East Timor and Australian inter-vention-ference

November 7, 2006

A Case For Australian Intervention?


In a week where the issue of abuse and lawlessness in some aboriginal communities consumed large parts of the media, the only issue to pip it at the post was the comparable level of lawlessness taking over the streets of East Timor, which led to Australia’s subsequent intervention. Many observers, including former Australian Of The Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu, questioned the effort and costs involved in intervening in the law and order issue of a foreign country, while those of a community in the Top End went untouched. Yunupingu suggested the driving factor of this intervention was cultural arrogance on behalf of a conservative Anglo government, and even went as far as calling the deployment of troops to East Timor a ‘waste of money’. There are some on the Australian left in agreement with Yunupingu, and they have a right to be suspicious when it comes to intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations.

Since the events of 911, the Howard government has eagerly sought opportunities to project Australian power and influence. Howard and his cabinet were quick to support the Bush administration in their oil wars, not least because he reveled in playing the loyal ally to a man with whom he remains ideologically so in tune with. Of course, Bin Laden has not yet been found in Afghanistan, or indeed anywhere else, and the reasons expressed for going to war in Iraq shift as frequently as the Babylon sands, if we put our fingers in our ears and pretend that oil was never the driving factor.

So do we give credit to the Howard government for intervening in the Solomon Islands and East Timor this year? Perhaps, although the issue is clouded when it comes to measuring Australia’s treatment of Timor Leste in recent history. Australia stood by when Indonesia invaded East Timor only days after the former colonial power Portugal pulled out in 1975. Following the US’s lead, nothing was done to prevent President Suharto’s rampage, all in the name of supporting an anti-communist ally – a valuable asset for the West in the South East Asia of the time.

Australia led the UN force following independence in 1999, but once again, one could be forgiven for being suspicious of the motives for further (albeit UN-approved) intervention following the Howard government’s abominable behaviour over East Timor’s rights to the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields. Indeed, for all the talk of Australia playing a regional policeman in order to bring peace and stability to its neighbours, policemen can of course be corrupt bullies as well. From independence until the turn of this year, Australia steadfastly refused to recognise East Timor’s right to reap the rewards from the Greater Sunrise fields. For a country with the lowest per capita GDP in the world, these vast fields, if properly exploited, would represent real change for the people of this tiny nation. However, although international law stipulates that the fields lie within East Timor’s waters, as they are situated on East Timor’s side of the 400 nautical miles that separate the two countries, Australia has, much like on the issue of the Kyoto Protocol and to a lesser extent the Iraq War, taking the pariah’s role, and attempted to claim sovereignty over the fields by virtue of the fact they are located upon Australia’s vast continental shelf. Pulling out of the maritime division of the International Court of Justice, the Howard government, not for the first time, found itself in the moral bad books of many. After fighting the impoverished young country for 80 per cent of the revenue from the fields, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer finally agreed to a compromise, whereby profits from the project would be spilt fifty-fifty, and the dispute over maritime boundaries postponed for another 50 years. For all the current claims of altruism in dealing with East Timor, there was no pretending at the time of the oil grab. In his dispute with East Timorese Foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta, Downer said ‘ I always make the point as the Australian Foreign Minister (that) I vigorously stand up for Australia. I’m a very, very proud Australian. And it’s not my job to stand up for other countries.’

If these are the foreign minister’s words, then we must assume Australia is currently acting in its own interest-yet it seems as if many would argue that the desires and needs of the two countries cannot be congruent. When asked by a typically poorly-informed John Laws why Australia needed to send troops to deal with the situation in the Solomon Islands, John Howard stated that it wasn’t in Australia’s interest to have ‘failed states’ on its doorstep. That is, that without intervention from another country, parliamentary democracy in the Solomons may crumble. Of course, despite the truth behind the now-aged call that ‘the world changed on September 11’ the chances of the Solomons or East Timor becoming bases for Islamic terror remain far-fetched. The failure of law and order in either leaves behind the small chance either could become a base for narcotic or people smuggling, but essentially, it is an expression of regional might. There is the chance that were the government in East Timor to fail, its replacement may not be so favourable to the oil and gas deal many international observers have deemed grossly unfair, perhaps re-challenging Australia.

Hobbesian theory suggests that states only ever act in their own interest, but in the case of sending troops, despite the fact Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta seemed at first to suggest he had not been asked by Downer if intervention was required, the fact that many on either side of the conflict in East Timor favour assistance on the tricky road to ‘nation building’ (to use the language of the Bush administration), makes it hard to claim Australia is acting purely in its own interest. Yet the fact remains that this government revels in playing the regional hegemon – it’s certainly no simplification to imagine Howard in the role of Robin to Bush’s Batman. The biggest problem is for those who rightly questioned Australia’s role in the US’s oil wars, in that they must decide which side of the fence they now stand on. We surely cannot blindly criticise Australia for sending troops overseas at every opportunity. Most in parliament favour such ‘humanitarian’ intervention, but there are still many, like Yunupingu, that baulk at the suggestion Australia should be performing the role of a regional hegemon, suspicious at numerous misled or devious troop deployments. But maybe the interests of two very different neighbours can be congruent after all, at least in the short term.

Bill Code, 31.5.06


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