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Australia's Meddling in East Timor

During Indonesia's brutal, 24-year occupation of East Timor, the Western world remained complicit in the oppression. Current President Xanana Gusmao handed the UN a report in January that detailed gross human rights abuses over those years. It alleged that Jakarta's deliberate policy of starvation and murder cost the lives of between 84,000 and 183,000 people between 1975 and 1999. Furthermore, the Indonesian military used Western-supplied napalm bombs during their reign of terror.

None of the leading Western nations involved -- Australia, the US and Britain -- have accepted responsibility for their actions nor offered compensation. A further insult has been the lack of international pressure to bring former Western-backed dictator General Suharto to trial for war crimes in Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia.

Although Australian assistance helped end Timor's occupation in1999, the world's newest nation has suffered great instability in the last seven years.

Within Australia, a mythology has developed: Australia is seen as the white knight that arrived to save Timor's soul. In reality -- as pointed out by Australian historian Clinton Fernandes in his incendiary 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour -- "Australian diplomacy functioned in support of the Indonesian strategy [of holding onto Timor]. It functioned as an obstacle to East Timor's independence. When the [John] Howard government was eventually forced to send in a peacekeeping force, it did so under the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage."

The relationship between Canberra and Dili has always been complex but the ongoing struggle over the Timor Gap - vast oil and gas reserves in the seabed off East Timor -- has caused Australia to be accused of exploiting Timor's future economic prosperity. The country's former Prime Minster, Mari Alkatiri, was a strong defender of these natural resources, but his popularity within Timor had waned, eventually forcing him to resign.
The recent unrest in Timor resulted in violent clashes between disgruntled soldiers and the ruling Fretelin party. Tens of thousands of Timorese were forced to flee their homes into refugee camps. And Australia, once again, sent troops to quell the troubles, though the exact details of the unrest remain unclear.

The country's new Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, has thanked Australia for its assistance and already criticised its role in the struggling nation. Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, recently told the East Timorese that, "they have to learn to find solutions to their own problems, not just expect the international community indefinitely to solve all those problems for them". It was a typically arrogant statement from a government that enjoys maintaining control over a number of nations in the region.

There are many unsubstantiated allegations that the Australian government instigated the latest unrest in East Timor and wanted regime change. What is clear, however, is that East Timor should be allowed to prosper into a truly independent nation, and heal from years of Western-backed misery.

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian-based journalist, author and blogger who writes on international relations and the Middle East and publishes in numerous media outlets in Australia and overseas. Visit his website here.

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Comments (16)


Hello, nice site :)


Hello, nice site :)


Have you visited this site yet?


Have you visited this site yet?


How quickly we forget!! Besides Portugal, the support for the East Timorese at least in the UN is sparse at best, the record shows it. Not until the late 1990's did the winds changed when European and Western interests could no longer keep up the facade. It is a sad day when we are now having to defend the Timorese from the new colonialism's list of pet projects for acceptance, Democracy, Capatalism and openmarkets et al. and if you don't tow the line be ready for active opposition and/or worse.

Tony Hendrix:

"Sick of Loewenstein" - I am too unfamiliar and cannot say whether he is a "fraud" but if he made the errors of which you speak, screwing up the gender of a politician he quoted or messing up basic geography in an area on which he was commenting, the word "amateurish" certainly does come to mind and fair questions of credibility mean I'm in no rush to read this author again.

What disappoints me most however, is that WaPo is running "unsubstantiated" commentary here. What in hell happened to fact-checking? This manner of dropping the ball is largely why blogs are now putting so much pressure on traditional news service accountability. However WaPo effectively starting its own blog here seems to have exacerbated the problem. Tsk tsk...

sick of Loewenstein:

"Unsubstantiated allegations" have no business being reported in a serious article.

Exactly Tony Hendrix, they don't. Loewenstein is not the professional journalist he claims to be.

This is the writer who wrote that a female Israeli Cabinet Minister was a "man" and who claimed that Israeli roads only in Israel were "Jew only" roads. When it was pointed out to him that he was wrong, he refused to back down.

Oh, and of course, who could ever forget page 9 of his book, where he placed Lebanon between tel Aviv and Haifa (he thought that Lebanon was a part of Israel). The man is a fraud.

