Australia Owes Timor-Leste Reparations


I have written before about the shameful way in which Australia (and the US and Indonesia by extension) has treated the young country to our northwest. Our support of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, involvement in forming the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (and subsequent withdrawal in 2002), and the espionage we committed against Timor-Leste during negotiations have all had massive consequences.

In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor in an effort to incorporate it as a part of Indonesia. From then to 1999, about a third of East Timor’s population (approximately 200,000 people) had died as a result of the fighting and the starvation and disease that followed. Everyone knows about the US’ involvement, having supported Suharto since his rise against the PKI. What many are unaware of is that a small portion of military support came from Australia as well, who saw Sukarno’s (head of the PKI) neutrality and independence in the overarching Cold War conflict as a threat, following the US’ lead.

The invasion was supported by Australia not only in an effort to maintain the ‘threat’ of Asian nationalism and independence, but also because of great economic interests. UNCLOS was created to lay out nations’ sovereignty over territorial waters and ocean resources, settling disputes and setting the precedent for future cases. Until very recently (March 2018, in fact), there was no real or legal maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor.

Up until 1999, a ‘border’ had been set with the Indonesian government that extended Australia’s reach well into what should have been Timorese waters. The reason for this was vast oil reserves under the seabed, and following UNCLOS would have meant a majority of those resources would have belonged to an independent East Timor. Massive public spending had taken place to conduct surveys and research on Australia’s continental shelf and in search of such resources, all for the purpose of getting Woodside (a large, private Australian energy company) and international companies to invest.

The cost and risk, as Clinton Fernandes says, fell on the Australian taxpayer, while all the profits and benefits fell through to the private sector.1 This phenomenon, referred to commonly these days as ‘socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor’, is a hallmark of most modern advances and investments in the capitalist and imperialist systems. Fernandes compares the Australian government’s handover to the private sector with the case of Norway’s government, who held a majority stake in a state-run oil company through an Oil Fund. It has well over $1 trillion in assets which the government can then invest back into the country. While they believe oil is still important, it is notable, however, that Norway is moving away slowly from these investments.

In 2002, when Timor-Leste achieved its status as a country, Australia “excluded itself from the compulsory jurisdiction of UNCLOS on maritime boundary disputes”. Timor-Leste, who had previously said they would not abide by ‘illegal’ treaties (i.e. the one set between Australia and Indonesia), was no longer able to take immediate action against Australia. Instead, negotiations led to a deal that still kept Timor-Leste economically and politically stunted.

It was during these negotiations that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service implanted listening devices to spy on what Timor-Leste’s negotiators were saying in private. They then used this information to subvert the negotiation process. We know all of this because of an unnamed whistleblower, referred to as Witness K, who I have written about a few times before (often on the topic of whistleblowers and public interest).

From 1999 to 2017, it is generally agreed that Australia has stolen about $5 billion in revenue that should have rightfully belonged to Timor-Leste. This is money taken from a country that is not only one of the newest in the world, but also one of the more impoverished developing nations. In no way can Australia legally or morally justify not paying this money back, and yet a treaty was signed essentially stating “there would be no compensation for past exploitation”.1

Even if you exclude the illegality of Australia’s imposed maritime boundary between 1999 and 2018, I would argue that reparations should most certainly be paid by both Australia and the US for the brutality East Timor faced during the Indonesian invasion, and by Australia for its deceitful conduct during previous negotiations. To not do so would be to quietly justify what occurred and to slide it out of view. Almost no one I know personally is even aware of Timor-Leste’s existence, let alone our role in their suffering.

I would have hoped Australia was better than the US, but as history and current events have shown us (usually under Coalition governments, but at times Labor ones too), we have our own semi-imperialist goals to protect the ‘national interest’. We as a nation owe an apology to the people of Timor-Leste, and our government and the corporate giants that profited from this blatant exploitation must be held accountable.


[1] Citing from Clinton Fernandes’ book Island Off the Coast of Asia, an excellent window into Australian foreign policy interests.

Previous piece: US Declarations Are Not Law

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