Subject: Bulletin: Aussie go home [full article]

The Bulletin

Aussie go home

by Paul Toohey

08/18/2004

Indonesian war crimes can be forgiven but Australia`s equivocal role in East Timor`s history has earned us distrust and hostility, writes Paul Toohey.

IN THE HILLS OF EAST TIMOR THE ZOMBIE PEOPLE stare vacant-eyed from little shacks. Despite liberation and independence, the curse remains upon them. They are listless peasant farmers, aged 40 and more, sticks of men seemingly bereft of imagination and ambition. The spark plugs have been removed. They have known colonialists, invaders and now, freedom, but none of it seems to register.

They are as they have always been: the most basic form of humanity imaginable, programmed only for minimalist survival. Ask what they think of the Australian government’s position on the Timor Gap, they smile and look helplessly quizzical. They have neither the energy nor the knowledge to understand. But step down from the bare hills into the beautifully ruined seafront city of Dili, the nation’s capital. Here there is no confusion. The people are alert, busy and angry. They strongly believe Australia is screwing them over oil and gas. It is not uninformed comment. They know exactly who our senior politicians are, by name and portfolio, whether Liberal or Labor. Even moderate, politically unaligned people consider Canberra to be the new Jakarta.

It s a long way from 1999, when the Australian-led Interfet force overran Dili, sending Indonesian soldiers to barracks and pushing the militia over the border into West Timor.

The issue of who owns what in the Timor Gap has not yet become personal. The 40 to 50 Australian businessmen who remain in East Timor after the UN pulled out most of its administration and peacekeepers in May have not been singled out for abuse. There have been anti-Australian hunger strikers who quickly found their appetite; and two mild protests have been directed at the monolithic Australian Embassy compound which, despite its location on the grimy main road between the airport and Dili central, somehow remains impervious to the surrounding filth. Starkly white and overbearing, it is in East Timorese eyes a fitting metaphor for the great southern neighbour.

When hundreds of East Timorese gathered at the embassy gates in April and May to cry for justice, Dili resident Domingos Gusmao, a frail 72-year-old who pushes a cart selling 10¢ coconuts, took the chance to have a chant against Australia. Why? As an illiterate person I don t see with my own eyes whether the Australian government steals our oil. But public opinion is that they steal our resources. That is what I say as well. While East Timor complains to an increasingly sympathetic international audience over Australia s theft of oil and gas offshore in the Timor Gap, East Timorese seem blind to what is happening closer to home. Their own newborn legal system is failing due to laziness and corruption; sexual abuse of women is running at appalling levels; the government is showing all the signs of becoming a midget dictatorship.

Timorese now realise their beloved president, ex-guerilla fighter Xanana Gusmao, is nothing more than a figurehead rendered powerless by the constitution. He sometimes gets angry for instance, about the Timor Gap and police bullying but generally he is infuriatingly and necessarily diplomatic. All authority resides with the prime minister, Mari Alkitiri, and a few of his senior ministers along with the increasingly hated East Timorese police.

A month ago, police arrested and detained small-time political player Alberto Pires for speaking publicly against the government. He was charged with causing a disturbance and defamation. Soon after, 24 harmless diehards who don't recognise the government were arrested and detained for refusing to take part in the July census. Then 31 men associated with nuisance Falantil veteran Elle Sette, or L7, were arrested and badly beaten by police for parading in public and asking for jobs.

A report on the justice system complains that judges and prosecutors don't bother turning up to court. Parliament struggles to get a quorum because politicians don't turn up either. East Timor is turning its back on every hard-won right it fought for but the only issue in Dili is the Timor Gap and the rapacious, thieving Australians. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal on June 21, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer wrote: In recent years no country has done more than Australia to assist the people of East Timor.

And this is what makes the Timorese see red. We may have come good for East Timor in 1999, but not nearly good enough. In the backstreet human rights organisations of Dili, wall posters name former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam as a wanted war criminal, along with the likes of ex-Indonesian president Soeharto and ex-army boss Wiranto. Whitlam's government set the stage for winning highly favourable territorial rights to oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea in return for recognising Indonesia's forced sovereignty over East Timor. It was an embarrassingly self-interested sell-out and Whitlam doesn't like to talk about it much these days. But the East Timorese do. They also remember how in 1989 Australian Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans clinked champagne glasses with his Indonesian equivalent at 30,000ft as they celebrated the division of oil and gas spoils in the Timor Sea below them. The memory of Australia playing God with Timorese lives stretches back even further, to World War II, when 50,000 Timorese died on Australia's behalf. Australian commandos who entered the then-Portuguese-held colony to blockade the Japanese eventually retreated, mid-war, leaving the Timorese to face a terrible reprisal.

