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East Timor News Digest 3 – March 1-31, 2011


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Indonesia, East Timor go for 'soft approach' at border

Jakarta Globe - March 23, 2011

Camelia Pasandaran – Indonesia has agreed to step up cooperation in solving border problems with East Timor, its former territory, an Indonesian presidential spokesman said on Tuesday.

"President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao agreed to improve management by using a soft approach," said Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential spokesman for international relations, at a press conference after a meeting between the two heads of state at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta

"The government has put extra effort into finalizing discussions on three border areas," Teuku said.

The three areas discussed were Delomil village in Belu district, Manusasi village in Timor Tengah Utara district, and Naktuka village in Kupang district. The United Nations has decreed that there should not be any development in the three disputed regions. However, it has been reported that East Timor has been pushing ahead regardless.

"These are land border issues," Teuku said. "We need to settle these three border problems so that we can move on to the maritime baseline of the two countries."

The two heads of state on Tuesday also witnessed the signing of memoranda of understanding on decentralization and local government, diplomatic education and training, public works infrastructure, education and training in the fields of transportation and trade.

"It was a very productive, fruitful discussion. We were able to make some commitments. Five MoUs were signed this afternoon," Teuku said. "This is a clear reflection that the two countries are ready to move forward in many areas of cooperation."

The Indonesian government also reported its willingness to invest in infrastructure in East Timor and to offer its neighbor credit to buy military hardware.

"East Timor says it wants to buy military equipment and our government is ready to provide it with export credit," Teuku said.

Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said East Timor wanted to buy a fast patrol boat to protect its territory and that it had ordered a $20 million boat from shipbuilder PAL Indonesia that Indonesia was willing to let it buy using export credit.

The Indonesian government also said it would support East Timor's bid for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

East Timor, Indonesia agree to solve border problems

Jakarta Globe - March 22, 2011

Camelia Pasandaran – Indonesia and East Timor on Tuesday agreed to step up cooperation in solving border problems, said an Indonesian presidential spokesman.

"Regarding shared borders, President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao agreed to better management using a soft approach," said Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential staff for international relations, at a press conference after a meeting between two heads of state at the Presidential Palace on Tuesday.

"The government has put extra effort into finalizing discussions on three border areas," he said.

The three areas discussed were Delomil village in Belu district, Manusasi village in Timor Tengah Utara district, and Naktuka village in Kupang district.

"These are land border issues," Teuku said. "We need to settle these three border issues so that we can move on to the maritime baseline of the two countries."

The two heads of state on Tuesday also witnessed the signing of five memorandums of understanding (MoU) – on decentralization and local government, diplomatic education and training, public works infrastructure, education and training in the field of transportation, and trade.

"The discussion was a very productive, fruitful discussion. We were able to reach some commitments. Five MoU were signed this afternoon," Teuku said. "This is a clear reflection that the two countries are ready to move forward in many areas of cooperation."

The Indonesian government also reported its willingness to invest in infrastructure in East Timor and give its neighbor credit to by military equipment.

"East Timor says it wants to buy military equipments, and our government is ready to provide it with export credit," Teuku said.

Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said East Timor wanted to buy a fast patrol boat to protect its territory and that it had ordered a $20 million boat from shipbuilder PT PAL Indonesia

"They want to be given export credit," he said. "The government is ready to provide it from the Indonesian Export Development Agency (LPEI)," he said.

The Indonesian government also said that it would support East Timor's bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Police & security

East Timor police take over from UN force

Agence France Presse - March 27, 2011

Dili – United Nations police have returned full control of East Timor to the national force, more than four years after bloody clashes threatened to push the country into civil war.

Following a ceremony today, the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) will from tomorrow be responsible for the whole country, with the UN police in a supporting role, said a joint statement by the UN and the East Timorese Government.

"We will continue to work side by side," UN special representative for East Timor Ameerah Haq said. "However, PNTL will be squarely in the driver's seat, and the UN will focus on providing the training and support Timor- Leste's police service needs to further strengthen its capabilities over the long term."

The UN will maintain a presence of up to 1280 police to support the PNTL until after the presidential election in 2012, when the world body's peacekeeping mission plans to withdraw from the tiny southeast Asian state, the statement said.

"The resumption of policing responsibility by PNTL at this time has the advantage of enabling PNTL to assume its role before next year's elections and well before the anticipated withdrawal of the UN's mission," Haq said.

In 2006, unrest triggered by the desertion of 600 soldiers over claims of discrimination forced 155,000 people – or 15 per cent of the population – to flee their homes, and prompted the return of UN forces to the tiny country.

But in 2009 the peacekeeping mission said the conditions were stable enough for the PNTL to start resuming its full responsibilities.

The first handover of control took place in Lautem district on the far east of the half-island state, followed by "nearly all districts and units with no increases in crime rates or public order incidents", the statement said.

