27 February 2016

Solidarity Should be Shown

Last Tuesday, several thousand 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 Timor-Leste's sovereignty by negotiating a fair maritime boundary or allowing the issue to be decided by an impartial court or 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 which 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 organizers had written to him the day before.

Many Timorese expressed their appreciation that international solidarity is continuing to support Timor-Leste 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 -- fewer than ten malaes attended, and not 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 Timor-Leste's right to a fair maritime border with their country.  But unlike at previous rallies here, they did not make an appearance, although protests and well-attended conferences in Australia during the last few months attest to their integrity and determination. 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.

We hope that the warning messages distributed by the Australian Embassy (left), the U.S. Embassy (right) and the United Nations (below) didn't scare people away. Australia told its citizens to "avoid spontaneous gatherings, demonstrations, protests, street rallies and other large public gatherings," while the United States warned that "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."

The United Nations, which has worked hard to support human rights, sovereignty and democracy in Timor-Leste, sent an internal 'broadcast' to its staff the day before the demonstration that "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 may have been unnecessary. A second UN 'security broadcast' on the morning of the protest expected "some traffic disturbance" and reminded "staff and dependants 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 industrialized 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.

For more photos of the Dili demonstration, as well as other information and background on the maritime boundaries dispute, see La'o Hamutuk's website. The most recent material is toward the bottom of the page.


  1. Obviously a great event, but I disagree with the key sentiment in this piece, which under the headline, runs pretty close to saying if you (particularly Australians in Timor-Leste) didn't attend the rally you are not in solidarity with the Timorese on this issue. Let people, whoever they are, express their solidarity in their own ways.

    1. Thanks, John. You may be right that the headline is too strident...a weakness of alliteration, concision and haste. But we agree on a basic point, that solidarity should be expressed, not just kept to oneself. I also feel that it often involves following the lead of the people one is in solidarity with, and in this case they decided to hold a demonstration -- although their outreach to malaes here could have been better.
      -- Charlie