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Australia's true relationship with Timor-Leste


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.

Protesters hold up signs during Anti-Australia protests on December 6, 2013 in Dili, Timor-Leste.

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 sympathiser to the British, despite Portugal’s neutrality during World War II — granted Qantas permission to make fortnightly stops in Dili on two of its routes, and conceded similar permission to the Japanese to trial flights between Dili and Palau. Australia openly used the flight authority to spy on the Japanese: in early 1941, Qantas managing director Hudson Fysh told the airline’s Dili-based agent to 'make it [your] special duty to watch and report on Japanese activities'.


"Soundbites and selfies belie the cruel and harrowing history of Australia’s turbulent relationship with Timor-Leste."


The arrival of Australian troops to Timor to counter the Japanese in February 1942 technically constituted an invasion of a neutral territory — one which resulted in a Japanese victory and the deaths of between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese bystanders. As Australian troops were evacuated out of the ravaged territory, they dropped leaflets reading, 'Your friends do not forget you'.

Timor-Leste, which had not previously been of interest to the Japanese, was thrust into the war by Australia’s intrusion and remained under militant Japanese occupation until 1945. Former Timor-Leste president, prime minister and resistance leader Xanana Gusmão has accused Australia of 'sacrificing' Timorese lives during the war and has attributed Timor-Leste’s suffering to Australia’s act of self-protection.

Australia’s priority was clear: self-protection at all costs, no matter the sacrifice required of Timor-Leste. And it’s a theme that continues today. Whether using the island as a base for open espionage, inciting the Japanese invasion and flying to freedom leaving the Timorese behind, or shamelessly prosecuting the men who told the truth about oil spying for commercial gain from a fragile new nation in the early weeks of independence — Australia’s neighbourly relationship with Timor-Leste remains one of taking anything it can, not of sharing like friends.

Australia’s seemingly unquenchable oil thirst similarly shows a different side to the grinning face Morrison put on at his Dili events.

The seeds of that Witness K prosecution were buried decades earlier, when oil was first discovered in the Timor Sea in the 1960s. Woodside hit the jackpot in 1974 when it discovered the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, about 450 kilometres north-west of Darwin — confirming the region’s riches, and first arousing Australia’s curiosity about the ownership of the multi-billion-dollar resources buried beneath the seabed — and then a desire to get all they could.

In Dili on Friday, Morrison stool squinting in the hot sun outside Timor-Leste’s government palace — the very building his predecessors authorised the bugging of, in order to learn more about Timor-Leste’s negotiating position and strategy — to announce the formal ratification of a permanent maritime boundary treaty between Australia and Timor-Leste in the Timor Sea.

The treaty is the result of a previously untested mandatory conciliation process brought to the Hauge by Timor-Leste after Witness K’s spying revelation, and permanently closes the Timor Gap. A small hole in a 1972 boundary treaty between Australia and Indonesia that agreed a boundary following Australia’s generous continental shelf.

This treaty left a crucial gap right near Greater Sunrise, because Timor-Leste’s then-colonial power Portugal — a proponent of a median line boundary, not the seabed line that would have delivered Greater Sunrise to Australia — wasn’t invited to negotiate.

The gap, Australia’s then-ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, said in August 1975, 'Could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia… than with Portugal or an independent Portuguese Timor'.

Four months later, Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste, commencing a brutal and bloody 24-year-long occupation that declassified Australian diplomatic cables prove Australia knew about in advance, but did nothing to stop. Between 100,000 and 300,000 Timorese people died during the occupation — which was tacitly endorsed by Australia’s diplomatic silence — and the country suffers the effects of brutality and over-exploitation today.

Indonesia did indeed prove easier to negotiate with, and Australia gleefully arranged a series of resource-use agreements for the disputed area — unlocking the wealth of the Timor Sea. But no money flowed to Timor-Leste.

'We are committed to your sovereignty and prosperity, and today open a new chapter in our great partnership,' Morrison said on Friday at his government palace press conference — addressing all of Timor-Leste, and a host of flown-in Australian journalists.

'One founded on trust. On shared respect. On shared values. One strengthened by talking together, walking together, working to solve problems together.'

The polished lines mark a clear departure from the actions of previous Australian governments — and an inconsistency with the Morrison government’s own work. It remains responsible for Australia’s continued inaction, manipulation and deceit with regard to Timor-Leste.

