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East Timor

In Timor-Leste, it's spies like us … or like them, anyway

Australia and Timor-Leste are in a diplomatic lull following the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste's cabinet via agents working through its aid program. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, who had visited him in prison in Jakarta and thus helped elevate his international status.

But one senior minister, left to mind the shop, chuckled quietly. By spying on Timor-Leste, he believes that Australia has provided the mechanism required to invalidate the unequal Timor Sea treaty between the two countries.

There is official insistence that Australia and Timor-Leste remain close friends, despite the occasional angry comment. This particular dispute, the Timor-Leste government believes, should remain quarantined from the wider relationship.

Australia's official perspective is similar, with ambassador Miles Armitage taking a soft line towards recent demonstrations outside the Australian embassy. He was dismayed by riot police over-reacting and firing tear gas at a small group of protesters, also gassing ordinary police who had the situation well under control.

But it is not as though spying in Timor-Leste is much of a secret. One minister privately joked that the Chinese-built foreign affairs building is full of listening devices. And then there is the Chinese-built presidential palace and defence forces headquarters.

Australia is far from alone in its close interest in the Timor-Leste government. It is also far from alone in keeping tabs on the other representative offices here. Embassy row, along the seafront west of the town centre, boasts compounds that would look impressive in much larger capitals.

The substantial presence of China, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Portugal and the other Lusophone states -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand -- reflects Timor-Leste's strategically important location astride oil and gas fields, a critical submarine deep sea route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and being in the middle of the world’s largest archipelago.

It also reflects the simple fact that, with everyone here and paying attention, everyone else also feels they need to be here and paying attention to everyone else. Timor-Leste itself demurs on this question, claiming that it does not have the capacity to spy.

Yet in its 24-year struggle for independence, the Timor-Leste guerrilla army's intelligence network surpassed even that of the notoriously extensive intelligence network of the Indonesian military. The old networks, like the old clandestine names -- of which Prime Minister Xanana, President Taur Matan Ruak and past parliamentary speaker Fernando Lasama are but a few -- remain intact.

Information -- about everything and everyone -- always has been and remains the richest of prizes in Timor-Leste. To the extent that intelligence gathering activities have changed since Indonesian times, it is only their much greater scope that is different.

Indonesian lessons for choppy East Timor waters

The Coalition government’s first months in office have been a crash course in regional politics, with somewhat more emphasis on the "crash". Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now put in place the first of what is expected to be six steps to repair Australia's damaged relationship with Indonesia, while relations with East Timor are being battered by clumsy handling of that country's claim for arbitration over the Timor Sea.

Bishop's visit to Jakarta and her softer approach to Australia's culpability over spying on Indonesia, including its President, was exactly what was needed to keep this critically important relationship on track. Unfortunately, it was needed more than three weeks ago, when such an approach could have averted the subsequent fallout.

Had Bishop gone to Jakarta with exactly her current approach when the spying scandal first broke -- but before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was involved -- the issue would have been neutralised. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in via Parliament, making a bad situation worse.

That lesson about pre-emptive diplomacy has now been learned. But Indonesia will have to take the lead and shape a re-established relationship.

With East Timor, the government -- and its predecessor -- have known for years that Australia would face a legal challenge over the forced carve-up of the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has long signalled that its claims against Australia included allegations of Australian spying in order to gain an unfair advantage.

With the first hearing on the matter in the International Court of Arbitration known well in advance, it is deeply puzzling why Attorney-General George Brandis would wait until almost the eve of the hearing before ordering raids on the office of East Timor's lawyer, Bernard Collaery, and the home of a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer.

Brandis claims the raids were not intended to try to thwart East Timor’s case, but were rather focused on preventing the release of classified information. But given the timing, that is not how it looks.

In any case, most of the relevant material was already in The Hague and will be available to the court. The raids and cancelling of the passport of the former ASIS officer are a minor glitch for East Timor’s case, but will be counted against Australia’s argument before the court.

So, too, being counted against Australia will be former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s support for Woodside Petroleum -- the major player in proposed Timor Sea gas extraction -- and the economic benefit it stands to receive as a consequence of the Timor Sea carve-up. That Downer has since been put on Woodside’s payroll looks, at best, like a conflict of interest.

At stake in the hearing is the legality of Australia’s CMATs agreement with East Timor which, if it is found to be invalid, will also invalidate two previous treaties which are "read together" with CMATS. Up for grabs, again, will be the issue of a permanent sea border between the two countries, and control over more than $40 billion worth of gas and oil.

Should this claim be successful, not only will the sea border with East Timor be up for grabs, the previously related sea border with Indonesia will then become out of synch. One border will reflect a median point between two countries, the other the edge of a continental shelf.

Of major concern to Australia is that it could now lose territorial reach and control over a good proportion of the Timor Sea's resources. Of at least equal concern is the flow-on effect this could have for the border with Indonesia.

