East Timorese students rally outside the Australian Embassy

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declined to hold formal talks with East Timor over its maritime boundary, yet another Australian who failed to stand up and defend East Timor’s sovereignty in the matter.

Last Tuesday, several thousand East Timorese citizens rallied peacefully in front of the Australian Embassy in Fatuhada, Dili, to urge the Australian government to comply with international law and respect East Timor’s sovereignty by negotiating a fair maritime boundary or allowing the issue to be decided by an impartial court of arbitration.

As in previous protests on this issue in 2004, 2005 and 2013, there was no violence or threats. Passers-by mingled with participants, and demonstrators obeyed strings that delimited areas they were not supposed to enter. In fact, police and embassy security were more respectful than at previous protests and kept their distance; the crowd largely controlled itself.

Although strong views were expressed (“Governu Australia … Na’ok-teen” was a frequent call and response) and speakers were eloquent and vociferous, most participants turned their backs to the embassy, preferring to face the stage. A few speakers appealed directly in English to ambassador Peter Doyle’s conscience, but the sound system was probably not loud enough to cross the street and walls. We expect that his plainclothes staff have passed on the message, although organisers had written to him the day before.

Many East Timorese expressed their appreciation that international solidarity is continuing to support East Timor in this phase of its independence struggle, as activists around the world had done during 24 years of struggle against Indonesian occupation. Unfortunately, the solidarity was more virtual than visible — we could not see a single Australian national. (There were a lot of people there, and we could be mistaken — apologies to any Australians who passed unseen in the hot noonday sun.)

La’o Hamutuk has talked with many Australians both here and in Australia who support East Timor’s right to a fair maritime border with their country. We understand that people who work for the Australian government, the programs it funds, or the United Nations have had to surrender their freedom of speech on these issues, but many others have not.

Australia told its citizens to “avoid spontaneous gatherings, demonstrations, protests, street rallies and other large public gatherings,” while the United States warned: “Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence with little or no warning. U.S. citizens should avoid areas of demonstrations, and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations.” We hope that the warning messages distributed by the Australian embassy, the US embassy and the United Nations didn’t scare people away.

The United Nations, which has worked hard to support human rights, sovereignty and democracy in East Timor, sent an internal “broadcast” to its staff the day before the demonstration saying:

“Although the event is announced as a peaceful protest, such issues can always deteriorate and develop into something less organized.

“Therefore UNDSS is as usual reminding staff members and dependants [sic] to avoid large crowds and gatherings as this could always have potential to turn into a mob.”

As all UN staff sign contracts agreeing not to participate in such events, this might have been unnecessary. A second UN “security broadcast” on the morning of the protest expected “some traffic disturbance” and reminded “staff and dependants[sic] to avoid getting caught in a crowd as it can always change into a mop [sic] with short notice. PNTL is at the scene.”

Last November, citizens all over the world rallied to urge governments to do more to prevent changes to the climate. In Melbourne, Pacific Islanders joined thousands of Australians and others to voice their alarm at impending disaster if Australia, the United States and other fossil-fuelled industrialised nations do not change their direction. Nobody told people to stay away or to be afraid of violence, mobs or confrontation.

Respect is not only about a fair maritime boundary, it’s also about respecting Timorese people’s dignity, character, self-control, humanity and rights to peaceful expression.

Peter Fray

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