Australian parliament took 16 months from the boundary treaty’s ratification to sign, receiving approximately $6 million per month from a 10 per cent share in an oil field now found by the treaty to belong to Timor-Leste. The government has said it won’t repay the money.

Morrison sidestepped the Witness K question, saying it was a domestic matter before the courts. Shackleton, the petitioner, told the AAP in Dili: 'What is it that the Australian government is so afraid of? If Collaery goes to jail we will lose our freedom, we will lose our democracy.'

While the deployment of the Australian-led peacekeeping force to Timor-Leste in 1999 secured the country from militia violence and helped start a process of rebuilding, Australia capitalised on Indonesia’s invasion and prioritised oil greed over Timor-Leste’s sovereignty. For all Morrison’s claims of a 'great friendship' and his government’s celebration of ‘20 years together’, the truth is that Australia’s history with Timor-Leste is far longer and more fraught that he’d have you believe. It’s an unjust, manipulative and exploitative relationship characterised by Australia’s greed and short-sightedness. And it’s a truth Australia must wake up to, lest it suffocate in its own stories. 


Sophie RaynorSophie Raynor is a freelance writer just returned home to Perth after two years living in Dili.

Main image: Protesters hold up signs during Anti-Australia protests on December 6, 2013 in Dili, Timor-Leste. (Photo: Pamela Martin/Getty Images).

Topic tags: Sophie Raynor, Timor-Leste, Scott Morrison, Witness K



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Existing comments

At the heart of Australia's disdain for an authentic relationship with Timor-Leste is self-interest writ large, a need for control and the perception that our culture is somehow more valuable. It is fairly easy for a small, struggling nation to perceive this lack of respect. It shows and the answer for Australia is to decide: do we genuinely want to share our future with Timor-Leste or do we want to continue our quest to dominate? A good start would be to drop the charges against Collaery and Witness K. And then, start getting past the desire to be the big kid on the block.

Pam | 05 September 2019  

Excellent article Sophie. Totally agree, and how ashamed I am of Australia’s behaviour to Timor Leste and these two men. Having seen first hand the huge difference in the quality of lifestyles between Australians and ema Timor, I despair at Australia’s selfishness.

Jane W | 06 September 2019  

Not only should Australian government policy have a preferential option for the poor, it should also have one for small Christian nations in a rapidly paganising world. If the diplomatic relationship with Timor-Leste was a marriage, Australia would be the abusive partner. As faith can be overwhelmed by stumbling blocks, dogs that are regularly beaten become incorrigibly nasty, and the potential for sin exists even in the poor, rough treatment of Timor-Leste can vivify ugly nationalistic sentiments dormant in any polity and bring about a government by the less sunny side of the nation. There is plenty of money for the less sunny side available from China.

roy chen yee | 07 September 2019  

What a terrific article Sophie! Your phrase about Australia's tendency to "suffocate in its own stories" is inspired. Thank you for raising the World War II aspect of the Australia/Timor relationship. It is crucial to an understanding of the uniqueness of that relationship. You have highlighted the one constant companion to decisions made regarding Timor - greed. You have deftly illustrated the tactics employed to satisfy that greed - deceit. Placing all this in the context of the independence anniversary, the Australian PM's platitudes, and Shirley Shackleton's splendid intervention brings home once again the truly awful bumbling bull-in-a-china shop that is the Australian presence in the region. Your excellent insights into the current outrage against Witness K and Bernard Collaery must be shared, and I will be sending the link to this article to my list. Thank you so much Sophie for this and your other articles which do so much for truth and justice.

Susan Connelly | 08 September 2019  

"No permanent friends only permanent interests." Tell that to the Australian military intelligence men who trained the Timorese to fight against the Japanese. They meant it when they assured their recruits: "Your friends do not forget you". I was fortunate to meet some RSL members in the 1960s who had served in Timor. They described the Timorese as having "Small bodies, big hearts." These RSL men are all dead now but I'm sure they would have been disgusted to learn that an Australian government had spied on a courageous WW2 ally. For commercial gain. Shameful.

