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East Timor's independence is from Australia


Jose Ramos HortaWith East Timor marking ten years of independence on Sunday, it's relevant to ask which nation in particular they are celebrating independence from. 

It could be the colonial master Portugal, as the UN did not accept the Indonesian invasion, and East Timor was officially Portuguese from 1702 until independence in 2002.

In the minds of many, it's obviously Indonesia, given the brutal repression of the period of Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999.

But there is also a sense in which East Timorese value independence because it's a reminder that they do not hold ties and obligations to Australia, which might have become their neo-colonial master.

After the widespread killing of its people and systematic destruction of East Timor's infrastructure when the Indonesians left in 1999, Australia came to help. It played a leading role in INTERFET, the UN-backed peacekeeping force commanded by General Peter Cosgrove.

Because nothing worked, Australia lent infrastructure to East Timor. For example Telstra's Australian mobile phone network was extended to include parts of East Timor.

Australia was on a path to cementing its ties with East Timor, which it hoped would be grateful and compliant. But it didn't turn out that way. Very soon it became clear that East Timorese did not want such a relationship with Australia, which history had taught them to regard with caution. The help received had been on Australia's terms, East Timor had many friends, and it was ready to move on.

Indeed it put obstacles in the way of further assistance from Australia, which may or may not have been intentional. Its interim leaders chose to adopt Portuguese and not the more pragmatic English as the language with which they would communicate with the outside world. Rather than the mooted Australian dollar, they took the US dollar as their unit of currency. They adopted a legal system based on that of the Portuguese. 

The years after independence saw Australia become increasingly 'on the nose' for East Timorese. We used our muscle to try to dictate a share of oil revenue from the Timor Sea which they perceived as unfair. This was a reminder that Australian maneuvering to secure more oil went back to 1974, when Portugal lost its grip, and officials in Canberra were arguing that Australia would get a better deal if Indonesia controlled Timor.

East Timor believed Australia owed a debt of gratitude to it for the assistance rendered by its citizens to Australian guerrilla fighters attempting to hold back the Japanese during World War II. Author Paul Cleary has documented this in his book The Men who Came Out of the Ground.

At the time, Australia dropped leaflets over the countryside of East Timor, declaring: 'Your Friends Do Not Forget You'. But three decades later, the Whitlam Government betrayed the East Timorese when it sanctioned the Indonesian takeover in 1975. '

Moreover in 2010, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rebuffed a grassroots campaign led by Josephite Sister Susan Connelly that called for formal recognition and compensation for the war-time assistance from East Timorese. 

Australia's one good friend among those who call the shots in East Timor, President Jose Ramos Horta, was resoundingly defeated during the first round of the presidential elections in March, and leaves office tomorrow.

While magnanimous by nature, Ramos Horta has always championed ties with Australia in particular. He bonded with us immediately after he settled here as an exile following the Indonesian invasion. He owes his life to Australian surgeons who operated on him in Darwin after he was struck down by the assassination attempt.

In 2010 he isolated himself from others in the Government of East Timor when he feigned openness to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's ill-conceived plans for an offshore immigration detention centre in East Timor. Last year he even offered an olive branch to Australian oil and gas company Woodside.

As Pat Walsh observed in Eureka Street after Ramos Horta's defeat, many Australians were shocked by the result. Our friendship with Ramos Horta is something of a metaphor for our relationship with East Timor. We were wrong in our estimation of the East Timorese people's perceived need for Ramos Horta as their president, and we are also wrong if we think that an independent East Timor needs us as a benevolent force in its life.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins worked in East Timor with Caritas Australia in 1999.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta, independence, INTERFET, Portugal



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Existing comments

Thank you for this insightful article, Michael. One of worrying the aspects of the Australia/East Timor relationship is that there are still so many good people around whose limited knowledge consists mainly of a vague idea that East Timor was in trouble, Australia came to the rescue and we have been "generous". I meet them all the time, and they are amazed when they hear a few facts. The draft Senior Secondary History Curriculum is in the consultation phase until July 20. With two minor mentions of Timor in it I don't believe that the draft goes nearly far enough. People could go to http://consultation.australiancurriculum.edu.au/ and have their say. At the very least, in Unit 4 (The Modern World since 1945) in the elective topic Engagement with Asia, Timor should be presented as a free standing element of choice e.g.: "The significance of Australia's policies concerning East Timor, including the effects of Australian presence there in World War II, the Balibó Five, the invasion and occupation by Indonesia, Timorese independence and the resources of the Timor Sea." "Sporting ties with Asia" get a look in, why not something more substantial on East Timor?

