Australian government lashes out over East Timor spying scandal

The Australian government has laid criminal charges against Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery over their exposure of the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet. The first court hearing has just been postponed until 12 September in Canberra. If the two are convicted, the maximum sentence is two years’ jail.

This a case of a wounded imperialism lashing out at home because it can’t do it to the people who humiliated it: the leaders and people of Timor-Leste. The Australian government also sees it as a warning to others who might dare to expose the criminal activity of the Australian state. But don’t underestimate the resentment of the humiliation and defeat that Australian imperialism has experienced at the hands of Timor-Leste.

While the Timor-Leste government was negotiating with the Australian government over the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea – and over the maritime border – the Australian government was listening to Timor-Leste’s strategy discussions, using bugging devices implanted by Australian Secret Intelligence Service agents pretending to be part of an Australian aid programme. Witness K and Collaery are accused under the Intelligence Services Act 2001 of conspiring to make this activity known to the media.

Timor-Leste had been left impoverished by 25 years of military occupation by Suharto’s army, and with a third of its population dead as a result of the occupation. Still the Australian state and its politicians were determined to ensure that their 25 years of imperialist plotting and scheming would not be undone by the newly independent country.

The Australian government, first under prime minister Whitlam and then Fraser, followed later by Hawke and all his successors, were complicit from the start in the devastation of Timor-Leste wrought by Suharto’s military occupation. After the Portuguese revolution, when it became clear that the social and political forces in Timor desiring independence would triumph, Jakarta prepared an invasion. 

Whitlam and the Australian embassy in Jakarta indicated their agreement, as did the US government. All the parties were afraid that the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (FRETILIN), which was radical and left wing in 1975, would make East Timor a pocket of popular democracy right next door to the 10-year-old Suharto dictatorship. They saw this as potentially destabilising.

The Australian government, however, had an additional interest. It knew there were substantial oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. It knew also that most resources were on the Timorese side of the median line between Timor and the Australian mainland. 

An formally recognised border did not exist between Portuguese Timor and Australia. It would have to be negotiated: but with whom? The Australian government decided it was more likely to get a better deal from Suharto than from a FRETILIN-led independent Timor. Canberra was having success in getting a very favourable outcome in negotiations with Suharto on the Indonesia-Australia maritime border.

Thus, from the beginning, Canberra’s complicity was driven by lust for oil and gas. It was a “blood for oil” policy. And Canberra got a great deal for the Australian government and oil companies from Suharto. Suharto agreed to a weird maritime border that suddenly and inexplicably shot northwards towards Timor as it approached the oil and gas fields. 

The oil and gas resources all turned out to be on the Australian side of the new and unfair border. Indonesia would get some royalties – plus the fanatical political and diplomatic support of Australia for the invasion and occupation. Australia was the only country in the world to defy the United Nations resolutions confirming Timor’s status as a yet to be decolonised possession of Portugal. Australia gave de jure recognition to East Timor’s incorporation into Indonesia.

Gareth Evans, foreign minister under the Hawke Labor government, finalised the deal; he and Suharto’s foreign minister Ali Alatas flew over the Timor Sea to sign the deal and clink champagne glasses for the cameras. Australia would get 50 percent of all revenues from oil and gas not even in its territory. A part of the area was to be controlled by Australia totally.

What a great deal! In return for being Suharto’s international defender (with some army assistance and training thrown in for a time), the Australian government and companies would gain billions of dollars. Oil! Gas! All theirs. No wonder the glasses clinked.

But the Timorese fought back. They won the support of more and more of the people of Australia and Portugal, and of liberal elements in the United States and Europe and of the left wing of the democracy movement in Indonesia. In Timor they fought the Indonesian army, despite being completely outgunned. They mobilised for demonstrations, despite being massacred. They jumped fences of foreign embassies in Jakarta, finally also doing so with their Indonesian solidarity activist comrades.

When the Indonesian student movement, articulating the vast mass sentiment against Suharto, after a long struggle forced Suharto to resign and ended the dictatorship, students in Timor also mobilised openly for independence.