A dispute between Australia and tiny East Timor over their sea border is troubling. A subsequent territorial dispute with Indonesia would make the recent spying row pale into insignificance.

East Timor's fragile stability under threat with PM retiring

East Timor's Prime Minister and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, has announced his intention to retire from politics. Two East Timor media sources say Gusmao will retire in 2015, two years before the conclusion of the current Parliament, with another source saying he will leave in 2017.

Gusmao, 67, will make way for a new generation of political leadership within his own party, the Timorese Council for National Reconstruction (CNRT). His departure from politics may also signal a more broad generational change in East Timorese politics.

Former prime minister and current Opposition Leader Mari Alkatiri was also expected to retire ahead of the 2017 elections, paving the way for a new generation of leadership to come forward on both sides of politics.

There is, however, concern as to whether the still fragile country will be able to sustain a coalition government under a less charismatic and less widely respected leader. The current governing coalition is comprised of three parties, led by CNRT and dominated by Gusmao.

Gusmao has had health issues in recent times, in particular a back problem that has caused him to seek treatment overseas and that continues to plague him.

No successor to Gusmao has been announced, but a likely candidate is the CNRT's general secretary and Justice Minister, Dionisio Babo Soares. Soares has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University and a degree in constitutional law from Udayana University in Bali.

Another possible successor is Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers and trusted Gusmao adviser Agio Pereira, who spent much of the Indonesian occupation in Australia, where he was a conduit for Gusmao's external relations.

Gusmao rose to power during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Following a series of serious setbacks to the resistance (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin) and as the only surviving member of Fretilin's central committee, in 1981 Gusmao was elected to the leadership of the resistance.

By the mid-1980s, Gusmao reconsidered the appropriateness of Fretilin's hard ideological line, leading in 1987-88 to his decision to leave Fretilin and remove the guerrilla army from control of the party. He then set about establishing a broad pro-independence movement and building international support. It was the 1987-88 division that has continued to mark the key ideological division within East Timorese politics.

Gusmao was captured by Indonesian troops in 1992, but he continued to lead the resistance from prison in Jakarta, being released following East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999.

In terms of post-independence national leadership, Gusmao has held the fragile state together in a way that his predecessor, Mari Alkatiri, could not. The stability that currently marks East Timor’s social and political life can be traced to Gusmao taking the prime ministership in 2007, following its near collapse in 2006.

Following Gusmao’s departure in 2015, there will be a question as to whether East Timor’s still-fragile politics will continue to cohere around two general political blocs, or whether it will fragment into less stable coalitions.

There is also a question of the country's continuing financial viability, which, on current planned spending, is expected to run into financial problems in around 15 years, or sooner if spending stays at current levels.

Gusmao's departure will come at a time when East Timor faces a new set of critical challenges -- reducing economic capacity, a growing population entering the very limited employment market and a potential lack of unifying leadership.

Leaked cables: US predicts Timor invasion, 'keep us out of it'

The leak of the so-called "Kissinger Cables" has shown that while the US expected Indonesia would invade what was then Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did not wish to be implicated in the affair. A cable dated August 16, 1975 said that the US' "only secret" regarding Portuguese Timor was its desire not to become involved.

The cable stated that while Indonesia's "incorporation" of Portuguese Timor would be the outcome most "beneficial" for locals and the most likely to ensure regional stability, the "decision … is not for us to make, and we are determined not to become involved in the process". The cable noted that if Indonesia used aggression in the incorporation, it could have negative repercussions for military support for Indonesia.

The cable appears to show little understanding of events in Portuguese Timor at this time, given that the local UDT party, influenced by Indonesian disinformation, had attempted to stage a coup on August 10. By August 16, Fretilin forces had all but defeated the UDT and its pro-Indonesia Apodeti allies.

Perhaps the most importand aspect of the leaked cable is that it confirms the expectation of Indonesia's invasion, more than two weeks before another leaked cable, on September 4, 1975, said that Indonesia's then acting foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, acting on behalf of president Suharto, had proposed that Australia join with Indonesia, Portugal and Malaysia in sending UN-sanctioned peace-keeping troops to oversee Portuguese Timor’s decolonisation. The cable says the Australian embassy in Jakarta had responded negatively to the suggestion, given that then prime minister Gough Whitlam had previously refused to consider such an overture from Portugal.

By September 4, UDT and Apodeti forces had been defeated and already retreated across the border into West Timor, where they were re-organising with the support of -- and as a front for -- the Indonesian military. By September 4, too, Australia almost certainly knew that the Indonesian proposal was intended to obscure its intention to invade Portuguese Timor. It was already known by Australian diplomats that Indonesia's military intelligence had been fomenting a disinformation campaign about the dominant Fretilin party since earlier in the year, and promoting its local front party, Apodeti.
A Jakarta think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, closely linked to the Indonesian military and the generals who later led the invasion, had already drawn up plans for Portuguese Timor's "integration" into Indonesia. The CSIS had close relations with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woollcott, who in August 1975 recommended that Australia should accept the inevitability of the impending Indonesian invasion.