One Australian businessman in East Timor (they don't like to be named for fear that a wrong word could see them deported) says that if a statue of former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie, who granted the Timorese their ultimately disastrous autonomy vote in 1999, was erected alongside a statue of John Howard on a Dili street, Habibie's would last longer. We are no more seen as big buddy. The Timor Gap has cast Canberra back in the role East Timorese expect of it neighbourhood bully. Fidelis Magalhaes, 24, was born under the Indonesians. His great-grandfather was executed by the Japanese for assisting Australian commandos. He was taught by his family that this death was a waste. "My great-grandfather was simply a victim of ignorance," Magalhaes says. He fought for and helped a country that was fighting for its own interests. Then Magalhaes father was killed by the Indonesian-backed militia in 1999. Coming from a proud resistance family, he rates his father's death as worthwhile because he died for East Timor. Like most East Timorese, Magalhaes has no issue with Indonesian people. There are a lot of them in Dili, a lot who run businesses, he says. "I also have no problems with Australians in Timor. But when it comes to their governments, I have a problem. I see them pretty much as equal, the same." Many Australians would be appalled to think Canberra had earned this reputation in East Timor. "Come on, your government has always been mean-spirited," Magalhaes says. "You did not care about your next-door neighbour being slaughtered. You did not give a damn it meant nothing to you. We are not the first country screwed by Australia. I don t know whether the issue of oil was on your government's agenda when you came here in 1999. But I think Australia thought it would be better to negotiate oil and maritime boundaries with a weaker Timor than a weak Indonesia."

While much of Dili remains in ruins, East Timor has been quick to build a hardnosed diplomatic front. It does not recognise Taiwan thanks to strong Chinese patronage; it would never offend Indonesia by uttering a peep about West Papua s desire for independence, even though only a few years ago East Timor faced an almost identical struggle; and the Portuguese one suspects much to Australia's annoyance are doing much to win back the admiration of their former colony.

It's funny, Magalhaes says, that the Australians in Timor hate the Portuguese more than we hate the Indonesians. Dirt-poor East Timorese can approach Portugal's BNU bank for small business loans that in all likelihood will never be repaid; meanwhile, the ANZ bank around the corner offers nothing. Australia regards East Timor s decision to adopt Portuguese as its official language as recalcitrant and stupid, given that English is the international language of diplomacy and business. That's the patronising view of Australians, Magalhaes says. We saved your necks, your lives, now listen to what we have to say. It's enough that Darwin is our neighbour. We did not fight to become part of Australia. Nor did they fight to remain a part of Indonesia, but that is effectively what is occurring. The daily Airnorth flights from Darwin to Dili are half full Merpati Airlines daily Denpasar-Dili run is always full. Some 200 people are said to be crossing the land border into East Timor every day, and Indonesian smugglers are more than welcome. Unleaded fuel sells for 50¢ a litre in East Timor but 20¢ in West Timor. Every night, caravans of men lug discount jerrycans of petrol and cartons of cigarettes across the unattended border.

Despite predictions Dili s economy would collapse after this year's big UN exodus, the reverse is happening. Dili is a boomtown albeit one that's booming on small money as a more natural South-East Asian-type economy asserts itself. When the UN ran Dili, all products were designed for foreign guests. Washing powder was Australian-made and sold in 5kg boxes, which locals could not afford. Now the products are Indonesian or Malaysian and the packaging reflects those markets. Washing powder can be bought in small 50g packets. And the Chinese merchants who understand this economy so well are back in numbers. Shops which were boarded up for years have tossed open shutters. Crap shoes, mystery-brand TVs and DVDs, small cars with cute names and plastic Winnie the Pooh clocks are flooding the streets.

Javanese prostitutes wait behind flimsy teak doors in Chinese restaurants where no one eats, servicing foreigners at $US15 ($21) a shot. The East Timorese prostitutes (who, of course, do not exist in this devoutly Catholic country) cater for locals on hard beds in rattan shacks at $US5. The ever-essential bottled water now comes from Timorese mountain springs, rather than Darwin. The markets are brimming with locally grown produce, as well as spanish mackerel, pink snapper, sawfish, squid and an unrecognised species of tiny bug-eyed fish piled on tables on the seafront boulevard. People are hungry, but finally able to spend almost within their means. And Telstra, which ran communications post-1999, got booted out. East Timor finally has a decent, broad-coverage phone service.

In a perverse way, Australia might prefer East Timor to remain a mendicant, aid needy neighbour. As with Papua New Guinea, we'd like them to come to us before anyone else. But East Timor is seeking its own identity. The brief grip Australia had on Timorese hearts and minds during 1999 is being lost over the Timor Gap. Timorese suspect one of the reasons Australia is in no hurry to fix the dispute over maritime boundaries is because if East Timor were to become wealthy, it would find it had no need to link with Australia at all.

Joao Sarmento, spokesman for Lao Hamutuk, running the international campaign against Australia over the Timor Gap, has a predictable anti-Australian rant. But his organisation is getting under Australia's guard. Most of the non-government Timor Gap propaganda is disseminated from his pokey office, and has been heard as far away as the US Congress. Sarmento says the money Australia has given in aid to East Timor belittles that stolen from the Timor Gap since 1999.

