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Bullied relations: Australia, East Timor and natural resources

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 9 March 2018

The 2,500 page Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, transmitted by Gusmão, then East Timorese president, to the national parliament in November 2005 referenced hundreds of illuminating formerly classified US and British documents. These showed tacit approval by both the US and UK for the invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the status quo till 1999, during which some 100,000 Timorese died.

There were even open instances of Indonesian officials showing interest, as a National Security Council memorandum to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger states, "in knowing the American attitude regarding Portuguese Timor (and, by implication, our reaction to a possible Indonesian takeover)." They were not disappointed.

As late as 2014, the Australian government would go to considerable lengths to prevent the release of files pertaining to Canberra's knowledge of Indonesian troop deployments during the occupation. Of particular sensitivity were operations conducted in late 1981 and early 1982 which ended in predictable massacre. In a decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal agreeing with the government, President Justice Duncan Kerr claimed with Kafkaesque absurdity that he had to "express conclusions which I am unable to explain".


What the justice did reveal was a tantalising titbit on the regional bullying East Timor has been subjected to at the hands of murderous and occasionally complicit powers. Evidence submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade revealed a certain insistence on the part of US authorities in 2013 wanting "the Australian government to continue to restrict access to… four documents" with "ongoing sensitivities".

East Timor remains a state on a drip. It is impoverished. Despite all this, the Australian preference remains determined and exploitative. The issue on where the oil and gas will be processed continues as a niggling sore point. Canberra prefers that piping take place through Darwin, with an 80 percent revenue sweetener to East Timor.

That will hardy pass muster for Dili, which sees value in having the processing facility in East Timor, where a "petroleum hub" is being developed. To that end, it is even willing to surrender a revenue cut to Australia. Power machinations, and Australia's petroleum lobby, may well yet undo these arrangements. The regional bully remains renascent.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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