Under escalating international pressure, spearheaded by public mobilisations in Portugal and Australia, president Habibie of Indonesia initiated a referendum on independence in East Timor. The Timorese mobilised again, in the face of mass brutality and violence, including large massacres, and voted overwhelmingly for independence, which they had proclaimed in 1975.

Even greater violence against the Timorese followed the referendum. Even greater international public pressure manifested, with many calling for an international peacekeeping force. Habibie announced that Indonesian military forces would withdraw and would hand over Timor to a UN-sponsored military force.

This was a great victory for the Timorese and a defeat for the Indonesian army. But it was not only that.

It was a huge defeat for Australian imperialism, despite the fact that the Australian Army made up the bulk of the UN force that went into Timor. The primary goal of Canberra’s support for the invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975 onwards was to avoid negotiations with an independent East Timor and deal with the more amenable Suharto.

The Australian prime minister John Howard, and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, who had done everything they could to prevent or delay independence, quickly changed their rhetoric in the face of this defeat and falsely claimed that they played a role in securing Timor’s freedom. 

Besides getting back on side with the Australian public, they knew that their agreement with Suharto on the border and on the oil and gas would be up for renegotiation. They were hoping to woo the Timorese leadership. They would also offer aid to the new country, which would be used later as a cover to bug the Timorese government’s cabinet offices.

Canberra’s 1975 assessment turned out to be correct. It has been harder to get the deal it wanted with an independent East Timor than with the dictator Suharto. Even with the Timorese leadership refusing to encourage public protest against Canberra’s bullying attempt to keep the Suharto era agreement in place, the first deal between Dili and Canberra resulted in the Australian government receiving a significantly smaller share of royalties than under the deal with Suharto.

The Timorese had forced Canberra into a tactical retreat. Canberra was still getting revenues to which it had no right; its imperialist bullying still had Timor-Leste forced to give up its sovereign rights, but the deal it got was nowhere near as good as the old deal. It had been forced back, despite, too, its bugging of the cabinet room. But this was to be followed later by another retreat.

The imperialist bullying at the time came with unadulterated arrogance. Almost as soon as Timor-Leste won its independence, Australia withdrew from the international convention under which maritime borders are regulated. It refused to agree to a border between Timor-Leste and Australia based on the internationally accepted regime of a median line drawn half way between Timor and the Australian mainland. This has become the normal procedure where countries are 500 kilometres apart or less. The first agreement signed between Australia and Timor-Leste, while reducing Australia’s royalties significantly, still did not settle on a maritime border. It was left unresolved; that was a victory for Australia.

But another defeat was to come, another humiliation. Australia was forced into arbitration at the UN by “little” Timor-Leste, where the whole agreement was renegotiated. The royalties for Australia were reduced even further, and a median line border was agreed. Royalties on Greater Sunrise would now be 80-20 percent in Timor-Leste’s favour, and Timor would have 100 percent of any future upstream revenue. The division was 70-30 percent of refinery activity based in Timor-Leste. The original deal with Suharto gave Australia 50 percent of revenues in shared areas and total ownership in others. (And the other 50 percent went to Indonesia, not to East Timor.)

This is where revenge against Witness K and Bernard Collaery comes into it. Witness K, an agent with ASIS, had been a part of the bugging operation. He was morally offended by the operation when he saw that foreign minister Alexander Downer and the top bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry later took lucrative consultancies with the oil company that had benefited from the negotiations. Working through the official channels available, and with Collaery as his lawyer, he raised his concerns.

Eventually, the Timor-Leste government also learned of the bugging. It angrily concluded that the first negotiations had not been carried out in good faith by Canberra. It moved to annul the existing agreement and force Australia into arbitration – where Australia was driven back further.

No doubt in the eyes of Australia’s imperial-minded politicians and bureaucratic hacks, their new humiliation was partly to be blamed upon Witness K and Collaery.

Imperialism humiliated can be very vengeful.

Vigorous solidarity with Witness K and lawyer Collaery, who have done the right thing on this issue, may – let’s hope – deliver a further humiliation to this imperial arrogance through the dropping of the charges.

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First published at https://maxlaneonline.com.