Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Profit interests behind East Timor spying scandal

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Although Australia was portrayed in heroic terms during its 1999 military intervention in East Timor (Timor-Leste), its real motives have been shown to be much more calculated and corrupt.

In November, an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) whistleblower revealed that ASIS had bugged Timor-Leste’s Cabinet Room, where East Timorese negotiators discussed tactics during the 2004 gas negotiations with Australia. ASIS, Australia’s overseas spy agency, also intimidated advisors to East Timor.

The $40 billion deal that emerged centred on the Greater Sunrise gas field in the Timor Sea. The deal is correctly criticised as being massively in Australia’s favour – initially giving Australia control of 82% of resources and East Timor just 18%. This was revised to a 50:50 split in 2006 – despite being only 100km offshore from Timor-Leste but about 400km from Australia! The deal even stipulated that there be no renegotiations of maritime boundaries for the unusually long period of 50 years.

Sunrise is currently exploited by the Australian resource giant Woodside. Not incidentally, the minister in charge of ASIS at that time, Alexander Downer, is now working for Woodside.

The money Timor-Leste collects from these gas resources is the single largest source of income for the undeveloped and war-ravaged nation. In December Dili quietly asked its Australian masters for the treaty to be renegotiated, but was eventually forced to take it to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the United Nation’s International Court of Justice in The Hague. They said they would drop arbitration if there was a detailed response to the spying allegations from Australia.

Since then, under the new Liberal Defence Minister David Johnston, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) – the local spy agency – has raided an Australian lawyer involved on Timor’s side. They seized correspondence including legal strategy documents as well as raiding the whistleblower whose passport was confiscated days before he was due to travel to The Hague. The head of ASIO now was then the head of ASIS.

The Labor opposition then collaborated with the Coalition to keep the raids’ justifications secret from Parliament, highlighting the everyday collusion of the major parties in the shadowy dealings of the security agencies.

All this indisputably highlights Australia’s imperial ambitions in the region – ambitions that the Socialist Party warned about before the 1999 intervention. But most importantly it reveals the fundamental weakness of the East Timorese government. While formally independent it effectively operates as colony of Australia.

The only way for workers and the poor of East Timor to take control of their own resources, and rapidly raise their living standards, is not to rely on international courts but to rely on their own collective strength. With this strength it is possible to fight for a new type of economic system.

A system based on the collective ownership of wealth and resources, democratic control and sustainable planning is the alternative to a weak form of profit-driven capitalism that is controlled by Australia and the big business elite.
This goal could be reached more quickly if the Timorese people had the support of other working class people in the region, especially Australian workers.

Practical international solidarity is the best route towards the type of cooperation necessary to wipe out regional inequality and raise everyone’s living standards.

By W. van Leeuwen


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