Proud Timorese are fed up with Canberra's bullying


June 15, 2010

While generous in spirit, Australia's actions are clumsy and misguided.

THE handover of two Chinese patrol boats to East Timor last week 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 - between 2002 and 2008 - Canberra tried to persuade 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, including Australians remaining in overall command and all communications being routed through Australia, thus ensuring that 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 to seize that opportunity, selling the boats with no conditions and thus giving new meaning to the whole notion of gunboat diplomacy.

Relationships are often fractious, even between friends, and this is very much the case between Australia and East Timor at the moment. 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 relations between our two governments are generally poor, primarily because Australia and East Timor often do not see eye to eye on matters of importance, and Canberra often turns a deaf ear to our interests and pursues only its own.

We have had long disagreements over the Timor Sea, for instance, and the oil and gas wealth that lies beneath it. Since East Timor gained independence in 2002, negotiations on this score have been very difficult and at times acrimonious.

As a rich, developed nation, Australia is viewed by many East Timorese as being mean-spirited and even treacherous when it tries to get more Timor Sea wealth than it deserves. Don't forget that 50 per cent of Timorese live on just a dollar a day.

Australian development assistance is another source of friction. While it is viewed as being generous and useful in spirit, it often comes across as self-interested and misguided in practice.

It is certainly true that Australia funds a range of useful projects in rural areas, including water and sanitation, specialist eye doctors, and the Marketplace Through Peace Dividend Trust, among others. But in the areas of justice reform, public financial management and infrastructure development, AusAID funds massive 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 to Australia.

As President Jose Ramos Horta said in a letter to Australian ambassador Peter Heyward last Wednesday, ''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 is 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 remains mute and does little or nothing to help.

Australia has regional hegemony and, as such, when it acts in its interests it often comes across as a bully. When a friend bullies a friend, it can result in a real grudge match. As with forlorn lovers, the vindictiveness can become self-defeating. But try to understand us Timorese. We only became independent eight years ago. We are poor, yes, but proud and determined. We managed to successfully free ourselves from a massive and oppressive dictatorship.

We don't like being pushed around. Even if we think we might lose the fight, we will still fight it.

Australia may view this as irrational, but for all of us in East Timor who have suffered from horrible violence in the past, it's a matter of national pride.

Jose Belo is editor-in-chief of the Dili-based newspaper Tempo Semanal.

Source: National Times

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