The East Timor solution?

Posted on July 9, 2010

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“Power is only important as an instrument for service to the powerless.” Lech Walesa, human rights activist/Polish president/Nobel laureate.

Portrait of a stereotype in national dress.

I don’t blog much, and I blog even less about politics, which I am supremely unqualified to comment on. But Julia Gillard’s premature ejacu announcement that she wants to build an offshore (technically: off Australian shores; it will be on someone else’s shore) processing plant in East Timor has made me so angry I couldn’t help myself.

My only qualification to comment, however poorly, is that I have been to East Timor, and have travelled through the country – from Dili and Atauro Island in the north to Suai and Viqueque in the south, from Balibo in the far west through Bacau and Los Palos to Tutuala and Jaco Island on the easternmost point of the nation.

I have met the people, from the poorest families in the mountains, who welcomed us into their homes with open arms and offered us the only food they had (rice and tinned fish, with chillies), to current president Jose Ramos-Horta. I have seen firsthand the effect that Australian-owned, hastily erected and ill-considered ‘buildings’ (in reality, shipping containers) have had on local communities who weren’t consulted and who gained no benefit from their existence – from raw sewage spilling direct onto the beach to understandable local anguish. I have seen the even more devastating results of Australia’s culpability in East Timor’s brutal 25-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia; and of our continuing exploitation of the country for our own economic and political gain.

Let’s start there. Australia is the richest nation in the region; East Timor is one of the poorest. When the Indonesians unwillingly left they razed more than 80% of the country’s infrastructure, leaving the East Timorese without electricity, clean water and sanitation, and roofs to sleep under, amongst other things. Basic medication is hard to come by; we smuggled boxes of aspirin into the country in our bags, at the request of a health centre that couldn’t get hold of painkillers any other way.

I have no doubt the locals of Nauru and Manus Island are equally impoverished. The difference is that Australia is culpable in East Timor’s poverty. In 1975, when Indonesian troops entered the border town of Balibo, killing five Australian newsmen in the process, Australia did nothing; said nothing. With no censure from Australia, the Indonesian military was essentially given a green light to go ahead with its invasion. Within weeks, a fleet of “illegal” Indonesian boats arrived on Timorese shores, heralding the biggest military operation by that nation to date, and the beginnings of an oppressive regime estimated to have wiped out a quarter of the local population. Up to 300,000 East Timorese (out of a total population of 800,000) became refugees in their own land.

With East Timor’s independence comes a pressing need for the country to rebuild and become economically self-sustainable. The two most plausible means to this end are tourism and oil. I’ll come back to tourism later, but Australia’s disregard for international maritime law in relation to the Timor Gap has essentially denied East Timor legal access to and proper revenue from the oil and gas that is rightfully Timor’s – a shameless exploitation of our neighbour and long-time ally for our own political gain.

And now Julia Gillard wants to exploit East Timor even further, for no greater reason than her own political gain. The poorly thought through policy was announced – before it had even been raised with East Timor’s government – primarily to pander to the misinformed fears of a xenophobic section of the population that bought into the Howard government’s divisive rhetoric about illegal boat people stealing their jobs and tax dollars through “preferential treatment”.

Apart from anything else, Australia owes a debt to East Timor, dating back to World War 2. That debt should not include building a jail detention centre to house our political problem. Re-housing the substantial numbers of internally displaced East Timorese people is a big enough problem without building a questionable facility to house externally displaced people on what is already highly contested land*. Even more galling is the fact that the detention centre Gillard proposed would be a relatively high-class facility (a three-star version of the one-star Pacific solution on Nauru, as Michelle Grattan noted); the stark contrast of a comparatively well-funded Australian centre for non-Timorese nationals surrounded by the extreme poverty of the locals makes me stabby.

Seriously, check this shit out. Paradise. Otherwise known as Baucau Beach. Don't you want to holiday here?

One of the best ways individual Australians can directly help the Timorese is through tourism. The Timorese government and people are both keen to encourage visitors. Due in part to the fledgling nation’s political instability, this is a relatively untapped economic resource, but as East Timor grows it could easily have the potential to be “the next Bali”, given the right support. How likely is the ‘average’ Aussie to want to holiday there, however, if their only real knowledge of it is as ‘that place with the detention centre’? How many of you are rushing out to visit Nauru?

Ultimately, however, it is the irony of asking the Timorese to welcome Indonesian boats carrying those seeking political asylum in a foreign land when Indonesian boats turned the majority of Timorese residents into refugees in their own land that really pisses me off. It may only be purely symbolic but do we really want to subject the Timorese people to the traumas of “illegal” boats arriving from Indonesia again?

*I don’t know enough about the problem of East Timorese land to elaborate here; suffice to say, numerous Timorese who fled their country during the occupation have returned to become refugees in their own land, finding their homes a) destroyed and b) occupied by others. Who has claim to that land – the original occupants who fled, or the newer occupants who didn’t – has become one of the major political issues in East Timor since independence. And that’s not even beginning to scrape the even more complicated problem of traditional land ownership vs Portuguese-era claims vs Indonesian-era titles vs Independence property rights!

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Posted in: Politics