Whitlam had told parliament on 2 September that no definite proposal for including Australian peace-keepers had been put which, at this stage, was correct. The cable, however, reveals a more nuanced and considered response from Whitlam than has previously been portrayed by what appeared to be his acquiescence to, if not promotion of, Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor. A September 3 cable says that Australia could consider humanitarian assistance to Portuguese Timor, which Indonesia had earlier rejected. But it showed Whitlam would not countenance anything that had a "colonial character", such as sending troops.

Whitlam's concern at this time reflected the method of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua in 1969, through a much-criticised show of hands by 1025 hand-picked tribal leaders. It also reflected Whitlam's support for the subsequent "Barwick Doctrine" of Australia not involving itself in prolonging unsustainable colonial arrangements.

The leaked cables add detail to understanding the events that led to Indonesia’s invasion of Portuguese Timor, which had unofficially begun in early October 1975 and officially on December 8. Most notably, they show how poor much US information was on relevant events at this time.

Almost four decades later, and more than a decade after Timor-Leste "restored" its independence, the cables are an awkward footnote to the now surprising closeness of relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

Australia's strategic reorientation

Australia enters 2013 reconsidering its place in a strategically shifting world. Issues close to home have stabilised and, increasingly, considerations further from Australia are being written off as a lost cause.

Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to East Timor has ended, with that country now charting an independent and, for the medium future at least, stable course. East Timor’s relations with its giant and once problematic neighbour, Indonesia, are now so positive that it has been mooted that East Timor’s defence forces might start training with Indonesia’s army.

Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to the Solomon Islands will also end this year, bringing to a close engagement in what was once referred to as the ‘arc of instability’.

East Timor left to fend for itself with challenges ahead

Australia's draw-down of its remaining military force in East Timor, and the conclusion of the United Nations mission on December 31, has signalled that this sometimes troubled tiny country is now responsible for its own future. The stark realisation that the security blanket provided by the international community is being taken away has left some in East Timor feeling vulnerable. Some observers, too, have suggested that the withdrawal is still too soon and that East Timor still has the potential to slide back into internal conflict. The country’s leaders, however, have been making clear they are not only ready to take full responsibility for their own affairs but are demanding to do so. In this, Australia's continuing military presence is regarded by some East Timorese as neo-colonial, and the UN as of marginal competence or value.

On any Sunday

Timor-Leste’s presidential run-off

Following Timor-Leste’s presidential election last Saturday, the two leading candidates, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao-backed Taur Matan Ruak, will now progress to a second round of voting in mid-April. Their success to date reflects perhaps more the relatively high level of party loyalty within Timor-Leste than support for the two as individuals.

At 28%, Lu-Olo’s vote was almost exactly the same as in the first round of the 2007 election. Ruak’s vote reflected support in 2007 from the main government party, CNRT, for outgoing president Jose Ramos-Horta, then at 22 per cent. At that time, CNRT was a new party and has since had time to consolidate in office, reflected in Ruak’s 25% vote. 

Both Lu-Olo and Ruak are well known in Timor-Leste, but neither is especially well known outside the country. That will no doubt change for one of them after April. 

Democracy as Lulic?

Amongst Timor-Leste’s traditions, there is none more central to how Timorese understand themselves in relation to their world than that of lulic, or that which is ‘sacred’.

While a sense of lulic is not always visible, especially in life that is affected by elements of modernity, such as in a town or in Dili, it continues to lie under the surface for many, perhaps most, Timorese.

The idea of lulic can apply to place, to the relationship between things, such as the sun and the moon or the earth and the sky, to relationships between people, to life and death and social obligations and to symbols of authority and social organisation.

As traditions evolve and change to incorporate new elements, so too has lulic changed to incorporate such symbols.

Old Portuguese swords may be considered as lulic, as can flags that have a particular value or importance.

East Timor's calm ahead of presidential elections

The dog was sleeping, its head on its paws, in the middle of the road leading from the airport. As we approached in a four-wheel-drive, it looked up, gauged the situation and put its head back on its paws and closed its eyes. This sleeping dog was let lie.

Apart from horrific moments of violence and destruction, East Timor has otherwise been a pretty laid back place, as it is now.

The pigs that used to wander the streets just outside of the main commercial precinct are only a little less common than they once were.

Yellow taxis ply the streets at the slowest possible speed to conserve fuel. Sunday c-ckfights and wet season thunderstorms are often as exciting as it gets.

When things are normal, life tends to move at a pretty slow pace. It is only when violence erupts that East Timor goes from a lazy day dream to a frantic nightmare.

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