Timor Leste's language policy and Australian intervention Apr 27 2007 5:07:56 pm

roslynb-l at comcast.net roslynb-l at comcast.net
Mon Jul 2 10:23:56 UTC 2007


Timor Leste: The Second Australian intervention 
By Tim Anderson;  published in Journal of Australian Political Economy, No. 58, December 2006 
"We did not expect that the elected leader of a party with an overwhelming mandate could be forced to stand down in this way in a democracy" - Fretilin press release, 26 June 2006
Two stories are in circulation over the second Australian intervention in Timor Leste (East Timor). The first has it that the small, newly-independent country, beset with leadership and ethnic divisions, and led by an arrogant and even despotic Prime Minister, out of touch with the people, called once again on Australian assistance to avoid collapse into a 'failed state'. The second maintains that the losing leadership faction, in a struggle for control of the senior ranks of the army, initiated a coup, then drew on the support an Australian oligarchy that had distanced itself from Timor Leste's ruling party and the then Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri. 
How these competing stories are understood has important implications for the future Australian relationship with Timor Leste, and for the possibilities of independent development in the new nation. In the reading of these stories there are important lessons for Australians over their capacity to act as internationalists, developing friendly and supportive neighbouring relations, or as neo-colonialists, attempting to dominate the development of a client state. 
Naturally, the historical context of the relationship, the post- independence policy direction and the main elements of the 2006 crisis need to be understood, before attempting to look at the future challenges. So this article will begin by examining the postcolonial tensions in the relationship between Australia and Timor Leste, and some of the country's post independence achievements, before analysing the main elements of the 2006 crisis and the arguments over the intervention. Finally the development of a broader 'Australian elite consensus' (before and after the crisis) over the future of Timor Leste will be discussed, pointing to some of the challenges for both countries. 
The postcolonial tensionsIn the face of Australian demands, three areas of tension developed between the Australian elite and the newly independent state. First, the Australian demand for privileged access to resources, in particular oil and gas, confronted an East Timorese determination to reclaim and assert sovereignty over these resources. Second, the systematic Australian (and World Bank) obstruction of the building of public economic institutions (in the name of privatisation and open markets) has been resented and sidestepped by the Fretilin-led government. Third, the Australian desire for 'strategic denial' of other significant powers in the region has been frustrated by Timor Leste's diversification of its foreign relationships, particularly the restoration of ties with the former colonial power Portugal and the building of a new relationship with China. 
The oil and gas negotiations are the best known source of tension between the Alkatiri and the Howard governments. Even before Timor Leste's independence day, on 20 May 2002, Canberra had moved to head off a possible legal challenge to its oil and gas claims. The Howard Government proclaimed itself "generous" (SBS Insight 2002) for offering to convert the 50-50 royalty share deal it had done with Indonesia - in relation to a designated Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) - to an 80-20 share in favour of Timor Leste. Nevertheless, East Timorese negotiators managed to shift this to a 90-10 deal, which was set to be signed off at independence day. Yet several weeks before independence, the Howard government unilaterally withdrew from International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction over maritime boundary disputes, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UN-appointed negotiator Peter Galbraith, who worked for Timor Leste in the transition period,!
  said h
e was "shocked" by the Australian withdrawal, because "Australia has been one of those countries that has stood up for international law" (SBS Insight 2002). 
The significance of Australian withdrawal was not in the 90-10 deal, but in the question of maritime boundaries, and the second round of negotiations over the Greater Sunrise gas field, only 20% of which lay inside the JPDA. Timor Leste claimed that, under UNCLOS, it owned all of Greater Sunrise. The Australian government said that there was no more talking to be done, and that it would not open maritime boundary talks as this would raise similar boundary problems with Indonesia. Total revenues from the Greater Sunrise field were estimated, over the life of the project, to be $38 billion, of which Australia was claiming $30 billion (McKee 2002). This amount dwarfed all the aid money Australia had put into Timor Leste (Anderson 2003: 123), and even a modest change in share could mean billions of dollars for basic infrastructure in the poor and underdeveloped country. 
>>From this seemingly intractable starting position began a long series of difficult talks. In the course of these, Prime Minister Alkatiri was reported to have been lectured by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, "You can demand that forever for all I care … Let me give you a tutorial in politics not a chance" (Economist 2003). Alkatiri persisted, at some cost to the balance he had tried to develop between appeasing the big powers and maintaining a degree of economic independence. The East Timorese intransigence over Greater Sunrise was rebuffed by the Australian Government and also by 'realist' academics such as Alan Dupont (a former diplomat), who muttered vague threats over the consequences of such 'aggressive' bargaining:"There's a line beyond which no government can go and I think the East Timorese are in danger of actually now crossing over that line, if they pursue too aggressively the claim to renegotiate the maritime border and get a greater share !
 of the 
resource cake. … the East Timorese have to be careful they don't alienate the Australian government, and even Australian popular opinion" (SBS Insight 2002). 
