Oil, imperialism and intervention: Australia’s sordid history in East Timor

Australia’s self-interested grab for Timor’s oil is of a piece with the motives that drove the 1999 military intervention argues Vivian Honan

Australia’s disgraceful actions in the international legal dispute over East Timor’s oil are exposing on the world stage the myth that Australia is a friend of East Timor.

East Timor has taken Australia to the International Court of Justice to dispute Australia’s control over the impoverished nation’s oil resources. The case began after revelations Australia bugged East Timor government offices in 2004 at the height of negotiations over the oil treaty.

East Timor wants the oil treaty, that gives Australia 50 per cent of oil revenue despite the fact the oil fields are much closer to East Timor, declared invalid.

Scandalously, last December, two days before a hearing was scheduled to take place, Australia’s spy agency ASIO raided the office of East Timor’s lawyer and confiscated legal documents, evidence and laptops. The Attorney-General, George Brandis, also cancelled the passport of East Timor’s key witness, the former Australian spy who had led the bugging operation.

Australia’s demand that it continue to receive profits from East Timor’s oil is astonishing, considering East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world.

The World Bank estimates 49.9 per cent of the population live in poverty, while the UN reports that one out of five children are malnourished.

In 1999, Australian troops were sent into East Timor under the guise of an “humanitarian intervention”. The Howard government claimed Australia was bringing democracy and independence to the small nation that had just voted for separation from Indonesia.

The myths generated by this period have served to obscure that Australia has consistently put its own economic and geopolitical interests ahead of justice for the East Timorese. Australia has a long and sordid history of doing so, from the era of colonial domination to today.

Colonial support

Before World War Two East Timor was a colony of Portugal. The Portuguese provided no infrastructure, health or education for the East Timorese.

The Australian government had done little to challenge this situation. Yet after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Australian soldiers were sent into Timor ahead of fears that the Japanese were making their way to Australia.

It is unlikely the Japanese would have shown interest in East Timor if the Allies had not launched such a campaign. But as a result, Japanese troops invaded. By 1943 the Japanese controlled the entire island. Approximately 60,000 East Timorese lost their lives from the war, either from fighting the Japanese, or from the Allies’ bombing campaigns.

Despite the fact that the East Timorese fought alongside Australian troops, their sacrifice was forgotten and their aspirations for independence were not supported. Instead Portuguese rule was reinstated following the war.

Hope for the Timorese, however, came when revolution broke out in Portugal. In 1974, left-leaning military officers overthrew Portugal’s fascist government, sparking the “Carnation Revolution”. Soldiers had returned disillusioned from fighting against liberation movements in Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Inspired by the military officers’ actions, workers in Portugal began seizing control of their workplaces and running them democratically.

In East Timor political parties were able to form openly for the first time since Portuguese rule. The pro-colonial forces rallied under the name Timorese Democratic Union (UDT). But The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) became increasingly popular with the people, calling openly for independence.

However, with the breakdown of Portuguese colonisation, an expansionist Indonesia launched a two week attack on East Timor.

Fretilin declared independence for East Timor on November 28, 1975 in hope that this would grant them international protection from Indonesia. Yet the West remained silent, or worse, gave the green light for Indonesia to launch a full invasion.

As many as 200,000 East Timorese were killed in the carnage that followed. Women were raped and thousands of East Timorese were displaced as their homes were looted and burnt during the Indonesian occupation.

Unholy alliances

Indonesia at the time was under the control of the brutal dictator Suharto. Suharto had come to power in 1967 with the support of Australia and the US, after overseeing the massacre and torture of over a million Indonesians accused of being communists.

US President at the time of Indonesia’s invasion, Gerald Ford, and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, visited Indonesian dictator Suharto two days before the invasion. Kissinger told reporters in Jakarta that between East Timor and Indonesia, the US “had to be on the side of Indonesia”.

Then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, commonly seen as a leftist, similarly gave the go ahead to Suharto to launch the invasion. At a meeting with Suharto in 1974 Whitlam spoke plainly, “Portuguese Timor should become part of Indonesia.” He claimed East Timor would be “an unviable state and a potential threat to the area.”

Australia was more concerned with maintaining a strong relationship with Indonesia than it was for the people of East Timor. An official of the Australian Foreign Affairs Department put it bluntly in one cable in the 1970s—“The plain fact is that there are only 700,000 Timorese; what we are really concerned about is our relationship with 130,000,000 Indonesians.”

The successive Australian governments of Whitlam, Liberal Malcolm Fraser, and Labor’s Bob Hawke and Paul Keating turned their backs on the atrocities occurring, and actively supported Indonesia’s rule over East Timor.

Australia’s interests

Then and now, Australia’s rulers saw East Timor as of strategic military importance.

Australia, as a junior partner to the US since the Second World War, has always been keen to support and back US military interests. A 1974 Australian Defence Department White Paper stated, “It is desirable that Australian policy… pay regard to US interest and reactions, as an important ally and principal power in the Western strategic community”.

Australia itself, however, is the super power of the South Pacific and made its own cold calculations in defending Indonesia’s rule over East Timor.

An independent East Timor threatened Australia’s relationship with a key economic power in the region, Indonesia.

Whitlam in the 1970s saw Indonesia as key to Australia establishing stronger trade and investment connections with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Between 1970-71 and 1974-75 Australian investment in Asia increased eightfold. By 1980, 28 per cent of offshore investment went to ASEAN nations.

Stability was essential to maintaining these investments. Suharto would maintain stability by brutally suppressing secessionist movements within Indonesian borders.

