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Timor-Leste: Allies for Peace?

Denis Bright invites discussion on the future place of Timor-Leste in Australia’s international relations. Conventional strategic assessments in a succession of Australian Defence White Papers underestimate the importance of peaceful sustainable development strategies in neighbouring countries like Timor-Leste. Does Timor-Leste’s commitment to peace and disarmament offer some viable alternatives to Australia’s current strategic insecurity?

Just an hour north of Darwin, the jewelled coastline of Timor-Leste opens onto the rugged terrain of savanna forests before touchdown in Dili. Despite the contrasts between Timor-Leste and suburban Darwin, recent histories of the two neighbours are entwined by geographical proximity.

Australia’s conventional strategic assessments of near northern neighbours like Timor-Leste are constructed largely through shared intelligence with trusted military allies within the US Global Alliance.

Long-term strategic policy errors may result from failure appreciate the regional commitments to peace and sustainable development for the swathe of countries from Indonesia to Fiji.

The Timor Sea is indeed a geopolitical divide with northern neighbours who are a part of the bloc of Non-Aligned Countries (NAM).

The short flight from Darwin to Dili has crossed a global political divide with links to the 120 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and its seventeen Observer States.

Strategic necessity justified closer ties with Timor during the late 1930s. The permanency of colonial empires across Asia was in doubt for the first time. The strategic blind spot was an assumption that British influence would always prevail in Singapore. Assumptions remain today about the willingness of the US to be permanently involved in the defence of the entire Indo-Pacific Region after every close US Presidential Election.

New ties with both Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and NAM countries are highly appropriate and these ties should be about a long-term commitment to peace and sustainable development.

Historically, Australia’s commitment to Timor has been a productive one. Great costs were indeed imposed on the people of Timor-Leste itself in protecting Northern Australia from Japanese occupation. Prime Minister Curtin was also prepared to take diplomatic risks in deploying Australian and Allied Special Forces known as Sparrow Force to both Dutch and Portuguese sectors of Timor on 12 December 1941.

Sparrow Force sought to liaise with potential pockets of resistance to an expected Japanese invasion. The wait for the arrival of the Japanese was a short one.

The Japanese occupation of Portuguese Timor commenced on 20 February 1942. Sparrow Force officially surrendered on 23 February 1942.

However, some commando units continued to operate in remote areas of Timor before most units were withdrawn on 10 February 1943.

Japan launched 64 air raids on Darwin from 19 February 1942 and 33 other raids in Northern Australia from aircraft carriers and its new land bases in the Dutch East Indies and Portuguese Timor.

Resistance to the Japanese continued until 1945 involving East Timorese and Portuguese European colonists as well as Free Dutch units in Western Timor. Details are available from the Australian War Memorial site.

Former President of Timor-Leste Jose Ramos Horta (2002-12) offers a synopsis of the consequences of resistance to the Japanese to the local population:

When World War II began, the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor’s importance of as a buffer zone, landed in Dili despite Portuguese protests. The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians as a pretext for an invasion, in February 1942. They occupied the island until September 1945.

By the end of the war, Timor was in ruins. Approximately 50.000 Timorese had lost their lives as a result of Japanese occupation and the efforts of the Timorese to resist the invaders and protect Australia. When the Japanese finally surrendered the scene in Timor was one of human misery and devastation. Recovery would be slow.

Portuguese Timor reverted to its colonial status in 1945. Western Timor temporarily returned to the Dutch East Indies and soon became part of the Republic of Indonesia after Independence.

Events in far-off Portugal intervened. After the leftist Carnation Revolution of 1974. Governor Mario Lemos Pires of Portuguese Timor hoped for a peaceful transition to independence in Timor-Leste with the possibility of elections in 1978.

While Australia was in the midst of its own constitutional crisis following the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975, rival independence movements competed for control of a future independent Timor-Leste.

Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) prevailed over the rival independence faction the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT).

