Learning from Timor Lorosa'e


East Timor is a former Portuguese colony about 700 kilometres northwest of Australia. Indonesia invaded it in 1975 with the diplomatic and material support of Western states, including Australia. Two hundred thousand East Timorese died of unnatural causes as a result of the invasion and occupation. This figure represents one-third of the population, and is the highest relative death toll since the Holocaust. Successive Australian governments provided diplomatic and other support to the ongoing occupation.

East Timor is only seven per cent the size of Victoria, but its mountainous terrain and the courage of its people sustained a powerful resistance movement for 24 years. Since it had no land border with a friendly country and no external source of weapons, its successful resistance is probably unique in the history of guerilla warfare. One contributing factor to this success was the support of ordinary people outside East Timor, in Australia and elsewhere. This transnational movement engaged in ‘solidarity’ actions of mutual dependence “ although not under direct threat themselves, and for the most part not even of Timorese origin, Australian and other activists identified with the plight of the Timorese and operated within a shared framework of understanding and collective action.

Just as successive Indonesian and Australian governments tried to increase East Timor’s diplomatic isolation, the solidarity movement adopted tactics designed to give it maximum publicity. Activists carried out a long-term campaign of grassroots public education. They held public rallies, conducted research, published articles and books, disrupted ministerial press conferences, blockaded military bases and even sabotaged military equipment.

These activists were the little wheel inside the bigger wheel of public opinion, making it turn in support of East Timorese self-determination. Their actions were based on the knowledge that simply turning up to the ballot box every three years would not have a significant effect on policy. By rejecting political passivity, they ensured that foreign policy was taken out of the exclusive control of Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Their efforts were viewed with hostility by elites, and still are. For example, a former head of that department objected to foreign policy being made ‘in the streets, by the media or by the unions’. Elite hostility is often a good indicator that activists are on the right track.

Five years ago this month, a multinational peacekeeping force was deployed to East Timor in order to guarantee its freedom. It was neither the parliamentary process nor the benevolence of the Australian government that resulted in this troop deployment. Rather, it was the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage that forced our government’s hand.

The success of the transnational solidarity movement has laid the foundation for further activism, such as that occurring in ‘friendship city’ programs in local councils around Australia. These programs are designed to establish links between districts in East Timor and local councils in Australia. Human connections between Australians and East Timorese are being formed as a result of these links, which improve mutual understanding and friendship. These ‘friendship city’ arrangements are an important challenge to the state-centric practice of conventional (elite) diplomacy.

Another important initiative is the Timor Sea Justice Campaign, which comprises individuals and groups who volunteer their time or money to compel their government to be a good neighbour. The Timor Sea is located between Australia and East Timor. Approximately A$45 billion in oil and gas lie under its waters. Under current arrangements, East Timor can expect to receive just over A$6 billion of this amount. The problem is that current arrangements are based on the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty between Indonesia and Australia. This treaty divided revenue from the seabed resources between the two countries, giving Australia the largest share in return for its recognition of Indonesia’s illegal annexation of East Timor. The Timor Gap Treaty is invalid now that East Timor is free. If lawful arrangements were to prevail today, East Timor would be entitled to receive more than A$17 billion. Instead, it is being deprived of more than A$11 billion in badly-needed funds, despite being the poorest state in the region

Many activists in the Timor Sea Justice Campaign believe that states derive their legitimacy from human beings, not the other way around. The rapid growth of such citizen-initiated groups is an important feature of the Australian political terrain. I encourage the readers of NewMatilda.com to seek more information at the campaign website.

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