The vote by East Timor’s parliament yesterday to oppose the establishment of an Australian off-shore asylum seeker processing centre should not have come as a surprise. Parliamentarians from the government and opposition have been saying they were against the idea since it was announced last week.
The Australian government has certainly acted unperturbed by the vote, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying the vote from the parliament did not necessarily reflect the position of the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has similarly said that the process is "going forward".
The arrival of Foreign Affairs officials in East Timor this week to discuss a regional asylum seeker processing centre comes as the East Timorese parliament rejects the proposal. While East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has not closed the door on the idea, he has been, at best, polite about it. As an election issue, it will remain alive and kicking.
The government's policy of seeking talks with East Timor about establishing an offshore centre got off to a bungled start last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed, denied and finally confirmed again that East Timor was the government's preferred site.
The announcement by the Gillard government that it intends to use East Timor as a processing stop-over for asylum seekers is either a very clever political ploy or a blunder that has the potential to derail her run for a second term for her government. At its heart appears to be a qualified endorsement from a man who has no capacity to offer it – East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta.
The asylum seeker issues will no doubt be a central election issue and the Gillard government is looking to neutralize it. Using East Timor as a point of processing asylum seekers is smart because it keeps asylum seekers off-shore and hence satisfies voters who believed the ‘Pacific solution’ was a good idea.
The sense of trauma continues and spirits of the dead are everywhere.
Driving through East Timor's western district of Bobonaro on the day Amnesty International released its report condemning East Timor's amnesties for war criminals, I experienced a compelling sense that the scars of 1999 and before had not healed. Perhaps a third of the houses I saw burnt in 1999 remain abandoned wrecks.
The people are rebuilding their lives, in many cases slowly, but the sense of trauma continues to manifest in sometimes imponderable acts, such as the violence of 2006.
Australia’s relationship with East Timor is at its lowest ebb since 2005 when Alexander Downer bullied then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri into accepting a fundamentally unfair division of the Timor Sea between the two countries. Since then, however, Australia has sent troops and police to help control serious instability in 2006 and has continued to be East Timor’s single largest aid provider.
Yet in recent weeks, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has attacked Australia in ways that have left diplomats reeling and which are beginning to cast doubts over the future of the relationship. The fall-out between the two countries is being driven from within East Timor. In this, confusing categories is playing a major role, as illustrated by East Timorese journalist Jose Belo in The Age on Tuesday 15 June.
Aceh independence leader
25-8-1925 – 3-6-2010
The death of Aceh independence leader Teungku (Lord) Hasan Muhammad di Tiro has put a final stamp on the peace that has descended on the long-troubled Indonesian province of Aceh. Di Tiro, 84, died from complications caused by leukemia. He had previously suffered two strokes which limited his activity in the final years of the Aceh separatist rebellion which he initiated in 1976.
Hasan di Tiro was born in the village of Tiro, near Pidie, Aceh from a long line of influential Muslim religious scholars. Notably, di Tiro was the grandson of Cik di Tiro, who was killed in 1899 leading Acehnese resistance to Dutch colonial forces which had invaded Aceh in 1873.
A serious dispute has broken out between Australian oil company Woodside and the East Timorese government over the processing of gas from the Greater Sunrise field in the Timor Sea. The dispute looks set to lock up one of the richest gas fields in the region and cost Woodside hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on research and development.
At the heart of the dispute is East Timor’s claim for natural gas taken from the joint Australian-East Timorese field to be processed into LNG in East Timor. Woodside has rejected that option, saying it wants to process the gas on a floating platform in the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has said, however, that its position is not negotiable and that without an agreement on refining in East Timor there will be no agreement to proceed with drilling.
Imagine, if you can, that you have spent the last 30 or more years in an environment of war, where your security is at best not guaranteed and at worst you and your loved ones have been regularly exposed to physical attack. Some, or many, people you have known and loved have been killed and many more bear the physical scars of war. Everyone bears its psychological scars.
You are at best a political outcast and vulnerable to repression, physical abuse, or worse. You or your sons or daughters flee your once loved home, seeking respite, hoping you can find safety and acceptance elsewhere.
This is the situation facing Sri Lanka’s Tamils and many Afghanis, who in desperation seek refuge in one of the countries lucky enough to be able to offer it. What they find, however, is that they are treated as criminals.
American journalist Allan Nairn’s game of cat and mouse with the Indonesian military is a brave attempt to show that it continues to represent the greatest challenge to Indonesia’s process of reform and democratisation. It is also one that could well see him spending time – potentially up to six years - in an Indonesian prison.
Nairn recently detailed how the Indonesian military’s special forces, Kopassus, continued to be involved in illegal activities, including murdering civilians. His report comes at a time when the US is considering renewing direct support for Kopassus, after having banned working with it for a decade and a half.
Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono address to the Australian parliament yesterday marked a very real change in Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations. Much of the history of that relationship has been characterised by either problems or diplomatic distance, which President Yudhoyono frankly acknowledged. But his speech to the parliament illustrated how close the two countries have now become.
The main change in the relationship has been as a result of Indonesia’s increasingly deep democratisation. No matter how close Australian political leaders might have wanted to be in the past, the fundamental contradictions between Indonesia’s then closed political system and Australia’s more open system meant that underlying problems would always surface.