WARRADALE, SA - In September 1999, I went to East Timor (Timor-Leste) to work with an aid agency in the aftermath of the 25-year civil war and the savage lead-up to the independence referendum.
It is almost impossible to imagine the devastation that was visited on this former province of Indonesia that became an independent but desperately poor nation.
I left in large part because it seemed to me that the welfare of the East Timorese people appeared to be a fairly low priority for the United Nations-led aid and reconstruction program.
One example, the UN could have offered building materials to some of the tens of thousands of people in Dili whose houses had been torched so they could rebuild.
The people could then have offered accommodation for the hundreds of UN officials who arrived to carry out desperately needed activities.
But instead, the UN chartered a huge floating hotel at truly enormous cost to house its officials in four-star comfort. I vividly remember the palpable anger and resentment among the hundreds of Timorese gathered at the beach to watch it berth.
There was a sealed road from Dili to Baucau, the second city of East Timor, about 120 kms away along the north coast.
It passed through Manatuto, a town of 15,000 that had been largely wiped off the map by the Indonesians because it was independence leader Xanana Gusmao’s home town.
It was a narrow winding road but perfectly serviceable. Indeed, a pleasant three-hour drive if you ignored the complete devastation on both sides all the way to Baucau, which was relatively untouched. I did that trip a number of times.
In May 2018, my wife and I visited Timor-Leste as tourists. Things had changed for the better, only because they could not have got any worse than they were in 1999.
I found that the Chinese government, as part of its official aid program, had undertaken to upgrade the road from Dili to Baucau. That seemed to me a good thing until we came to drive it ourselves.
We found the whole length, 120 kilometres of bitumen, had been ripped up. There were patchy works being carried out at odd points along the road, but what in 1999 had been a fairly smooth three-hour drive was now a bone-shaking, exhausting six- hour nightmare.
I thought this was an odd way to approach an engineering task. It had effectively turned one of the key transport links in the country into a major drain on its day-to-day affairs, causing economic and social disruption on a grand scale. It would have been better to completely rebuild the first 10 kms, then move to the next 10 kms, and so on.
Suddenly, the penny dropped. If the Chinese government got annoyed by anything the Timor-Leste government did, or if the Timor-Leste government failed to toe the Chinese line in even small ways, the Chinese could retaliate.
“If you want that highway finished, then don’t cause us problems!” seemed to be the real, if unspoken, threat.
In September 2017, Timor-Leste had arrested a Chinese fishing fleet that was illegally shark-fin fishing in their territorial waters. There was incontrovertible evidence of the crimes, as well as clear evidence about the economic loss and the huge environmental damage done by this fleet.
In May 2018, as the Chinese illegal fishers were about to go to court, they were suddenly, inexplicably allowed to leave. The Timor-Leste prosecutor’s office said they were not guilty of violating any laws.
It seemed to me to be a case of undue pressure from China on a nation that could not fight back.
There is an even more disgusting display of bullying that was carried out by Alexander Downer with the approval of John Howard in 2004.
Australia had decided to bug the Timor-Leste cabinet office to gain an advantage in negotiations about who owned how much of the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
The main winner from that espionage was Woodside Petroleum. Upon leaving politics, Downer joined Woodside as a highly paid consultant.
Timor-Leste, tipped off about the Australian government’s dishonesty, took the matter to the International Court of Justice and won, humiliating Australia.
This has culminated in the secret trials in Australia of Timor-Leste’s informant, the spy known as Witness K, and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery in a process akin to what you might expect in Stalin’s Russia.
Instead of Downer going on trial for illegal interference in the sovereign affairs of another country, whistleblower Witness K, who pleaded guilty, was made a criminal and had his life destroyed.
His lawyer, Collaery, a respected former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory, is being tried secretly for defending his client.
There are major lessons here for Papua New Guinea.
As China spends millions of kina and much diplomatic effort into resource projects or ‘development’ projects, the PNG government could well find itself having to go along with unforeseen but entirely inevitable consequences.
Be it the Frieda River mine, the mooted Daru fisheries hub or some other project, China would not have the slightest scruples about putting its interests in PNG before those of the host nation.
I suspect that China is already building into its diplomacy mechanisms that in future will allow it to impose on PNG huge penalties for failing to bend to its will.
On top of that, knowing the depths that Australian diplomacy will sink to when unprincipled politicians put the interests of private companies above treating other countries ethically, who knows what could be in store for PNG.
The shameful conniving with Indonesia by Labor’s foreign minister Gareth Evans in 1989 that led to the grossly unfair border between East Timor and Australia is another example of these depths.
We know much about what the Australian government did to support CRA in Bougainville in the civil war of 1989-2000.
We also know something of the US and Indonesian governments’ conspiracy that undermined the prospects of an independent West Papua and that ensured the Freeport mine would remain in ‘safe’ hands.
The lessons could not be clearer.
With friends like China and Australia, Timor-Leste, PNG and the rest of the Pacific islands really don’t need enemies.
Million Dollar Illegal Catch Forgotten https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-30/million-dollar-illegal-catch-forgotten/9925890
The Story of the Shameful Timor Prosecution https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-story-of-the-shameful-timor-prosecution
Gangsters for Capitalism: Downer, Woodside and ‘Witness K’ https://redflag.org.au/node/6482
Australias Agreement with Timor-Leste does not have a Positive History https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/australias-agreement-with-timor-leste-does-not-have-a-positive-history-20170908-gydn6v.html