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Guerilla diggers' East Timor debt


The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground, by Paul ClearyOn 23 June, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's last day as prime minister, he hosted a lunch in Parliament House Canberra with East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta. At about 2pm he met with Nora Kenneally, whom I think became the very last ordinary Australian citizen to meet with him as PM.

Nora is the widow of Paddy Kenneally, one of the most outstanding veterans from Australia's Timor campaign during the Second World War. From the end of the war until his death at the age of 93, Kenneally made it his business to remind people of the simple fact Australians owed the Timorese people a great deal — that he and his mates owed their lives to them.

Prior to the lunch Rudd held a press conference with President Ramos Horta, who was visiting Australia for his first state visit as president. At the press conference Rudd announced a total of five 'dedicated' scholarships for East Timorese students in recognition of the Timorese who 'showed solidarity' with Australia's Sparrow Force during the Second World War.

'Showed solidarity' was Rudd-speak for the hundreds of Timorese and Portuguese men and boys who had served side by side with Australia's guerilla fighters, enabling them to stage an amazing behind-enemy-lines commando campaign throughout 1942. The campaign, involving the first Australians trained as special forces commandos, tied up several thousand Japanese troops while the battle for New Guinea was underway.

Rudd was responding to a grassroots campaign calling for formal recognition and compensation for this legendary war-time assistance. But the announcement seemed a token gesture — it was simply an allocation from the existing Australia Awards scholarship program.

And it all seemed very rushed and last minute; the scholarships weren't even given a name, and Rudd didn't even make a speech during the official lunch at Parliament House.

Activist Josephite nun Sister Susan Connelly has gathered 24,000 petitions in support of an honorary AC for the people of Timor. The initiative was rejected by Rudd. Tony Abbott says should he win office he will revisit this proposal and consider any other worthwhile initiative.

While Australia has made a significant contribution to the country over the past decade, particularly with two military interventions, more could be done in a targeted way to show that Australia is true to the words contained in a leaflet dropped over Timor during the war: 'Your Friends Do Not Forget You'.

Australians clearly forgot this promise in 1975, when the Whitlam Government sanctioned an Indonesian takeover. While those events were complex, we've had opportunity to deliver on this promise from 1999 onwards, but we seem to be missing the mark.

After the independence ballot, Australia missed an opportunity to fully engage in the reconstruction effort. The country really needed a substantial reconstruction effort after 1999 given that most of its infrastructure was destroyed and it had to rebuild an entire government system from scratch. The Howard Government responded a bit like Rudd, just because the Timorese leadership was standing up for their rights in the Timor Sea oil and gas negotiations.

After the $2 billion military intervention was wound down, Australia's aid program was reduced to a rather stingy $40 million. It has now been increased to around $100 million, although we know that a lot of our aid boomerangs its way back home.

After independence there was literally a handful of doctors in the country. To rebuild their health system the Timorese had to go all the way to Cuba for training their medical students and for getting stop-gap doctors and nurses into the country. Australia's short-sighted approach to the rebuilding of Timor has enabled China to get a big foot in the door, emerging as an influential player with close ties to the country's elite. China recently sold patrol boats to the country and has been busy building grand edifices that the political elite seem to want.

It is true that East Timor now has substantial oil revenue; but the problem is that money is not reaching into these poor places. Part of the problem is lack of capacity to deliver services on the ground; another element is explained by corruption. The country now has a substantial budget of about $1 billion, but it was evident to me during a recent visit that this level of expenditure is just not hitting the ground.

This is why I think a range of community based aid projects can make a difference in this very poor country. Poverty in East Timor is great. The country is in a fragile position, notwithstanding substantial investment and growth in the capital, Dili. Other parts of the country remain on par with the most miserable parts of Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

I think it is in Australia's own interest to make restitution for the wartime support of the Timorese and Portuguese people. I think we could certainly do something that is more imaginative, and more substantial, than award five scholarships which would have been awarded anyway.

Paul ClearyPaul Cleary is a senior writer with The Australian. This is an edited version of the text of Paul Cleary's address at The Sydney Institute last week, following publication of his latest book The Men Who Came Out of the Ground (Hatchette Australia). The full text is available here.


Topic tags: Jose Ramos Horta, Paddy Keneally, East Timor, John Curtin, The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground



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Existing comments

This is not a comment on the main thrust of your article which I fully support.

The late Sir Bernard Callinan, eminent Catholic layman, tells the story of the heroic and successful exploits of the small numbers of Austrlian troops in East Timor who in 1942 delayed and diverted the Japenese in their downward march to Australia in his book "Independent Company". It contains a fascinating record of the wonderful support the Australian of his calibre won and retained from the wonderful Timorese people.

joe | 25 August 2010  

Currently living in Timor Leste as a volunteer I have to say that while 5 dedicated scholarships may seem a bit miserly it is properly educated East Timorese will be the saviour of this country. My belief is that in this incredibly complex environment a properly trained and educated generation would be the circuit breaker and enable this wonderful country to break from its past and embrace its destiny.

While schools and universities exist here and are doing their best to educate the youth of this nation the government readily admits and is attempting to deal with the outflow of teaching resources onece the Indonesians left.

If the people and government of Australia wish to help this nation - and they are doing a lot individually and collectively - as with all third world nations education is the key - it is the tide that lifts all boats.

Paul Coghlan | 25 August 2010  

Paul Cleary whose wonderful talent and thorough research have brought us two superb books - this one and Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor oil;. Thank you, Paul.

It's still OK to sign our petition: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/remembertimor.html

We believe something symbolic must be done, but also something practical must be put in place to honour this unique part of our shared history. A major display at the War Memorial as well as significant educational assistance is called for. I was surprised to learn of the five scholarships, surprised and fairly embarrassed I may add. Five? I understand what one of the men of the 2/2 said in my hearing: "The Timorese are the only people I cannot look in the eye."

Sister Susan Connelly | 25 August 2010  

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