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Issue #1885      September 11, 2019

Stealing East Timor’s resources

Re your editorial on Timor Leste (Guardian #1884, September 4). Australian security agencies spy on their own citizens and they help the US, UK, and others to do so, too. The “five eyes” – the intelligence networks belonging to the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – help each other to keep tabs on individuals, groups, political, military, and other developments of interest across the globe. Australia is a junior member of this club and most people realise its basic purpose is to serve US strategic interests, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite its “deputy-sheriff” status, Australia has considerable spooking capacity of its own and puts this at the service of transnationals operating in Australia. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the “national interest”; not even if it means cheating one the world’s poorest nations – East Timor – out of much of its potential oil and gas revenues.

No-one from the government’s ranks would comment on the spying allegations but there is plenty of ominous talk about grave consequences for Timor-Leste if it persists with its legal challenge to the treaty CMATS (Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea). The then Abbott coalition government was fuming on investors’ behalf that Timor-Leste stood up for a pipeline to allow processing of offshore resources on its territory rather than aboard a floating plant. At the same time, Australia poses as a friend and generous benefactor to our northern neighbour.

Peter Galbraith, head negotiator for Timor-Leste in 2004, was not fooled. His reaction to the spying revelations says it all about Australia’s deteriorating reputation in the region. “You know, it’s hard to imagine that would really be done by a friendly government and especially for what were essentially commercial negotiations. That really seems there wasn’t a national security issue here for Australia. It wasn’t as if the Timorese were posing some kind of military threat or hatching some kind of plot. This was really bugging for commercial advantage,” he told ABC’s Four Corners.

The dispute has its origins in Australia’s relations with and support for the brutal Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. In 1972, Australia obtained an agreement from Indonesia that the end of the continental shelf to our north west would be the boundary between Australia and Timor even though the border is only 60 kilometres from the coast of East Timor.

On the eve of Indonesia’s invasion in 1975, Australia’s then ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcroft, advised the Whitlam government that Indonesia would be easier to deal with over the natural resources in the Timor Sea than the government of the newly-independent, former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Australia stood by and 24 years of genocidal occupation by Indonesia’s military followed.

In 1989, Foreign Minister in the Hawke Labor government Gareth Evans and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alitas, toasted a deal to share out the oil and gas resources off the coast of Timor from the comfort of a jet flying high above the stolen territory.

Next article – Medal of the Order of Timor Leste to Australian union movement

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