Do you hear that Wa Po -- you are publishing a fraud!!! The Australian Jewish News called him a "rookie" last week. They were being far too kind.

Tony Hendrix:

"Unsubstantiated allegations" have no business being reported in a serious article.

Reporting them anyway certainly casts doubts on the authors credibility and this may explain some of the preceding comments by those more familiar with the author than I.

What next? Reports of crime saying "I heard a guy, who heard from this other guy, whose brother knew this dude, who saw it all happen, honest!" What ever happened to fact-checking or responsibility for reporting facts instead of "unsubstantiated" rumours. Disappointing WaPo. Apparently an editor was asleep on this one.

J F Beck:

"There are many unsubstantiated allegations that the Australian government instigated the latest unrest in East Timor and wanted regime change."

Antony Loewenstein is a reliable source of "unsubstantiated allegations."


Can the Washington Post do no better than Antony Loewenstein? Australia has such talented journalists yet, WaPo is commissioning a hack who was booted as a mere cadet from one of the less successful Australian broadsheets.

He's now a blogger with so few visitors he relies on a "hit count" dating back years.

I guess blog posts such as this one lend weight to his claim to be one "who writes on international relations and the Middle East and publishes in numerous media outlets in Australia and overseas".

There is a question of quality however. Indeed on his own blog, he referred to a previous post on this blog as being "published" giving the impression he'd actually been commissioned. Hacky at best.


Oh how typical of Loewenstein to complain about Australia's meddling on one hand and then winge on the other that it doesn't do enough.

He has done the same thing about Iraq. He complains bitterly about Bush and the US and then winges when they don't interfere in the atrocities there.

It's beyond me how this man gets himself published. Surely there is someone out there who can actually write about current affairs with intelligence, instead of all this dribble?


Speaking of game play: Rudimentary game theoretic rational choice models would explain that it isn't likely, given the political and commercial international and regional relationships the government of East Timor has built since its independance, that East Timor would be a mere pawn in the game of regional and international politics; as small as the country is, it's a player now partly because any one who appreciates the value of coffee beans and oil - and the East Timorese government does - understands its got weight.


As we know Australia is one of the country wich is easy come and easy going no body can stop them, that why we don't need to make a coment about their mission to East Timor if they want they can restore this young country from crissis as soon as posible but if they don't want this crissis will be extend more and more. A we know Australia can push Indonesia to invide East Timor also after that under Australia and USA presure xcan pull Indonesia from EAst Timor this is likely a game playied by cildren under 5 years old but it was verry significant for older people


Whenever there is an international interference the world community is split into those who support the intervention, those who question the motives, and those who question the delay in intervention. International intervention is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't be it the liberation of Bangladesh, the IPKF, the Gulf and Iraq wars, Kosovo and now East Timor.

Real politick rules all international interaction and even in case of humanitarian acts there is always the intervener's national interest involved, but in spite of having ulterior motives it is wrong to condemn completely any such humanitarian intervention. It is impractical to imagine that nation -states are selfless and this line of thinking must be kept in mind while making unduly harsh criticisms against nations that are pro-active.

The bad press international interventions incur ensure that countries are reluctant to interfere where there is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance - as in the case of Darfur- leading to continued suffering in spite of international awareness.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Maybe the author's thesis, that Australia is too much involved in East Timor, is correct, but this article shouldn't contribute too much to that proposition because some aspects of the key arguments offered have been stretched.

An example of 'stretch': during the last few months many publications have provided in quotations the couple of criticims the PM of Timor Leste has made in regard to Australia's actions taken and inactions he believes should have been taken in regard to calming unrest in his country. But his criticisms of those actions and inactions have not amounted to a full blown criticism of Australian presence in his country. That's what I think this article suggests.


Is there a point to this commentary?

Australia is to blame for Indonesian actions in East Timor beginning in the 1970s, because it didn't meddle. It is now to blame for political turmoil there, because it does meddle. It intervened reluctantly to secure East Timor's independence, showing its insensitivity, and its foreign minister now shows his arrogance by suggesting that Timorese solve their own problems.

If Mr. Loewenstein wanted to present the case that no matter what happens or what it does Australia is always to blame he might have said so right at the start. It would have saved everyone's time.

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