Neighbours divided by wealth and power - Jose Belo
Sydney Morning Herald
Neighbours divided by wealth and power
June 15, 2010
The handover of two Chinese patrol boats to East Timor this month represents not only a failure of maritime surveillance arrangements between Canberra and Dili but a larger failure of Australian policy towards its newest northern neighbour.
For six years, from 2002 to 2008, Canberra tried to convince East Timor to join the South Pacific patrol boat program in which Australian ships patrol the seas of neighbouring countries on their behalf. This arrangement comes with many strings attached: Australia has overall command and all communications are routed through Australia, thus ensuring Canberra has access to all intelligence gathered.
This clumsy, almost post-colonial, effort to tie East Timor to an arrangement in which it would be required to cede sovereignty led Dili to look elsewhere for a supplier. China was only too willing, selling the boats with no conditions, giving new meaning to the whole notion of gunboat diplomacy.
Relationships are often fractious, even between friends, and this is the case between Australia and East Timor. The problem is not at a grassroots level: ordinary Timorese and Australians have a long history of living and even dying together. They share intimate friendships. Australian volunteers are many and highly valued.
But bilateral relations between our two governments are generally poor, primarily because Australia and East Timor do not always see eye to eye on matters of importance, and Canberra often turns a deaf ear to our interests and pursues only its own.
East Timor and Australia have had long disagreements over the Timor Sea, for example, and the petro-wealth that lies beneath it. Since East Timor gained independence in 2002, negotiations on this have been very difficult, at times acrimonious. As a rich developed nation, Australia is viewed as mean-spirited and even treacherous by many East Timorese when it tries to get more Timor Sea wealth than it deserves. Don't forget half of all Timorese live on $1 a day.
Australian development assistance is another source of friction. While such aid is viewed as generous and useful in spirit, it often comes across as self-interested and misguided in practice.
Australia does fund a range of useful projects in rural areas, including water and sanitation, cash for work, specialist eye doctors, building markets through the Peace Dividend Trust, and several others.
But in the areas of justice reform, public financial management and infrastructure development, AusAID funds huge projects costing tens of millions of dollars a year and almost nothing is achieved.
Meanwhile, the agents of Australian aid efforts - the "development consultants" - get rich quick and return home.
As the President, José´ Ramos Horta, said in a letter to the Australian ambassador last week: "The vast majority of donor aid spent on Timor-Leste is not spent in Timor-Leste [but] is spent on consultants, study missions, reports and recommendations."
Finally, there are many things going on in East Timor that ordinary people are not happy about. Corruption is a problem and accountability at an all-time low. Yet when civil society seeks assistance from the Australian embassy to try to deal with these kinds of problems, the embassy does little or nothing to help.
Australia is a regional hegemony and when it acts in its interests often comes across as a bully. When a friend bullies a friend, it can result in a real grudge match. Like forlorn lovers, the vindictiveness can become self-defeating.
But try to understand the Timorese. We only became independent eight years ago. We are poor, but proud and determined. We managed to successfully free ourselves from a huge and oppressive dictatorship. We don't like being pushed around.
Even if we think we might lose the fight, we will nonetheless fight it. Australia may view this as irrational, but for those of us in East Timor, all of whom have suffered horrible violence in the past, it's a matter of national pride.
Jose Belo is the editor-in-chief of the Dili-based Tempo Semanal.