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The La’o Hamutuk Bulletin Vol. 1, No. 3. November 2000

Health, Wealth, Apologies and Oil: 
The East Timor-Australia Connection

Many diseases experienced by East Timor’s population are, first and foremost, the results of poverty—not simply the lack of proper medicines, technology, and trained medical personnel.

Tuberculosis, for instance, used to be a common affliction in Western countries. Today, it is rare. Here in East Timor, however, tuberculosis is widespread. More than anything, distinct levels of nutrition and public sanitation—and, thus, different amounts of resources—explain this dramatic discrepancy.

International analysts often present the lack of sufficient resources, or poverty—such as that experienced by East Timor—and the associated health problems as unavoidable, or as natural, and thus unchangeable. But as the current negotiations over ownership rights of the oil and natural gas deposits in the Timor Gap demonstrate, there is nothing inevitable about poverty. Rather, it is the material expression of unequal power relations.

East Timor suffered tremendously as a result of such unequal power relations. Numerous wealthy and powerful countries shamelessly supported Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor simply because of the desire to maintain good relations with resource-rich Indonesia. One such country was Australia.

Recent disclosures prove that Australia’s government was well aware in 1974-1975 of Indonesia’s plans of aggression against East Timor. Officially, Canberra expressed support for self-determination. In reality, however, the Australian government effectively encouraged Indonesia’s action by consulting with Jakarta about its criminal plans for East Timor, and by saying and doing nothing to indicate any serious opposition to Indonesia’s planned takeover of the former Portuguese colony. In fact, Australian officials often expressed their preference for an Indonesian-controlled East Timor, rather than an independent one.

Throughout Indonesia’s illegal occupation, Canberra provided significant military training and weaponry, regularly exchanged intelligence information, and engaged in joint military maneuvers with Jakarta. And perhaps no Western country worked as hard as Australia did to provide diplomatic cover for Indonesia’s atrocities in East Timor. Australia even went so far as to extend de jure recognition of Indonesia’s brutal annexation of East Timor—a necessary step to enter into negotiations over the Timor Gap.

Almost 11 years after the December 1989 signing of the resulting treaty, Australia’s role in East Timor’s suffering and the Timor Gap are again at the center of East Timorese politics.

On August 31, students gathered at the University of East Timor to confront Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and demand an apology for Canberra’s complicity in Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of their country. But, unfortunately, a promised question-and-answer session with Downer never happened.

Currently, the East Timor Transitional Administration is negotiating a new treaty with Australia.  Under the 1989 agreement, Canberra and Jakarta divided the Timor Gap roughly in half. The East Timorese and local United Nations leadership wants to redraw the boundary line so that the seabed boundaries are consistent with international law. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries within 400 nautical miles of each other divide the seabed at the midpoint. Given that the oil and natural gas deposits lie on East Timor’s side of the midpoint, Australia should forfeit all rights to the deposits.

But according to the 30 October 2000 issue of Business Week, the Australian government does not want international law to govern the negotiations. Instead, Canberra is apparently employing the same blatant self-interest that informed its support for Indonesia’s crimes from 1975 to 1999, refusing to give up its claim to the oil and natural gas. And it is backing up its claim with threats.

According to a Western diplomat quoted by Business Week, Canberra is threatening to cut its four-year, $75 million aid program unless East Timor honors the old treaty. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Canberra basically confirmed the report.

The Australian government has spent a lot of money providing security and humanitarian assistance to East Timor since September 1999. But this is a very small—and insufficient—price to pay given its complicity in Indonesia’s crimes. As the Australia-based Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor argued in a recent press release, “Australian military intervention in East Timor was only ever necessary because of the 25 years of unqualified support for Suharto’s invasion of East Timor. A consistent policy of refusing military, political and diplomatic support for Suharto’s policy during this period combined with a principled stand in support of the right of self-determination would have helped end the suffering of the East Timorese people years ago.”

It is for such reasons that La’o Hamutuk calls upon the Australian government to cease its demand for any rights to the oil and natural gas in the Timor Gap. Regardless of the legal merits of East Timor’s claim (which are very strong), basic justice requires that Canberra recognize and apologize for its shameful past. A concrete manifestation of such an act would be to allow East Timor to enjoy without sanction the full benefits of the oil and natural gas deposits in the Timor Sea.

Such a gesture would be good for Australia’s political health. It would also provide East Timor with desperately-needed financial resources to ensure that all East Timorese have adequate access to free and high-quality health care, and to build the type of socio-economic infrastructure necessary to reduce the profound poverty that underlies most of the illnesses people experience.

Advances in a society’s healthcare are not simply a matter of wealth. Countries of relatively modest means can also achieve great progress. Cuba, for example, despite being a “Third World” country, has made amazing advances in the delivery of health services.

But adequate resources clearly matter. At the very least, there must be enough to satisfy basic needs, along with the political will to distribute those resources in an equitable fashion.

In this regard, tuberculosis—a common killer in East Timor—is intimately linked to oil and justice.

The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk)
Institutu Timor-Leste ba Analiza no Monitor ba Dezenvolvimentu
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P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670-3321040 or +670-77234330
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