Events soon spiralled out of control and in both the US and Australia, the interests of an independent Timor-Leste were abandoned by a strategic commitment to the regime of General Suharto in Indonesia as a vital strategy in the Cold War in Asia. Former President Jose Ramos Horta summarises the situation:

Freedom was short lived. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Its warships landed at the capital of Dili and began rounding up and executing the leaders and members of the political parties, and their family members.

In the early stages of the Indonesian occupation, more than 60,000 Timorese lost their lives, often under brutal conditions. Entire villages were exterminated. Torture centers were commonplace and political prisoners publicly executed en masse. Populations were forcibly displaced often resulting in large scale starvation.

By the time the occupation ended, at least 200,000 Timorese — one third of their population — had perished.

A window of opportunity emerged to end Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste when General Suharto had finally lost the confidence of Indonesians. Incoming President Habibie tolerated a UN sponsored referendum on 30 August 1999 after Indonesian militias had over-played their hand in East Timor.

The Security Council authorized a multinational force (INTERFET) under the command of Australia to implement the transition to independence in Timor-Leste.

Credit must be given to Prime Minister Howard for his effective use of Australia’s close relationships with the US to achieve the independence of Timor-Leste against all the odds and political compromises prevailing since 1975.

Now in its sixth constitutional government since 2002, Timor-Leste is led by a national unity government under the leadership of Dr Rui Maria de Araujo. There was a peaceful transition of leadership within the national unity government when Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao resigned in February 2015. The ex-prime minister holds the Planning and Strategic Investment Ministry in the current government.

Timor-Leste looks towards the ASEAN Foreign Policy and Development Models

Timor-Leste is proceeding towards full membership of ASEAN which has expanded to ten member states.

Pre-Christmas in Dili in support of the World Court Hearing

Pre-Christmas in Dili in support of the World Court Hearing

Tensions continue with Australia over Timor-Leste’s maritime border with Australia. This has strengthened Timor-Leste’s commitment to The ASEAN Way over closer strategic ties with Australia.

There is no interest in a return to Cold War Strategic Alliances in South East Asia which helped to justify the cruelty of Indonesia’s occupation of both Portuguese Timor and West Papua (Irian Jaya).

A broadside was directed at Australia by Timor-Leste’s former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao:

The father of East Timorese independence, Xanana Gusmao, has called on Australia to respect international law over maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea.

Speaking outside a landmark conciliation hearing in The Hague, East Timor’s first president told the ABC that Australia’s conduct in the dispute was being watched by the rest world.

“Australia used to tell others to respect international law,” he said. “They must now show us that they also abide by international law.” (ABC News Online 30 August 2016).

Timor-Leste’s leverage in ASEAN will be compromised by new big power influences. China and the US have achieved associations with the ten ASEAN states through the following arrangements:

  • ASEAN Plus Three Arrangements with China, Japan and Republic of Korea (South Korea)
  • East Asia Summit of ASEAN Plus Three States and Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and the US
  • ASEAN Regional Forum of the East Asia Summit plus Bangladesh, Canada, Mongolia, DPRK (North Korea), Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the European Union

Oil and gas revenues derived from the petroleum resources of the Timor Sea are vitally affected by the maritime boundaries which were negotiated with Australia in 2002:

Timor-Leste’s first treaty – the Timor Sea treaty – signed in 2002, gave a 90-10 split, in Timor-Leste’s favour, of revenues from a joint development zone in the Timor Sea.

The second, CMats treaty – certain maritime arrangements in the Timor Sea – was signed in 2006, with both sides agreeing to impose a 50-year moratorium on negotiating a permanent maritime border. CMats gives Timor-Leste 90% of the current oil revenues from the joint petroleum development area, and Australia 10%, but a further treaty (Sunrise IUA) gives Timor-Leste only limited claim over future exploitation of the larger Greater Sunrise field.

It was during the negotiations over CMats that Australia bugged Timor-Leste’s cabinet room. Australia has not admitted to the espionage, though it did raid the Canberra offices of Timor-Leste’s lawyer Bernard Collaery, and seized the passport of the intelligence agent who blew the whistle on the spying operation.