Sister Susan Connelly | 18 May 2012  

Australians have close unbreakable ties with the Timorese through humanitarian projects that, unlike the Australian government, is not quid pro quo or outright theft of resources. Australians have contributed to the well being of their Timor neighbour with friendship alliances and sister cities (towns districts etc) such as the French's Forest parish that has funded a crucial water project and scholarships in Alas, Kangaroo Valley Friends of Remexio, plus all the contributors to the educational and health Mary Mackillop programmes to name a few. Love in action no less.

Vacy Vlazna | 18 May 2012  

With no disrespect to the author, it's symbolic that Australia dogmatically persists in calling Timor-Leste 'East Timor', its pre-independence name.

George D | 18 May 2012  

Thank you for documenting another of the great- amongst- many disasters engineered by the Whitlam government and the legacy inherited therefrom. Lest we forget!

john frawley | 18 May 2012  

The truth is we (timorese) valued the friendships nexus with Australians and many others citizen of the world. We continue to expanse the galaxy of our friendships as making friends make no harms to us. One thing our friends (whoever they are) needs to understand is that we do know and are clear of what we want for our country.

Carmen of Lospalos | 18 May 2012  

Re George D's comment: I'd prefer to call it Timor Loro-sa'e. But don't we call most countries by our own name for them, rather than what they call themselves? In many cases we don't even know what they call themselves.

Gavan | 18 May 2012  

@GeorgeD: If we don't call Germany Deutschland or Spain España or Japan Nippon why would we adopt the affectation of calling East Timor by its equivalent Portuguese name?

Michael A | 18 May 2012  

Thank you for this article, Michael. After reading the book, 'The Men that came out of the Ground', I was moved by the heroism of both the East Timorese people who risked their lives (many eventually being killed) for Australians, and the inspiring Sparrow Force who forged such strong ties with our allies in the 2nd World War. We need to show real gratitude to the people by recognising their huge contribution to Australia's freedom. Religious such as Sr Susan Connelly and the many people who work tirelssly to support Timorese people in building infrastructure and education are to be congratulated for their tireless dedication. They also create a new awareness of what we owe these wonderful people.

Sister Margaret Therese Cusack | 19 May 2012  

Gough Whitlam did not sanction the takeover in 1975. It happened after Whitlam was sacked and Fraser was installed.

Marilyn | 21 May 2012  

Why should an independent East Timor have modelled itself on Australia, any more than the countries of Western Europe or East Asia modelled themselves after the US? I don't recall English being an official language in Norway or the US dollar being legal tender in South Korea, out of gratitude for being liberated from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The comments regarding the choice of official language, currency and legal system are patronising. Portuguese is not East Timor's sole official language, much less the only language that it uses for international communication. Thankfully, not all Australians living in East Timor are monoglot English speakers, and nor do they think that Indonesian is the only other language worth learning - many now speak Tetum, putting Portuguese expats to shame. Lastly, I will call East Timor 'Timor Leste' in English when people who use the term come up with an alternative to 'East Timorese' - 'Timor Lestean' would be my preferred one, not because it's something George W Bush might have used, but because it sounds similar to the Tetum 'oan' and Mambai 'ana' meaning 'child'. 'Timorese' in Tetum is 'Timor oan', literally 'Timor child'.

Ken Westmoreland | 21 May 2012  

Marilyn, the physical Indonesian invasion happened just after Whitlam was sacked, but in the preceding months when he was PM Whitlam and his government repeatedly assured Indonesia that Australia had no problem with Indonesia taking over East Timor and incorporating it into Indonesia, in fact they urged them on and said that's exactly what Australia wanted to happen. For 37 years Whitlam has refused to offer a word of apology or regret. At the same time, and for the same supposed reason "pragmatism", Whitlam's became the only government in the non-Communist world to recognise the illegal incorporation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the USSR which had violently subjugated them. And Whitlam and his government warmly applauded the violent subjugation of South Vietnam by Communist North Vietnam, and insisted that Australia not accept any Vietnamese refugees from Communism, saying "We don't want any f...ing Vietnamese Balts - they won't vote for us." If East Timor (and Papua-New-Guinea, West New Guinea, the Solomons, Nauru, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Moluccas) had been incorporated into the Commonwealth of Australia as equal States (as our Constitution envisaged) their hapless people would have fared much better than they have over the past 40 years.

Sharon | 21 May 2012  

Some interesting observations, Sharon. As it happens, in the 1960's the Portuguese Prime Minister Salazar offered Australia joint, or even full sovereignty over East Timor, but Menzies said it wasn't something either the Australians or the Timorese wanted. After decolonisation began in 1974, Foreign Affairs even argued against reopening the Australian Consulate in Dili, on the grounds that it would give the impression that Australia was a party principal to the future of Timor. Thre was even a party advocating integration with Australia called ADITLA, but that got turned down pretty quickly by Canberra.

Ken Westmoreland | 22 May 2012  

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