I lived in Dili for almost 4 years until late 2006, engaged by the UN within the government of Timor-Leste. This period included remaining in Dili beyond the international evacuation of May 2006. There are good domestic reasons that lend support to the proposed processing of asylum seekers within Timor-Leste, as Charles Richardson pointed out. Although it is likely of little, if any, interest to Australia, it is difficult to see any good Timorese reasons.

We have seen the fragility of internal social order due to fairly weak threats. This most publicly started with the catholic church’s 2005 shutdown of Dili in protest at religious education being a voluntary rather than mandatory part of the proposed school curriculum (an action joined and supported by both then President Gusmao and then Minister Ramos-Horta as a means of further weakening the Fretilin government). It continued with the subsequent fomenting in early 2006 of rivalries within the military between those from eastern and western districts (ably inflamed by then President Gusmao’s public statements of support to the anti-government faction).

But more recently, the President and/or Prime Minister have called on Australia to do two things (amongst others): permit Timorese within Australia to stay in Australia due to lack of food and jobs in Timor, and permit Timorese to come to Australia for the same reasons. And now we learn that it is likely that asylum seekers within Timorese territory will require and be assured both. It is only reasonable that the asylum seekers should be properly treated in this way, even if Australia has refused to do so, and credit is due to the Timorese leadership if they insist on such conditions.

But this is an almost inevitable recipe for renewed social collapse in Timor-Leste, whether or not that asylum seeker assistance is fully funded by Australia. The Timorese leadership has got away once with telling its people to forego justice in the interests of harmony with an Indonesia refusing to face up to its international obligations for atrocities and serious crimes. But can they also get away with telling its people to continue their deprivations and hardships in the interest of relations with an Australia refusing to face up to its international obligations under humanitarian treaties and law? ‘Generous’ compensation to do so will almost certainly be seen as simply being a small proportion of Timorese oil and gas revenues foregone to Australian intransigence over the Timor Sea.

Furthermore, while it is pointed out that this will also bring needed boosts to economic and employment conditions there, this will carry a heavy cost. We know the difficulties of getting domestic security and policing services running at an adequate level at the best of times, but now it is likely that these capacities will be drained by new priorities in managing asylum seeker care and processing. ‘New jobs’ from this latest asylum seeker processing industry will simply be at the expense of draining the already limited numbers of skilled Timorese personnel that are committed to domestic governance, development and security priorities. This has already been problem enough for the Timorese government, unable to match the salaries of international agencies for the more skilled Timorese.

I agree with Charles Richardson’s point about Gillard responding to a sinister agenda not of her making, and acknowledge that the highly blinkered and ill-informed Australian public opinion on this issue leaves little room to embrace anything close to a ‘suitable’ response. The problem is that, as money is of little concern in ensuring that the solitary orange stick figure in yesterday’s editorial doesn’t enter Australia, the decision is largely in the hands of a Timorese leadership that has already shown that a little social collapse is a risk worth taking for personal political ends.

The detail yet to be determined (including under international law) likely means that the Australian Government has an ‘in-principle’ fix to go to the polls with, but such delays in reaching a formal agreement will cause real problems for the current Timorese Government as it edges closer to its next national elections in, I think, 2012. Although it’s evidently of no particular concern in the Australian domestic scene (unless it meant a destabilised neighbour), what are the views of the Timorese people? And, the Australian Government might soon have to wonder, of the Fretilin opposition in Timor-Leste?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey