The Timor-Leste activist group that condemned the Australian government over the prosecution of Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery has blasted the government for its hypocrisy following Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s long-delayed July visit to the country, during which Bishop optimistically promised a “new chapter” for the countries’ beleaguered relationship.

Speaking to Crikey from Dili this week, Juvinal Dias from the activist group Movimentu Kontra Okupasaun Tasi Timor (MKOTT) equated Australia’s “undemocratic” prosecution of Collaery and Witness K to the rule of Indonesian dictator Suharto, drawing an uncomfortable connection to the brutal 24-year-long occupation of Timor-Leste by Indonesia.

Australia’s tacit support of that occupation allowed it to gain an undue share of oil and gas in the Timor Sea after the generous Timor Sea Gap agreement with Indonesia came into effect in 1991. Australia received 50% of the resource wealth from an area now found to be almost 100% within Timor-Leste’s boundary.

“Indonesia came to kill people, Australia occupied the sea and stole the wealth,” Dias told Crikey of the twin threats to Timor-Leste during its struggle for independence.

“For MKOTT, what we see from what Julie Bishop is doing is a continuation of Australia shutting its mouth on the invasion of Timor in 1975. Australia supported the invasion. [It] is a continuation of genocide in Timor, occupation of Timor-Leste, domination of Timor-Leste, stealing from Timor-Leste.”

When former ASIS intelligence agent Witness K revealed that Australia had bugged Timor-Leste’s cabinet during oil and gas treaty negotiations in 2004, Timor-Leste tore up an early treaty between the countries and launched espionage proceedings against Australia at the Hague.

The case was later dropped as an act of good faith and a new treaty delineating a permanent maritime boundary was signed in March this year. But the prosecution of the case’s key witness and his lawyer, revealed by Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie under parliamentary privilege in June, casts a new light over the countries’ relationship.

“The criminalisation of activists is part of a colonial or regime behaviour, not from a democratic country,” Dias said. “We know that Australia is a nation that always talks about democracy, a pioneer of democracy, a pioneer for freedom of expression, human rights, good governance, peace and other things. A country like Australia, which is economically and politically strong, should be an example to a small country like Timor-Leste.”

From the hilltop village of Tutuala in Timor-Leste’s eastern-most district, Lautem, dreadlocked Dias has a decade of activism behind him and a nine-year-long stint as a researcher at respected Timorese development analysis institute, Lao Hamutuk. Now working at the Timor Transparency Network, which publishes figures for Timor Sea wealth.

Dias told Crikey that Australia owes Timor-Leste money.

Australia is Timor-Leste’s largest foreign aid donor, but the $91.8 million allocated in aid over 2018-19 pales in comparison to the estimated $5 billion received by Australia from oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea, mostly from areas now recognised as Timor-Leste’s under the new treaty. “Australia can’t give small money and take big money,” Dias said.  

Australia still draws an estimated US$4 million per month from oil and gas fields found under the new boundary treaty to lie in Timor-Leste’s waters, and will until the treaty is ratified, which is expected to be by the end of this year. While under its terms neither party has the right to seek compensation from the other, Dias says options remain open.

“Even though the treaty doesn’t ask for compensation, it also doesn’t ban Australia from voluntarily giving back the money it took from Timor-Leste,” he said.  

But the specifics of the ongoing oil negotiations are of less interest to MKOTT than reclaiming Timor-Leste’s rights and correcting the perceived wrong of the Witness K prosecution.

Dias said that Collaery and Witness K simply wanted to strengthen Australia’s democracy by revealing the Australian government’s wrongdoing in bugging Timor-Leste, calling Bishop a “hypocrite” for promoting democracy abroad while her own country prosecutes its truth-tellers. “What Julie Bishop said in other countries about democracy doesn’t reflect in Timor-Leste,” he said. “This is why I say she is a hypocrite minister.”

The Australian government must avoid limiting freedom of expression by allowing the prosecution of the pair, Dias said, lest it start its own dictatorial regime. “We from MKOTT see that it is a setback for Australian democracy,” he said. “For Timor-Leste, this criminalisation is a practise of human rights violation. We see that they are criminalised now, we have the obligation to show solidarity.”

MKOTT activists, who have fought for Timor-Leste’s sovereignty since 2004, held a candlelight vigil outside Bishop’s hotel when she visited Dili in July, and Dias said the group will protest again in Dili on September 12, the rescheduled date of the case’s first directions hearing.

“Timor’s fight now is a continuation of the past fight,” he said. “In the past, the fight was to gain independence. Now people of Timor are feeling about the domination of the Australian government. They know it’s not just and fair from them. That’s why until now they keep demanding.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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