Aware of such threats, Timor Leste's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta had been more cautious than Alkatiri over oil and gas. In 2001, when asked whether he wanted to renegotiate maritime boundaries with Australia, Ramos Horta replied, "I hesitate to say yes or no .. It's not an issue that East Timor can negotiate … unilaterally" (Far Eastern Economic Review 2001). In 2002, while admitting he had not discussed the matter fully with his Prime Minister or his Cabinet, Ramos Horta suggested a possible "gas-for-security" deal with Australia (Dodd 2002). This came to nothing. In 2003 Ramos Horta was said to have "reassured investors that Timor is happy with the treaty on sharing the Timor Sea's oil wealth with Australia, despite claims by a cabinet colleague [Jose Teixeira] last month that it was unfair" (Australian Financial Review 2003). Ramos Horta said Australia's attitude in the oil dispute was "very natural" (Banham 2003). 
Yet many East Timorese felt they were being robbed. For example, from 2000 onwards, Australia extracted several hundred million dollars in revenues from the Laminaria-Corallina field which, like Greater Sunrise, lay just outside the JPDA. However this field was expected to deliver such revenue for only a few years. The table below shows an estimate of Australian revenues, none of which were shared with Timor Leste. The field is much closer to Timor Leste than Australia and, according to UNCLOS maritime boundary principles, a maritime boundary should be at the mid-point between the two countries. Timor Leste should have taken all the revenue, but it took none. 
Table 1: Estimated tax paid to Australia on Laminaria-Coralina 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005US$ million 16 346 277 214 172 133 136Source: calculations by La'o Hamutuk 2006
Despite Ramos Horta's soothing diplomacy, Alkatiri had not relented on Greater Sunrise, and in 2004 matters came to a head, with President Xanana Gusmão joining Alkatiri (despite their political rivalry) in a series of public pleas over the oil and gas dispute. In April, Alkatiri said the oil and gas issue was "a matter of life and death" for his country (ABC Radio 2004). In the Portuguese newspaper Publico, Xanana accused the Australian government of the theft of Timor Leste's assets:"It's a disgrace … [Australia is] using all the dirty tactics it can … They steal from us and then they hold conferences about transparency, anti-corruption … We're creating a wave of noisy protest so that the world can see what's going on." (ETAN 2004). 
This was a shift in diplomatic tactics. Ramos Horta and the opposition parties joined in. In Australia, a public campaign helped push opposition leader Mark Latham into declaring the renegotiation of the oil deal Labor policy, and thus an election issue for 2004 (Burton 2004). Pressure was being turned up on the Howard government. But in June Alkatiri declared the discussions with Australia "hopeless" (Alkatiri 2004), and proceeded to call for new tenders on oil and gas exploration rights, and for building refinery capacity. Apart from the royalty share, refining of gas had become a sensitive issue. Australia had pushed hard to send all the Greater Sunrise gas to a Darwin-based liquid natural gas (LNG) refinery which, apart from company profits, would create 1,500 jobs in the construction phase and 100 jobs when in operation (SBS Insight 2002). This pulled the Labor government of the Northern Territory into the Howard government's strategy. Competition from Timor Leste was u!
 nwelcom
e. 
Ramos Horta's son, Loro, later observed that Alkatiri's dealings with PetroChina would attract the "ire" of both the US and Australia (Horta 2006). In fact, by September 2005, PetroChina and a Norwegian partner (GGS - Geo Global Services) had been awarded the first of the new contracts and, by late 2005, PetroChina had begun talks to build refinery capacity in Timor Leste (Petroleum Economist 2006). Alkatiri sought assurances from Australia that it would not block the construction of a gas pipeline to Timor for gas from Greater Sunrise. While Alkatiri said he had no "immediate" plans to set up a national (public) oil company (Dow Jones 2005), in August-September of 2005 his government began to auction a number of exploration rights 'blocks', both inside and outside the shared JPDA. Initial interest was expressed by Australia's Woodside Petroleum, but also by Malaysia's Petronas, Norway's Statoil, Kuwait's KUFPEC and China's PetroChina (Wilkinson 2005). 
By the beginning of 2006, the pressure appeared to have worked. In January Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that Australia had agreed to "share equally" the royalties from the Greater Sunrise field. As part of this deal, Timor Leste would agree to suspend for 50 years their claims for fixed maritime boundaries. Downer estimated that the shift in royalty shares (from 18:82 to 50:50) would mean an additional $4 billion in revenue for Timor Leste (Petromin 2006a). Earlier estimates suggested that a 50:50 split could amount to an extra $11 billion (McKee 2002). The 'realists' had been proved wrong, on revenue outcomes; but perhaps they were to be proved right over the consequences of 'alienating the Australian government'? 
