The Guardian • Issue #1951

History of East Timor and Australia on the 79th anniversary of Darwin and Timor

The 19th of February marked the 79th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin by Japanese fascists in 1942, which resulted in the deaths of around 250 people. Less well known in Australia is that on the same day, Japan also began a bombing campaign on the island of Timor. This became an invasion and occupation which resulted in well over 40,000 deaths at the lowest estimate, mostly Timorese civilians of both the East and West of the island.

West Timor was at that time a colonial holding of the Netherlands, and East Timor was a colony of Portugal. Although at the outbreak of World War II both countries had been neutral, the Netherlands was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 and the government was forced to flee to London and operate in exile, joining the Allied war effort. Portugal, meanwhile, remained neutral throughout the war. But on 17th of February 1942, against the Portuguese government’s wishes, the British, Dutch, and Australian armies organised an incursion into East Timor, stationing hundreds of troops.

There is significant evidence to suggest that had the Allies including Australia not stationed troops in East Timor in violation of Portuguese neutrality, the Japanese would not have seen it as a military target, and thousands of East Timorese lives would have been spared.

A decade and a half later, Indonesia’s progressive Sukarno government was overthrown by the far-right military forces of Suharto with US and Australian support. Mass killings of communists and suspected sympathisers ensued, with as many as one million or more people killed. This was cheered on by Western newspapers as a win against communist “expansion” in the region. In 1975 Suharto invaded East Timor, beginning a brutal occupation that would last until 1999, and featured many further massacres and deaths from hunger and disease.

When East Timor finally became independent, it was (as it is today) one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a devastated economy and infrastructure. But in the surrounding sea lies significant oil and gas reserves which could become a source of prosperity for the East Timorese people.

However, multinational oil and gas corporations also had their eyes on these reserves, and the Australian government was happy to step in on their behalf. Maritime boundary negotiations began between the governments of East Timor and Australia. Unbeknownst to East Timor or the Australian public at the time, Australian intelligence had illegally bugged the government offices of East Timor, and used information thus gained to have an advantage in the negotiations. Australia gained about fifty per cent of the disputed reserves.

Nearly a decade later, “Witness K,” one of the Australian intelligence agents involved in the bugging plot, carefully began moves to reveal the crime, resulting in it becoming public in 2013. East Timor was outraged and began proceedings against Australia at the International Court of Justice. Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery were to participate in the trial, but ASIO and the Australian Federal Police raided their homes and offices and seized passports and legal documents.

Australia settled out of court with East Timor, resulting in a significantly better deal for East Timor, proving that the original negotiations had indeed been distorted by the criminal espionage by Australia.

The Australian state then ramped up its intimidation and retaliation against Witness K and Bernard Collaery, initiating a legal battle which is ongoing today. Successive Australian governments have attempted to continue the cover-up and secrecy surrounding these wrongdoings.

Even if these disgraceful actions by the Australian government were in any way for the benefit of the Australian people, they would still be deeply wrong and criminal. But they have not even been that – they have been for the benefit of the private profits of huge oil and gas corporations like Woodside and Santos. The efforts to attack and prosecute the heroes who made these dirty secrets public are a further demonstration that the Australian government does not represent the interests of the Australian people, but is a vehicle for the dictatorship of monopoly capital.

Australia has a long, ignoble history of disregard for the East Timorese people’s lives and well-being. They are a friendly neighbour who has never wronged us. We owe them a great debt.

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