Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: AU: Oil comes between helpful neighbours (Shakedown review)

The Australian

January 26, 2008

Oil comes between helpful neighbours

Tim Johnston


By Paul Cleary

Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.95

THE exercise of power is rarely a pretty thing to watch; but there is something particularly ugly in watching the inept exercise of power.

Australia's engagement with East Timor during the past 70 years has been a bewildering mixture of crude realpolitik and enlightened assistance. The jury is still out on whether the latter has outweighed the former.

In Shakedown, Paul Cleary has shone a light into one of the less salubrious episodes: Australia's bullying attempts to get the Timorese government to agree to a highly disadvantageous delineation of its maritime borders in the resource-rich Timor Sea.

The book begins shortly after the 1975 Indonesian invasion with the unedifying spectacle of Indonesia and Australia, both bereft of any moral or legal rights, carving up the birthright of the East Timorese.

The prizes were the offshore oil fields in the Timor Sea. In return for Australia recognising Indonesia's Anschluss in East Timor, and presumably not making too much of a fuss about the tens of thousands of people who were being slaughtered, Australia would get a highly beneficial maritime boundary.

Canberra's cynical flight from principle -- and one must remember that the people it was abandoning were the same people who protected Australian Diggers during World War II at terrible cost to themselves -- might have won some perverse justification had it brought substantial benefit to Australia, but it didn't. By the time events forced the Indonesians to withdraw 24 years later, in 1999, the two sides had benefited to the tune of just $4.5million each from their carve up of East Timor. And as Timor emerged blinking into the light after the long dark night of the Indonesian occupation, Canberra saw its chance to rectify the shortcomings of the past and tried a brazen land grab in the hope that the young nation, inexperienced and still grateful for the Australian intervention, would roll over.

That was a miscalculation.

Cleary was a participant in the epic David and Goliath battle that ensued as the Timorese struggled to persuade John Howard, Alexander Downer and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that they hadn't fought so hard and so long merely to donate their sovereignty to another predator. He worked as a consultant to the Timorese government and witnessed many of the incidents he describes.

It is a complex story, and sometimes Cleary loses his readers in the byways of the negotiations, but the adrenalin of the high-stakes brinkmanship carries the book through.

Australia initially wanted the Timorese to agree to the same sort of compromised deal Canberra had negotiated with Jakarta, but it was gradually forced back.

While Cleary is excellent on the Timorese side of the argument and on the negotiations, it is still slightly unclear why Canberra droveitself down this road to public relations disaster. Sheer greed, or even the joy of exercising power for its own sake, seem inadequate reasons.

Dili's tenacious defence of the principles of sovereignty may have been one reason the infant nation was able to withstand the pressure, but Cleary shows that probably woudn't have been enough on its own. He also gives due prominence to the role played in the result by ordinary Australians who, appalled by Canberra's bullying tactics, put pressure on the politicians to force them to give their new neighbour a fair go.

There will possibly be too much detail in parts of this book for the casual reader, but the story of the diplomatic struggle is compelling, and probably required reading for any serious student of the ugly reality behind the elegantly turned phrases of diplomatic negotiation.

In some ways Shakedown is a morality play: a parable of how a small, inexperienced nation with few powerful friends could take on a regional heavyweight and its ruthless pursuit of resources. But if the Timorese gained a victory, it was only partial.

Cleary does not baulk at pointing out the problems of corruption and political ineptitude that were beginning to plague the government but he is convincing in his argument that the Timorese position regarding its maritime borders was fuelled by principle rather than the greed and mendacity attributed to Dili at different times by the Australian side.

That does not mean Timor is free from greed or mendacity. Cleary ends with a chapter on Timor's present troubles and warns that the country is still far from safe from the explosive pressures of its own disappointed citizens.

Good fences may make good neighbours, but that doesn't help much if there is strife inside the house.

Tim Johnston has reported extensively from Southeast and Central Asia.

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