[snip]
The third new Australian demand, that English be officially recognised, emerged from several years of Australian frustration with the adoption of both Tetum (the national dialect) and Portuguese as joint official languages. This reflected a frustration of Australian governmental and aid industry people at the problems of communications in a small country with several languages not their own. Small countries are always cursed by language, in that their educated classes have to learn several languages. On the other hand, Australians are notoriously lazy at learning other languages. This discomfort was elevated into a public policy argument. Kingsbury asserted that "national unity" can only be achieved by the East Timorese "settling on one language and embarking on a major literacy campaign in that language" (Kingsbury 2006). This simple, reductionist view ignores the varying historical processes that shape the national institutions and languages of many countries. One cannot u!
 ndersta
nd why, for example, India, Canada, South Africa and Papua New Guinea have adopted their multiple national languages without reference to their particular histories. 
Canberra academic George Quinn, in a scathing attack on Timor Leste's institutions, called both for the abolition of the army and "the scaling down of the Portuguese language policy" (Quinn 2006).
There had indeed been an debate within Timor Leste over language, but it was not so much over English, as over the place of Indonesian and Tetum. It was indeed the case that few East Timorese in 2001 (when the constitution was created) spoke Portuguese, and this seemed to privilege the older generation. However the younger generation had been educated in Indonesian, and most higher education had been in Indonesian colleges and universities which, after 1999, were no longer accessible. Tetum, a genuine national language, was only in its beginning stages as a written language. Yet a significant proportion of Tetum (perhaps as much as a third) comes from Portuguese, which is of course a world language. It is therefore somewhat easier for Tetum speakers to learn than English. Portuguese also maintains the country's connections with the Lusophone world (Portugal, Brazil and others). So Portuguese was a rational choice but, more importantly, it was a choice made by East Timorese p!
 eople, 
through their constituent assembly. This is a fundamental matter of self-determination.
At a practical level, there is hardly hostility to the teaching of English in Timor Leste, as many people wish to learn this important world language. But that is a different issue to insisting that Timor Leste's Constitution be changed, for Australian convenience. Those who feel this way might best look at the very low level of tertiary scholarships offered by Australia to East Timorese students: twenty per year in the transitional period, and only eight per year in 2006 (AusAID 2006). This compares unfavourably with the six hundred medical scholarships offered by Cuba, over three years. In addition, Cuba provides one year's language training, so students can master their language of instruction (Spanish). Australia offers no such scholarship extension for English training, rather it requires that all tertiary students "have an English language proficiency of at least 5.5 in IELTS" (AusAID 2006) before they can enter the country.
Concluding comments 
Australia's second intervention in Timor Leste came after a period of aggravation in which the independent nation faced down Australian elite demands for privileged access to the country's natural resources, Australian and World Bank obstruction of public economic institutions (including support for domestic agriculture) and Australian irritation at diversification of the country's strategic partners. Most of the hostility was aimed at Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, the chief development strategist. Some modest but important achievements were made in the first few years after independence, notably the construction of national institutions, reclaiming natural resources from a greedy neighbour, prudent management of finances, the consolidation of domestic agriculture and staple food production, and development of human capital through expansion in education and in the health system. 
However internal rivalry expressed through a struggle over the leadership of the army, and revolving around a President alienated from the dominant party, sparked a coup attempt in May 2006. When the military coup failed, a partisan Australian intervention, including a powerful and partisan media, forced the resignation of Alkatiri. Evidence does not support the notion of a benign or independent Australian assistance role. The interim government appears more 'Australian friendly', but relations between the Howard Government and Fretilin have been seriously damaged. At the same time there are a new raft of Australian demands, an 'Australian consensus' that Timor Leste's main party be 'reformed', that its national army be sidelined or abolished and that the country adopt English as a national language. These new demands (seen as necessary for a more energetic and sustained Australian intervention) are elaborations of an Australian 'elite consensus', the cultural product of a p!
 rimary 
elite (media, mining, finance, government) with direct interests in resource and strategic control, and a secondary elite (aid managers, academics, journalists) which has associated itself with the paternalistic project. However the demands represent a dangerous escalation of neo-colonial pressures, compromising to East Timorese independence and corrosive of normal domestic politics. Such pressures will encourage disaffected groups to align themselves with the neo-colonial power, to avoid engagement in 'normal' politics. These groups may well be encouraged to play 'the Australian card', as pro-Indonesian militia groups did under a previous occupation. 
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