July 15, 2010
The plan to detain asylum seekers on East Timor is unacceptable to its people on procedural and practical grounds. The procedural flaw was evident from the day Australia's Prime Minister announced it without consulting East Timor's government.
Clearly, the Australian government does not want to admit it made a mistake, particularly so close to an election. But rational people in both countries can see a mistake was made.
In East Timor the initial reaction was surprise, followed by annoyance at what was perceived to be Canberra's high-handedness. The Timorese people did not appreciate being taken for granted. The Vice-Prime Minister, Jose Luis Guterres, said the plan was unwelcome, and many MPs and civil society groups strongly rejected the proposal.
The Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, in what is no doubt a cute political trick, suggested the President, Jose Ramos-Horta, should continue discussions with Julia Gillard. Gusmao knows Ramos-Horta has no constitutional competency in this area, and so any deal struck can be cast aside.
Perhaps Gusmao is seeking to cut a deal by which the Australian government strong-arms Woodside into a pipeline to East Timor in exchange for establishing an processing centre for asylum seekers. But Gusmao needs to understand his government's internal deliberations will be targeted by Australian intelligence.
The argument for a detention centre fails on practical grounds, too. The claim lots of money and jobs will come to Timor as a result of the centre is not believed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Australian aid have flowed to Timor in the past decade, and much of it has flowed right out again in, for example, the form of salaries for a highly paid army of foreign consultants and advisers.
Meanwhile, poverty has not been alleviated, corruption is on the rise and the local economy has been distorted. Some aid has been beneficial, and many Australian volunteers do wonderful work here, building bonds of friendship between our two peoples that will last for generations.
But look up "boomerang aid" online and you will understand why we are sceptical. Australians should be sceptical, too; they're your tax dollars, and they should be spent on poverty alleviation in East Timor, not salaries for foreign consultants.
Just two days after Gillard's announcement, torrential rain and mudslides washed away 800 houses in Viqueque, in the south-east. The Timorese people believe our government should be dealing with these problems rather than being distracted by new, imported ones.
In the East Timorese parliament, government and opposition members passed unanimously a resolution rejecting the detention centre plan. Not everyone was present for the vote; some MPs were out in the districts meeting their constituents. But had they been in Dili, the result would not have been different.
Just over 10 years ago, the Indonesian military destroyed up to 80 per cent of our infrastructure as it withdrew. This is being rebuilt, and our country is still in a state of transition. The people believe the government should focus on our own developmental needs.
Many East Timorese people want to find the bones of their relatives and loved ones, work for an international tribunal for the most severe perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and build new lives for ourselves. A detention centre for asylum seekers heading for Australia is not the most pressing issue for us.
Many East Timorese, including the generation after Gusmao, have a long and proud history of successful resistance to foreign domination. The Australian people have always been sympathetic to East Timor's independence struggle, despite the conduct of successive Australian governments. The Australian government may be making a mistake if it thinks it is dealing with another Nauru.
If part of East Timor should be turned over to Australian administration for the purpose of processing refugees, then why not turn over to East Timor for revenue purposes that part of Australia where a gas pipeline runs from the Timor Sea?
At the moment Australia gets the oil and gas pipeline but East Timor gets the asylum seekers. Sounds like a bad deal for the asylum seekers and the people of East Timor.
Jose Belo is the editor-in-chief of the Dili newspaper Tempo Semanal.