"People see [your] government as thieves," he says. "It is beyond belief that such a rich country still tries to rob the resource that should belong to East Timor. We are the poorest country in South-East Asia. We have high infant mortality, low literacy, low infrastructure, poor schools. I think Australia should see this. We hope for Latham and a new Labor government."

Such views are not going to affect the outcome of the Australian federal election. Nor does it seem to matter to Sarmento that the Whitlam and Hawke governments, which comprehensively did East Timor over in 1972 and 1989, were Labor. "We just hope for change," he says.

THE LAST TIME WE MET WAS 1999. Then, Joni Marques was a prisoner of East Timor's Falantil fighters. It was a remote mountain camp, where Marques guardians were showing great restraint by not cutting out his heart and feeding it to the dogs. They were instead patiently waiting to deliver him to justice. Marques, 40, as the leader of the Los Palos-based Team Alpha militia group, killed nine people, including three untrained priests, two nuns, one ordained priest and an Indonesian journalist. Marques is or should be one of East Timor s most reviled figures.

Dili s Becora prison is a startlingly relaxed set-up. Visitors are not even required to produce ID. When asked if it would be possible to speak to Marques, a guard simply wanders off and gets him. Prison life seems to suit Marques. He has put on weight, wears a beard and his wild afro is cropped short. He has many friends within these walls. "I doubt I could survive out there, he says, gesturing to the thin concrete walls he could easily scramble over if he wished. I've done something against all people. Against every single man and woman on Earth. People hate me. In terms of my case, it s not just East Timor that's angry with me. It's the whole world."

I'd asked him, in 1999, whether he had killed Sister Ermenia and Sister Celeste. Yes, he said at the time, but I don t remember it. I don t remember what happened. He'd said he was drunk and being force-fed drugs. Now, he doesn't want to revisit the crime, saying: You know what happened. Like many militia, Marques sees himself as a victim of the Indonesians who pulled his strings. He wonders why they remain unpunished, living in Indonesia. Outside, a new nation the one Marques and his murderous band tried so hard to render stillborn is still taking its uncertain first steps. And Marques claims to be happy for it. Every nation in the world should be free, he says, seemingly unaware how bizarre the platitude sounds coming from him. Yet his warm blessings for East Timor are made with self-interest. President Gusmao, in an act of forgiveness on the second anniversary of independence, slashed nine years off Marques 33-year sentence. Every day in Dili, the Serious Crimes Tribunal hears cases against militia. While the charges are serious, and the judges and lawyers intent, the scene is curious. Like everything in East Timor, nothing is quite as it seems. Every apparent truth conceals a multitude of contradictions.

Take the seven ex-Aitarak militia from Hera, just east of Dili, who were being tried for torture and persecution. Witnesses spoke of the men's deeds without anger or recrimination, giving matter-of-fact accounts of the period in 1999 when close neighbours and extended family turned into monsters. It was as though they were all still friends. The seven accused had come back to live in Hera without hassle. All were self-bailed and turned up to court each day of their own free will. Boston-based chief judge Phillip Rapoza offers no explanation as to why this is. I have to say the overwhelming majority of defendants awaiting trial routinely turn up to court. It is not my experience in the US.

Gambian-born prosecutor Essa Faal also finds it hard to understand. He says many accused militia seem to want to face the justice system and take their chances . Perhaps it s because the endlessly forgiving Gusmao has expressed a view that the Serious Crimes Tribunal should be disbanded; that all militia should be pardoned and set free, arguing that unity is more important than justice. Nor does Gusmao want to see the hard-core criminals who remain in Indonesia brought back to trial.

The Dili District Court handles all routine cases; 55% involve crimes against women. The independent Judicial System Monitoring Program found that, despite heavy reporting of domestic violence, not one case got to court in 2003. Benny Correia-Barros, East Timor bar association president, despairs. He cites the case of a man arrested for running a gambling house, who he alleges had $US100,000 seized. Correia-Barros has made repeated requests to the government and the police commissioner as to the whereabouts of the money. No one will reply to his letters. We have very serious violations of the rule of law, no transparency and no democracy, he says. Many people feel the new East Timor is running with corruption and abuse of power. My heart tells me this place is going back to the Indonesian ways. This country is headed for dictatorship. East Timorese people hate our police very much. They are cruel and treat people like the enemy. Every night I also fear I will be arrested for speaking out.

In a quest to find signs of uncorrupted life, you might turn down a back road in the west of Dili, near the old chopper drome, to the Bairo Pito Clinic. There, Dr Dan Murphy, an American and in all likelihood a living saint, is still seeing 300 patients a day. Murphy's been here since 1998, refusing to budge through the militia rampages, refusing to give up even as the fuss over East Timor loses emotional pull. His is necessarily fast-food medicine a quick listen with the stethoscope, a hurried pump of the sphygmomanometer, a furiously scrawled prescription. TB, malaria, dengue fever, leprosy, STDs and HIV are the issues, in that order. "I figure if I keep working hard, people will keep giving," Murphy says. "It's mainly Australian and American money from private citizens and companies, not governments that keeps the clinic going. The people of East Timor seem to know this.

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