Australia ignores the plight of the East Timorese, but keeps a watchful eye on their oil and gas


The Australian prime minister, John Howard, recently described his government's actions over East Timor last year as "wholly honourable and decent". Howard has been adept at exploiting the popularity of Australian troops' peacekeeping in East Timor. He has dished out honours, made a triumphant trip to East Timor and generally wrapped himself in the flag. It is a remarkable feat, for behind it is yet another betrayal of the East Timorese by a western government, and one that seeks to deny urgently needed resources to a nation still stricken from the long years of Indonesia's genocidal occupation.

In 1975, the then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam agreed with the dictator Suharto, in effect, to look the other way while the Indonesians annexed the Portuguese colony. Three months prior to the invasion, the Australian ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, sent this cable to Canberra: "It would seem to me that [the] Department [of Minerals and Energy] might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border, and this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal, or with independent Portuguese Timor. I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about." In other words: if we back Suharto, we'll get East Timor's oil and gas fields, the seventh largest on earth.

Official documents from 1975, released by Howard in September, leave little doubt about the duplicity of a policy that promoted self- determination for East Timor in Australia while secretly urging the Indonesians to "incorporate" the colony. Publication of these files caused a furore; with Whitlam and Woolcott attempting to justify their actions, Howard succeeded in creating a diversion from his own outstanding duplicity.

When Howard was finally persuaded last year to provide troops to a UN force, it was only after East Timor had been devastated and depopulated by Jakarta-run death squads, the "militias", and only after Australian public opinion had forced the issue with nationwide demonstrations and union boycotts of Indonesian cargo. Today, Howard is secretly taking advantage of East Timor as the country embarks on its precarious transition to independence. He is demanding that an energy treaty his predecessors signed with Suharto, under which East Timor's oil and gas were divided between Australia and Indonesia, remains unchanged.

One of the nauseating moments of the East Timor tragedy was in 1989, when Gareth Evans, the then Australian foreign minister, raised his champagne glass to his Indonesian equivalent, Ali Alatas, as they flew over the Timor Sea in an Australian aircraft, having signed the Timor Gap Treaty. Below them was the small country where a third of the population had died or been killed under Suharto.

It was a piratical deal. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, none of the resources-rich Timor Gap falls within Australian territorial waters. This international law, to which Australia is a signatory, says that the seabed boundary should be an equidistant median line between Australia and East Timor. If this were applied, the whole of the present "zone of co-operation" would belong to an independent East Timor.

On 4 October, Australia's resources minister, Nick Minchin, was asked in parliament about the first round of negotiations between the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and the Australian government on the future of the treaty. Minchin replied that the negotiations "are not a matter for public discourse". The secrecy is understandable; the Howard government fears public scrutiny and stirring public opinion on an issue that most Australians see as a great historical injustice. As a sop, Minchin announced a A$140,000 grant to train East Timorese in "administration and policy development in relation to the Timor Gap". This is peanuts compared with the tens of millions of dollars that Canberra and Australian oil companies are likely to earn from exploiting East Timor's oil and gas. Or, as the champagne-quaffing Gareth Evans once put it, "zillions" of dollars; and this from a politician who said that Indonesia's brutal occupation was "irreversible".

On 9 October, Howard's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, implied that, unless Australia got its way, aid to East Timor would be reconsidered. "The extent to which East Timor itself is able to get the royalties," he said, "plays into the overall size of the aid programme in East Timor." The truth is that Australia owes East Timor billions of dollars in reparations. Not only did successive Australian governments allow the Indonesians to ravage a defenceless people who had fought alongside Australians in the Second World War and so helped prevent a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland, but the Australian military subsequently trained the Kopassus killers who (with British Aerospace-manufactured machine-guns) terror-ised East Timor and set up last year's militias. During the long years of killing, Australian corporations prospered in their deals with Indonesia.

Australia should respect international law and abide by whatever the East Timorese decide. At the very least, Howard should hand over, unconditionally, all royalties collected since Evans toasted his Faustian friend while flying over the graves of his victims. More important, ordinary Australians ought to divert some of their newly won Olympic pride to ensuring that, of all the betrayals of their East Timorese neighbours, paid for in blood and profit, this one must not succeed.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."