Uncle Pat | 08 September 2019  

The Australian Nation and its leaders have lied to the East Timorese since before WWII and the Witness K spy trial and the grab of the Greater Sunrise Oil Field in the Timor Sea is shameful. We are selfish and we screw our poorer neighbours for our fiscal gain !

DAVID FIELD | 09 September 2019  

As a person who has been involved with East Timorese solidarity for 44 years. I want to say a thunderous "Amen" to what you have written, Sophie. I would go further, however, because of what they did to support the Indonesian military (TNI) during its 24 year long, illegal and brutal occupation of East Timor, it has to be said that Australia's political leaders during that time aided and abetted the genocide. Since its independence in 2002, Australian leaders have been involved in trying to rip off the resources of Timor-Leste - the poorest nation in our region that lost about 1/3 of its population, 80% of its infrastructure and leaving many of the people totally traumatised. Nearly 2000 more East Timorese died at the hands of the TNI and its quisling Timorese militias because the Howard government argued that unarmed police keepers would have no difficulties with the presence of the TNI. History has shown that this was tragic folly. Yes, Australia helped with the UN peacekeeping to East Timor, but it was a very reluctant saviour. After all, John Howard urged the Timorese to vote to remain with Indonesia during the referendum!. There are 3 major factors in Timor-Leste's independence: 1. the East Timorese resistance (FALINTIL and RENETIL) 2. the courageous UN police and military peacekeepers who made sure the referendum occurred and forced the TNI - the largest terrorist force in our region - out . 3. International solidarity There is a great love and solidarity that ordinary Australians have with the East Timorese. It is to be hoped that our government drops the charges against Witness K and Bernard Collaery and pays Timor-Leste the money it has accumulated from its 1/2 of the Timor Sea. VIVA TIMOR-LESTE INDEPENDENTE!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 09 September 2019  

Quelle. Surprise. White supremacy rules makes one sick

Irena | 09 September 2019  

Good onya Sophie, some plain speaking; for a change

Rob Wesley-Smith | 10 September 2019  

Scooter (Scott Morrison) is just following the example of his mate Trump, and trashing Australia's "soft power" and reputation abroad.

Bruce Stafford | 12 September 2019  

One sided and cynical piece of "analysis" here. One that sees complexity and nuance reduced to cliches. One hundred activists march in protest at Morrison's visit? Espionage in world war two? Really? The major event of East Timor's history, the vote for independence and Australia's role in confronting Indonesia - an event that almost led to war - is ignored. A war entirely against Australia's national interests. Whilst many individuals are not covered with glory - the spying incident and the pursuit of the whistleblowers deserves condemnation - much of this is historically inaccurate. There is no contextualisation to the events of world war two. A massive invasion of the entire Asian and Pacific region. Australia under attack. Sparrow force heroically resisted invasion in Timor. To link this to current events is narrow and nonsensical analysis of history. The authentic aspects of the Australia/East Timor relationship - education links, a large East Timorese community in Australia, growing trade links, thousands of "sister" and "brother" relationships through schools, churches and businesses, are ignored. Yes, nations act in self interest. East Timor will do the same. The challenge is to educate people to a better way. Analysis done in this tone - biased, narrowly focused, cynical, without the acknowledgement of the complexities of these issues - will not achieve much but get applause in an echo chamber.

John Kilner | 12 September 2019  

Excellent, insightful article, Sophie. Thank you for shedding light on an often obscured, yet exceedingly important concern for all Australians.

Chris Hughes | 13 September 2019  

Good article Sophie. Timor Leste has a special place in our hearts, not because of the spying issue or because of Scomo's pupulist grandstanding, but because Australian and UN troops helped free the civilian population from 24 years of brutal oppression mirrored again in West Papua by Indonesian Military police. The LNP Government's macro view has been paternalistic and coloured by self interest in regard to the oil/gas revenue. So you are dead right, there needs to be a change of heart. St Marys and Assissi Coomera have been sending students annually to Dili and Soybada since Scorched Earth and there is a strong bond between the communities at a micro level. As for Collaery and Witness k, again their public crucifixion takes the heat off a Government obsessed with revenue and re election rather than a Fair Deal for Timor Leste. As for the continuing atrocities and oppression in West Papua, while we all egg America on to intervene in Hong Kong, we should not be turning a blind eye to what's happening in our own back yard.

francis Armstrong | 15 September 2019  

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