Subject: James Dunn on Timor's Birth-pangs

The East Timor Nation's Birth-pangs, the UN Role, and Australia's Diminishing Generosity James Dunn

It is sometimes hard to believe that only three years ago events in or involving East Timor captured the attention and sympathy of the Australian media and political establishment. Thanks to the TNI/militia violence in 1999 the Australian conscience had at last been activated. But after the former Portuguese colony became an independent nation in May 2002 the interest of most of our politicians and media went on a sharp decline. Australia had done its bit and it was now up to East Timor's political leaders to guide the new nation to economic prosperity and political stability.

As we saw it, the Australian-led Interfet force had persuaded the TNI to withdraw from their captive colony. Australia then became a leading supporter of the UNTAET mission, which brought the new nation into being. Our political leaders seemed to feel that we had really done enough, and that the East Timorese now owed us a debt. That view was evidently a consideration behind the Howard Government's unbending stand over the division of profits from the exploitation of the Timor Gap's rich resources. The strong stand of the East Timorese leaders for a better share - one that international law would almost certainly bestow on them - was resented by the Australian Government. The ongoing debate over this thorny issue has obscured the new nation's teething problems, and led to a hardening of attitudes in Canberra - the Timorese should say less and be more grateful for "all we have done for them".

Five years after UNTAET began the formidable task of guiding this small state, then in ashes following the TNI's devastating assault on its people and property, East Timor has slipped from our media's agenda. And when events or incidents are reported, it is often in a way lacking both in sympathy and understanding. It was not surprising, therefore, that a recent important debate on East Timor in the US Security Council barely rated a mention in our media. It was really quite illuminating, involving a frank report by Kofi Annan on the current situation in East Timor. It led to unanimous decision by the Security Council to continue the role of UNMISET (UNTAET's downgraded successor) for another six months. This UN mission, led by Sukehiro Hasegawa, now with a staff of only a few hundred, has performed an invaluable supporting and guiding role, and its presence is clearly still needed. As things stand it could end in May next year, but whether that happens remains to be seen.

While East Timor has not done as badly as some predicted it still faces serious problems, understandable for a poor nation that was rushed into independence. The legal system remains very weak. Police need more training and discipline, but it is the legal-justice system that is causing most concern. There is a shortage of lawyers, and very few judges. This problem is understandable enough, for legal systems take decades to establish in the best of circumstances. When Indonesia pulled out East Timor's legal infrastructure was a complete void. There were no lawyers, no policeman and not a single judge in the devastated county. The system rushed into existence by UNTAET had the added massive task of dealing with crimes, and other unresolved issues, committed in the last year of Indonesian occupation. There is now a police force, but its performance needs to improve, according to the UN report.

The economy is still weak, and continuing to suffer from the distortions that the UN and other foreign presence imposed on it over the past five years. The gradual reduction of that presence has further weakened the economy. Prices are still too high to attract budget-minded tourists, while the Timorese are obviously finding it difficult to develop industries, outside coffee, with export potential. In the circumstances, getting an equitable share of profits from the Timor Gap resources is crucial to this new nation's prospects of achieving a self-sustaining economy, an issue that attracted comment from the UN Secretary General. That achievement, which should bring long-term political stability with it, is also of great importance to Australia, but one would hardly think so from the Howard Government uncompromising response to overtures from Dili. Putting it simply the East Timorese want a better share based preferably on an international court's determination of where the boundary should be. Australia has persisted with devious manoeuvres, such as its refusal to accept international jurisdiction. The Timorese have shown a readiness to compromise, but that has failed to lead to significant progress in the negotiations, which right now seem to have stalled. Australia's arrogant handling of this issue has understandably caused relations between the two countries to plunge to an all-time low. Even Jose Ramos Horta, who has long nurtured political links with Australia, seems to have lost patience.

In presenting the UN's report and urged support for UNMISET's extension, Kofi Annan drew attention to the need for the mission to prepare an exit strategy in the months ahead, but he also expressed deep concern at the fact that the Indonesian military commanders responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor seem to have acquired an impunity. This is an area where Australia failed badly. At the diplomatic level we appear to have done nothing to bring into existence the kind of tribunal that would have led to justice.

For the UN East Timor is a special case, but the world body is now hard pressed to devote more of its limited resources to other pressing areas - especially in Africa and the Middle East, and some UN members would like to see it pull out of East Timor. In the present circumstances, however, that would be a serious mistake, and one that Australia should oppose. Timor Leste is not a failed state, as some are inclined to call it, but it requires more help, and we should understand the need for it, and our responsibility. It should always be uppermost in the minds of our politicians that Australia actually helped bring about the disaster that engulfed East Timor from 1975 onwards. In fact, we did absolutely nothing to help the Timorese people disengage from their neo-colonial bondage until 1999. Our achievement then is a proud boast of the Howard government, but if considered against the background of enormous human suffering endured by these people in those 24 years of occupation, it offers no basis whatever for the claim that we have done our bit.

The present UN mission is one that that the international community should continue to support. It not only provides advice, security and capacity-building services - its presence for a year or two more is really essential to the political stability of a nation beset by problems arising out of expectations it has been impossible for the East Timor government fulfill. But supporting UNMISET is not enough. If the Australian government is serious about its concern to help this new nation gain its deserved level of prosperity, then the answer lies in according the Timorese the kind of access to the Timor Gap resources that is theirs by right. It calls for the kind of caring and generosity that continues to be displayed by Australian state governments and, in particular, by individual groups throughout the country. In this way ordinary Australians are displaying the kind of compassion that has apparently dried up in our Federal Government.


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