In addition Australia viewed East Timor as part of an “arc of instability” in the South Pacific.

Australian governments have long feared that any secessionist and national liberation movements in South East Asia that gained independence might allow another major power like Russia or China to gain a military foothold.

The area also contains key shipping lines and a deep channel that provides a passage for US nuclear submarines between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Interference by hostile powers in such an important area to Australia is considered unacceptable.

Keating in 1994 praised the Suharto regime as being “the single most beneficial strategic development to have affected Australia and its region in the past 30 years.”

Backing Suharto, regardless of his human rights record, was seen as a necessity.

Oil and gas

On top of this, the oil and gas fields in East Timor are a welcome prize for the Australian state.

Following a world boom, the shortage of oil in the 1970s raised Australia’s interests in the Timor Sea. The Timor Gap is one of the world’s richest petroleum areas.

A secret cable from Richard Woolcott, Australian ambassador to Indonesia in 1975 stated, “We are all aware of the Australian defence interest in the Portuguese Timor situation. But I wonder whether the department has ascertained the interest of the minister of the Department of Minerals and Energy… This department might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border and this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia… than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.”

Australian military assistance to Jakarta nearly doubled between 1975 and 1981 as Australia continued to support Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. This only helped secure Australia’s grab for the oil.

Various companies including the Australian multinationals Woodside and BHP, took control of oil exploration in the Gap.

By 1989 the Hawke Labor government had signed a treaty with Indonesia carving up East Timor’s natural resources. Hawke famously once stated that, “big countries cannot invade small neighbours and get away with it,” in justifying the 1991 war against Iraq. It seemed those rules didn’t apply when economic interests were at play.

Workers’ solidarity

As news of the atrocities occurring in East Timor made their way back to Australia, the movement against Indonesia’s occupation began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s.

Workers at the Government Aircraft Factory banned military equipment bound for Indonesia. Transport workers in Sydney banned Indonesia’s Garuda airlines and stopped several flights.

In Adelaide workers from the Maritime Union of Australia took 20 shipping containers to a warehouse and declared they would not be released until East Timor was free.

After hearing about the Santa Cruz massacre where Indonesian troops opened fire on trapped East Timorese protesters in 1991, waterside workers in several Australian cities placed bans on Indonesian ships.

In the ACT, the Trades and Labour Council black banned the Indonesian embassy and set up a picket line to turn back goods.

At the height of the movement 25,000 protesters joined a week day lunch time rally in Melbourne blocking the city centre, demanding independence for East Timor.

In Indonesia a movement was also growing. Workers and students began to march and protest against the Suharto dictatorship. In 1998, they brought Suharto down, ending the 32-year rule of an oppressive regime.

Following this, major demonstrations broke out in the East Timorese city of Dili calling for a referendum on independence. In September 1998 the East Timorese held a general strike that shut down the civil service. Roads were blocked in and out of urban centres.

The new Indonesian president, Habibie, was forced to seek a resolution. The occupation was becoming a major political problem. It was also incredibly costly. In 1998 US $1 million per day was being spent on the occupation.

In 1999 Habibie announced that a ballot on independence would be held in East Timor.

‘Humanitarian intervention’

Despite the violence and intimidation carried out by the Indonesian-backed militia, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Before leaving though, Indonesia launched one last campaign of intense violence. Mass displacement of East Timorese occurred as homes and buildings were looted and destroyed. Seventy per cent of buildings in East Timor were destroyed or rendered unusable, including 95 per cent of schools.

It was clear, however, that the Indonesians did not plan on staying. They began evacuating in early September and destroyed their own bases and communication infrastructure.

Howard quickly realised that Australia would need to secure its interests in East Timor directly, but at the same time needed to maintain good relations with Indonesia.

He launched a “humanitarian intervention” under the guise of protecting the East Timorese from the Indonesian violence.

However, there was nothing humanitarian about it. Australian troops arrived in Dili four weeks after the terror had begun and up to eight weeks later in other areas, long after the height of the violence.

John Howard waited until he had gained the support of the Indonesian President to send troops. At the same time, Australian Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie met with Indonesian military officials to reaffirms ADF’s “close and growing strategic partnership” with the Indonesian generals.

The first 37 flights from Darwin to Dili transported troops and military stores rather than the food and medicine that the East Timorese desperately needed.

In the years following independence aid continued to come second to military involvement. From 1999 to 2004 Australia’s spending on East Timor totalled $3.9 billion but nearly $3.5 billion of that was for Australian military and police deployment.

The movement in Australia had focussed on Indonesia’s atrocities. It had failed to fully understand Australia’s more than complicit role in the occupation.

Much of the left were confused on the question of “humanitarian intervention”, and failed to see the real motives behind it.

Timor today

In 2006 Australian troops once again returned to East Timor, backing calls for Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to resign. Alkatiri was seen as a left wing figure. He refused World Bank loans that would have required East Timor to remove food subsidies and privatise their electricity.

Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta, who became the new leaders, were seen as more moderate and pro-Australia.

In 2006 Australia was able to bully their way into a new agreement with these leaders over East Timor’s oil and gas reserves, the treaty Timor is now disputing.

East Timor desperately needs investment in education and infrastructure. Nearly 60 per cent of the adult population is illiterate. Electricity is not available in some rural areas.

Australia, the imperialist bully, however, is most concerned with squeezing every bit of oil out of Timor, filling the coffers of major companies. It has sent a team of 14 high-powered lawyers to fight Timor in the international courts.

A victory for East Timor in the case would be a welcome blow to Australia and a step towards undoing decades of injustice.


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