Timor-Leste say the spying voids the treaty, which, it argues, was not negotiated in good faith. (The Guardian Online from Ben Doherty 29 August 2016).

Having access to the oil and gas revenues from the Timor Sea is vital to Timor-Leste’s sustainable development programme.

Australia’s DFAT obliquely acknowledges the carve up of oil revenues from the Timor Sea which is reinforced by the location of the main gas liquefaction plant at Wickham Point operated by ConocoPhillips, the world’s largest commercial exploration and production company in that sector.

The Sunrise Field’s joint venture partners in the Timor Sea include Operator Woodside which is supported by equity from ConocoPhillips, Shell and Osaka Gas.

Recent falls in the prices of gas and other petroleum products have hit the economy of Timor-Leste which has access to only part of the resources of the Timor Sea under Australian maritime boundaries negotiated in both 2002 and 2006 on less than favourable terms.

DFAT has made an assessment of the consequences of this situation whilst still planning to cut developmental assistance to Timor-Leste by 5.4 per cent in 2016-17. Australia also controls the manner in which two-thirds of this developmental assistance is spent and recommends the market-oriented development priorities which are favoured by the IMF and the Wold Bank.

Over two thirds of Timorese still live on less than US$2 a day. The country’s mainly subsistence-based agriculture sector has with low productivity and there is limited access to markets. The private sector faces difficulties accessing finance, a low-skilled workforce and poor infrastructure. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the region. While school enrolment has improved, learning outcomes remain poor. Women face significant barriers in accessing education and employment and high rates of domestic violence. Nutrition remains a major concern: 50 per cent of children under five years have stunting – one of the highest rates in the world. (DFAT Online Overview of Australia’s aid-program to Timor-Leste).

The consequences of this poverty are reflected in infant mortality and nutrition levels as well as failures to deliver essential infrastructure and social programmes for Timorese people who are outside the main commercial economy. Levels of poverty and infant mortality are comparable to the worst performers in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Driven by a falling off in petroleum export prices, Timor-Leste’s current account deficit is expected to remain at 12.2 per cent of GDP until 2020 compared with a surplus amounting to 40 per cent of GDP during the resources boom in 2012 according to recent IMF estimates.

With official unemployment rates nearing 20 per cent, the national budget surplus of 39.1 per cent in 2012 has drifted to a deficit of 22.4 per cent in 2020.

Fortunately, relations with Indonesia are constructive. Shared borders with Indonesian West Timor are no longer zones of conflict.

Consolidating these good vibes with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo might assist in welcoming PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru and Fiji into the ASEAN Network as full member states. Both Timor-Leste and PNG currently has observer status at ASEAN forums.

The Cold War in Asia is now history. It is still not buried or cremated in the perceptions of conventional strategic policy-makers who talk up the need for closer Australian strategic ties with the US Global Alliance and its corporate economic arm under the name of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

It is only a matter of time before Australia and New Zealand become accredited observers to both Mainstream ASEAN and NAM forums. Australia’s absence prolongs the costs of the LNP’s current defence build-up with similar trends in both Taiwan and Japan.

For an Australian government that is so committed to its own budget repair strategies, commitment to peace and disarmament in the Indo-Pacific Region should be a much sought-after goal.

denis-brightDenis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in developing pragmatic public policies based on commitment to a social market that is highly compatible with currently fluid trends within contemporary globalization.



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  1. Theresa

    Thanks Denis for bringing East Timor back into focus!

  2. townsvilleblog

    Personally I hope the court awards East Timor the boundaries that they are seeking, $40 Billion would make such a difference in East-Timor whereas if Australia win the case it will merely go to the 1% who already own 50% and counting of Earth’s economy.

