Subject: J Dunn: not so tall Image when Timor is taken into Account

Australia and the WEF: Our not so tall Image when Timor is taken into Account. James Dunn

Australia's prompt and generous assistance to the Asian communities affected by the Boxing Day tsunami clearly greatly improved our relations with our major Asian neighbours, and elevated Prime Minister Howard's standing. However, he has not been walking so tall at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland, where he has opposed the European proposal to forgive the massive debts owed by Third World countries. The British, French and Germans are in favour of this move, and are also advocating a dramatic increase in the flow of aid from rich to poor countries. Mr. Howard, for one, would prefer a move towards free trade. His idea is commendable, but it is hardly enough to reduce the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor countries. And when it comes to aid we are on weak ground. Australia may have reacted with great generosity and compassion to the disastrous consequences of the Indian Ocean tsunami, but until that point we were lagging badly as an aid donor. More than two decades ago the target set by the UN for flows of aid to the poorer countries was .7 percent of GDP. Our level has been on the decline for some years, and stood at about .25 percent when the tsunami disaster occurred.

In recent weeks Australians rose magnificently in their response to the tragic dimensions of the tsunami disaster. But, as Kofi Annan himself has pointed out, tragedies involving unnecessary loss of life are a daily occurrence in countries where poverty and the scourge of diseases like aids abound. The Davos Forum is a reminder that this growing crisis has clear implications for world security, as well as for the status of basic human rights. It is also an element in the continuing hostility towards the west, especially the US, which is perceived by many as the leading global predator, with globalization as its main vehicle. President Bush seems not to understand that democracy and liberty are really quite meaningless unless supported by the fabric of international human rights.

Australia may have done well in relation to recent crises in our neighbourhood, especially in Indonesia and the South Pacific, but we cannot include our recent handling of relations with East Timor (or Timor Leste), country that is a veritable symbol of the crushing impact of Third World poverty. To East Timorese leaders, reaping the benefits of the exploitation of the oil and gas resources of the Timor Gap has long been crucial to the rehabilitation of the new nation's crippled economy, left in ruins by the TNI after its ignominious departure in 1999. The Australian Government's sense of responsibility seemed to decline after Timor's independence, causing its leaders to look elsewhere in their search for security and development support. The Howard Government's boast that it had done well as a major player in the UN-led rehabilitation of East Timor has some substance, but the occasional look-at-all-we- have-done-for-them remarks by government ministers were tasteless and quite unjustified. This is especially the case if our politicians take an honest look at the way our governments in the past accommodated (worse encouraged) the annexation of the territory by the Suharto regime, and remained silent while serious war crimes were taking place. The Howard government's standing in Dili reached a high in 1999, but it has since been badly tarnished. Australians in general retain a high level of popularity, thanks to the dedication of NGOs, individuals and some state governments. However, it was a prudent move by the East Timorese to concentrate on structuring good relations with Indonesian.

While a diminished flow of aid continues from various sources, (including Australia) Timor Leste leaders are tired of their dependency status. At this stage of Timor's development, however, creating a self-sustaining economy is beyond their means. A share of profits from the development of oil and gas in the Gap area, on the basis of recognition of an equitable demarcation of the sea border, is the obvious answer, but Australia persists in refusing to budge from an illegal arrangement concluded in 1988 with East Timor's then occupier.

Not surprisingly the Timor Leste leaders have turned away from Canberra. Their improved relationship with Indonesia began to improve under Megawati; though she kept the Timorese leaders at a discreet distance in deference to the sensitivities of the TNI generals. Since SBY took over, the Indonesian relationship has improved at an accelerated pace. Despite their grinding poverty, the Timorese managed to raise $70,000 tsunami relief, which President Xanana Gusmao is personally presenting to the Indonesian leader.

A very appropriate humanitarian gesture, but I am less comfortable with the joint truth and reconciliation commission, proposed by Indonesian and Timorese leaders to clear the air over events in 1999, which is now under discussion. UNTAET officials involved in this matter (including your columnist) insisted that there should be an international tribunal of some kind. Under both Wahid and Megawati the TNI generals showed that they still wield considerable political power. Their capacity to resist domestic moves to expose their past crimes against humanity and corruption was demonstrated by the result of Jakarta's farcical enquiry into events in 1999. All military officer involved at that time, including those with direct operation control over operations where scores of Timorese were killed, ware acquitted. The negative outcome of that enquiry has led to the acceptance by most of the nation's political establishment that East Timor was acquired legitimately and its loss was the outcome of a conspiracy, involving Australia, the US and Portugal. The widespread acceptance of this account surfaced again and again in Aceh, when Australians came into contact with the Indonesian military.

The proposed joint commission may have political advantages for both countries, but it is very unlikely to do what is most necessary, expose the responsibility of those Indonesian commanders for major crimes against humanity since 1975, and, with it, the brutal culture that has flourished in the TNI since the sixties.

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