A few years ago, a Burmese couple on the run from that country’s brutal military regime sought asylum in Australia. They had landed in East Timor and went to the embassy. Their application for refugee status was ultimately refused and, unable to return to Burma, they stayed in Dili. The couple worked, saved and in time opened a Burmese restaurant, the Dili Beach Cafe, which has since become one of Dili’s social and culinary landmarks.
The East Timorese government accepted this Burmese couple, and it has accepted the few others who have braved East Timor’s still difficult conditions to start a new life, because the East Timorese understand what it is like to need asylum.
President Jose Ramos-Horta was a refugee between 1975 and 1999, as was first prime minister Mari Alkatiri, many of both the first and second governments, as well as the many expatriates who have since returned to help rebuild their original home. Many East Timorese found refuge in Australia, but many were also rejected, at one point on the fiction that, as technically Portuguese citizens, they had a “home” to go to.
Now Australia is asking East Timor to act as a processing point for asylum seekers it continues to be unwilling to accept on its own shores. It is a plan that could possible work, but it is also a plan that might well fail. It is certainly a plan laden with historical irony.
The government’s announcement to seek to have asylum seekers processed in East Timor is in direct response to the general negative perception of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Asylum seekers are again a wedge issue for the government which, looking down the barrel of an election, is seeking to have it neutralised.
The announcement has so far only been outlined in broad form and it appears that such discussions about it that have been had have been with President Jose Ramos-Horta. Ramos-Horta has said that if East Timor accepts Australia’s asylum seekers it will do so humanely. It will not lock them up, but probably let them wander freely. As a political outcast for a quarter of a century, he knows what it is like to be forced to flee one’s home.
The problem is, however, that despite Ramos-Horta’s frequent contributions to public debate and his propensity to seek solutions to vexing questions, he is a largely ceremonial president in what is a parliamentary republic. Ramos-Horta has no executive authority and his last public intervention, on the Woodside Timor Sea dispute, earned him little more than the ire of the East Timorese government. Ramos-Horta is a decent person, but he is not the “go-to” man for political decision making.
The question, then, is whether the “East Timor solution” has been put to the government of East Timorese, rather than its largely symbolic head of state. The initial indication is that it has not, and this may cause problems. East Timorese woke yesterday morning to the news that Australia wished to house its asylum seekers in their country. In the words of one anonymous minister, they were “blind-sided” on the issue.
In East Timor, there is a feeling that they have recently been blind-sided twice by Australia.
The last was the unilateral announcement by Woodside Petroleum to process liquid natural gas on a floating platform in the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government had expected to be consulted first, and to its own preferred option of on-shore processing. But this failed to happen and they were consequently furious.
Despite being organisationally separate, the Australian government was in part blamed for Woodside’s decision, and there remains an expectation in East Timor that the Australian government will pressure it to accept the East Timorese on-shore processing preference.
Since then, the East Timorese government generally, and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in particular, have toned down their rhetoric. However, what appears to be a lack of consultation is likely to at best be regarded as undiplomatic and at worst a serious insult.
The question is, then, can the Gillard government keep the “East Timor solution” on track. Gillard is a competent negotiator, as seen over the recent mining industry agreement. And Australia has a very competent and astute diplomatic core in Dili, which will no doubt now be working overtime on this issue.
Assuming the East Timorese government does not suggest in similarly undiplomatic terms that the Australian government goes away, there will be a big question around “what’s in it for us?” Pressure on Woodside may well be a part of that, although difficult for the government to carry, especially in light of the recent mining “super profits” tax debacle.
There will certainly be a question around funding asylum seekers, and other support mechanisms. And, should there be an initial agreement, there will then be the question of legislative changes – always slow moving in East Timor — to the immigration act to allow the agreement to proceed.
The “East Timor solution” is, then, far from being a done deal. From Gillard’s perspective, though, what she will want more than anything is less an immediate deal than time.
The Prime Minister has shown she can get an agreement and does not need to have this one signed off before an election – she just needs Australian voters to know it is a live option. What she does not want, however, is for the government of East Timor to close the door in her face.
East Timor retains an overall good relationship with Australia, but it is also becoming more assertive, confident in its ability to stand as an increasingly financially independent state.
The Australian government’s test will be whether it can at least hold open the possibility of a deal on asylum seekers until after an election. The further test for Gillard will be whether she can work on the international political stage, as well as the domestic one.
Judging by this first international outing, the Prime Minister knows something that no one else, including the East Timorese government, seems to know, at least at this stage. Either that, or she might have a second look at where she is getting her international advice.
Professor Damien Kingsbury is in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University. He has an Australia Research Council grant to study the politics of East Timor.