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Australia's true relationship with Timor-Leste

  • 09 September 2019
Scott Morrison posted a selfie on Facebook this week. A goofy, grinning snap, showing the prime minister leaning in together with Taur Matan Ruak, his Timorese counterpart. The pair were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s vote for independence: an occasion for which Morrison made Australia’s first prime ministerial visit to Timor-Leste in 12 years, and during which he publicly trumpeted a 'great friendship' between the neighbouring countries. If you’d been casually scrolling through Facebook or listening to news headlines, you’d have absolutely believed him.

But in sunny Dili, it was a different story. Two days before Morrison’s cheery selfies, a hundred Timorese students and activists had marched behind white banners, littered with signatures, proclaiming, ‘Solidarity with Witness K and Bernard Collaery’, referring to the former ASIS agent and his lawyer, who remain trapped in a drawn-out, obfuscated and unpopular prosecution for revealing information of Australia’s spying on Timor-Leste in 2004 for oil wealth gain. Shirley Shackleton, the 87-year-old widow of murdered Balibo Five journalist Greg, sidestepped security guards at Morrison’s airport arrival in an attempt to hand him a 4,000-signature-strong petition calling for the charges to be dropped. The Timorese activist group, Movimentu Kontra Okupasaun Tasi Timor, or the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea, MKOTT, were handing out white T-shirts adorned with Collaery’s face; you saw them worn days later on the streets of Dili.

Just five months into government, Morrison’s attorney-general Christian Porter greenlit the Witness K prosecution — a unique charge requiring his approval, and one which Timorese activists told me in Dili he could easily withdraw.

'It’s not his fault,' explained Tomas Freitas, an organiser with MKOTT. '[The bugging] happened under the previous government. Christian Porter can withdraw these charges. And we’re calling on him to drop the charges.'

Sympathy from tolerant activists, grinning ministerial selfies and neat soundbites about a great new chapter belie the cruel and harrowing history of Australia’s turbulent relationship with Timor-Leste: one which stretches decades beyond the 20 years celebrated by the Australian government in its cheery ‘20 together’ branding for Morrison’s anniversary trip, and one which continues to disadvantage Timor-Leste to this day.

However, Australia’s relationship of espionage in Timor-Leste starts long before Witness K.

In the late 1930s, a nervous Australian government held secret meetings to discuss Japanese activities in the region with then-Portuguese Timor governor, Alutarro Neves da Fontoura. In 1940, the governor — a quiet ally and