Timorese were forced to flee their homes into refugee camps. And Australia, once again, sent troops to quell the troubles, though the exact details of the unrest remain unclear.

The country’s new Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, has thanked Australia for its assistance and already criticised its role in the struggling nation. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, recently told the East Timorese that, “they have to learn to find solutions to their own problems, not just expect the international community indefinitely to solve all those problems for them“. It was a typically arrogant statement from a government that enjoys maintaining control over a number of nations in the region.

There are many unsubstantiated allegations that the Australian government instigated the latest unrest in East Timor and wanted regime change. What is clear, however, is that East Timor should be allowed to prosper into a truly independent nation, and heal from years of Western-backed misery.

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

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