  3. Jaquix

    Look out Australia – Russia is coming! Step back and imagine that Timor Leste is “helped” ouf by Putin. Or China. And ISIS is looking to infiltrate the Phillipines, whose President is busy murdering his own citizens. China creating Chinese military territory out of sandhills popping out of the ocean. There’s a lot of instability in the region. Surely its in Australia’s interests to have a good relationship with its near neighbour Timor Leste, and stop squabbling over the oil – Australia struck a very unfair “agreement” with them when they were at their weakest.

  4. The Faceless Man

    According to the WWII airforce museum in Darwin the Japanese forces dropped twice as many bombs in NT then they did Pearl Harbor and it was the very raid on said harbor that prevented a full blown Japanese invasion.
    Also noteworthy is the fact that should an invasion had happened the plan was to retreat south so that the arid Australian wilderness would significantly hamper and sap the Japanese forces.
    The general theme I got from the museum and many excerpts from witnesses and survivors was that we were basically at the mercy of the Japanese. Our batteries were out ranged and our troops heavily outnumbered.

  5. Arthur Tarry

    DFAT is apparently preparing a White Paper on our future relationships with surrounding countries. One hopes that some common sense will emerge from tthis review, particularly with the casting aside the remnants of the colonial era mentality that still seem to permeate our Governmmet’s attitude with our neighbours. A key aspect of this will be the negotitaion, in good faith, of the sea boundary between Australia and Timor Leste. Our attitiude to this seems to incongrous when we so stridently assert the value of current international sea boundaries, and maritime law, in the Sth China Sea . We do not have a legitimate argument, in my option, to support our current view of our boundary with Timor Leste. We should also chamge our attitude to a host of under-developed Pacific Island nations where, in the past, we have been over-bearing, as with the idea of being the Sheriiff in our region. We are a developed country with plenty of capacity to help devolping countries in our region and there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

  6. East Timor Discussions

    Perfect synopsis Arthur Tarry. Australia does not follow the law of the Sea Conventions in relation to sea boundaries with East Timor and Papua New Guinea. It ignores the extent of poverty in both countries which have been discussed in Denis’ recent articles. Definitely old colonial values prevail into this new century with its new possibilities in international affairs.

  7. Lalnama

    Timor Leste is a symbol of the politics of hope for our region. Good interpretation,Denis.

  8. Paul

    Great article Denis!

    It’s important to focus on cooperative and supportive relationships with our neighbours.

    It does seem like the Maritime boundary/royalty arrangements were not conducted in good faith and should be renogtiated on fairer terms.

  9. Catherine

    Timor is an ongoing challenge to Australian politics.Timor matters and challenges our market ideology.

  10. wam

    It was the same task force as pearl and there was nothing worthwhile in Australia so no plans to invade until the asians and micronesians were on side against ‘european australia’
    It was convenient for mcarthur to say he is protecting aust to cover up his running away to save his own skin leaving the Philippines high and dry. But by the time the septics were ready aust had defeated the japanese in NG and australia was safe.
    I was talking to a small group of east arnhem and barkly young men and women on the veranda in dec 72 and buoyed by ‘its time’ we discussed seeking help from russia against the bauxite mob.
    I enjoyed the image of russian ships entering the nhulunbuy harbour at the invite of the Aborigines.
    I wrote to the paper(I was public servant so no name) but no print anyway.

  11. paulwalter

    I guess my take would stem from a Paul Cleary book called “Shakedown, ot a few years ago, that did an unadorned, no illusions take on Australia/Timor Leste/Indonesian relations and The Timor Gap with its oil and gas fields.

    I recall 4 Corners has done stories on the subject also.

    All I’ve been left with is an impression of Australian and Oil Corporation cynicism in dealings with a small emergent country that has not really asked much of others and not even been given that.

  12. Timor Discussions

    Timor-Leste: Definitely a peaceful ally! What is the alternative argument?

  13. Timor Issue

    Seems our best allies for peace are nearby countries in the non-aligned movement but is Julie Bishop looking after them? Thanks for the article Denis even if it makes me feel guilty about our recent treatment of East Timor when half the population is living in poverty.

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