East Timor won formal independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a bloody 24-year occupation that killed as many as 200,000 people.

Refugees & asylum seekers

East Timor 'too small' for regional refugee centre

Melbourne Age - March 31, 2011

Tom Allard and Kirsty Needham – East Timor has reaffirmed its hostility to a refugee processing centre on its territory, even as the Gillard government insists it will still proceed with negotiations with the fledgling country over a plan labelled an embarrassing farce by the opposition.

The Bali Process people smuggling summit concluded yesterday with member states agreeing on a regional co-operation framework agreement that included a clause allowing countries to pursue the creation of regional processing centres.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd described the agreement as the first of its kind in the world that paved the way for the harmonisation of regional standards for the protection, processing and resettlement of asylum seekers, "including regional assessment centres".

However, East Timor's delegate to the conference, Alberto Carlos, said that the agreement made no difference to his country and Australia should look elsewhere for a location for the centre.

"For East Timor, it's still not possible," Dr Carlos told the ABC. "Our land is very, very small... the income is still very low. A lot of infrastructure needs to be built. That's our main priority... We would very, very much appreciate that initiative if Australia can find some other places in the region because we have a very, very limited space."

Asked about the rebuff, which followed similar sentiments expressed by Dr Carlos to The Age on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said "the highest levels" of the East Timorese government had told Australia that "discussions should continue".

Australia's wants the centre in East Timor so it can transfer asylum seekers that reach Australia to the country for assessment of their claims and resettlement in other countries. But, with East Timor maintaining its resistance, Mr Bowen hinted that Australia has been approaching other countries as well.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said: "This government has been flogging this thing like a dead horse in the last nine months, and it has been embarrassing to watch. "To watch the procession of regional leaders forced to politely nod and engage in this conversation has been excruciating."

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said the idea of a single offshore processing centre was "always a dud idea" that had little support outside Australia.

Gusmao says no to Gillard plan: report

Australian Associated Press - March 31, 2011

Karlis Salna – East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has given his strongest indication yet that he is opposed to the idea of a refugee processing centre being built on his country's soil.

Mr Gusmao has previously privately dismissed the plan, put forward by Prime Minister Julia Gillard ahead of last year's federal election, but it has now emerged that he told The Economist magazine, well before the Bali Process meeting, that he would find it impossible to justify the proposal.

The development comes as Australia celebrates a significant victory at the summit in Bali, which resulted in agreement among 41 countries on a co- operative framework for dealing with the problem of people smuggling.

While Mr Gusmao is not directly quoted in the article in The Economist, the magazine reports that the East Timorese prime minister said during an interview in London on March 3 that he could not support the processing centre plan.

"Chief among Mr Gusmao's reasons for opposing the processing centre is the fact that he would not be able to explain to his poor countrymen why foreign asylum seekers would be entitled to international-grade health care, food, clothing and schooling for their children while so many Timorese do not," The Economist said.

But the magazine also reported that East Timorese President Jose Ramos- Horta remained in talks with officials in Canberra about the proposal. Ms Gillard has also said that the discussions would continue.

Despite the failure to gain any traction in terms of the so-called East Timor solution, the agreement on a co-operative framework at the summit in Bali was a significant win for the Australian government.

The framework is supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the International Organisation for Migration, and includes reference to the potential for developing a regional assessment centre or centres.

Ms Gillard on Thursday described the outcome as a "step forward". "We went to that meeting urging that the meeting agree to regional co-operation to deal with global and regional problems of people movement and people smuggling, and in the statement from the meeting, there is agreement to a regional co-operation framework. I welcome that," she said.

"I also welcome the fact that the framework will have specific reference to a processing centre, or centres, in that region. The question of the East Timor processing centre is something that Australia continues to pursue with East Timor at the highest levels," Ms Gillard said.

However, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen suggested at the conclusion of the summit on Wednesday that Australia may also seek support for a processing centre in another country other than East Timor, a proposition the Bali Process agreement makes possible.

The comments came after the leader of East Timor's delegation, Vice-Foreign Minister Alberto Carlos, said his country would prefer that Australia look elsewhere for a place to build the processing centre.

Gillard to pursue Timor centre plan

Australian Associated Press - March 30, 2011

Karlis Salna – Prime Minister Julia Gillard plans to pursue an agreement with East Timor over her proposal for a regional refugee processing centre despite the fledgling nation all but rejecting the idea.

While the 4th Bali Process summit on people smuggling resulted in a win for Australia in that a regional framework was agreed to, East Timor clearly remains opposed to Ms Gillard's proposal, introduced as policy ahead of last year's election.

The framework agreed to on Wednesday in Bali by 41 nations, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, includes reference to the potential for developing a regional assessment centre or centres.

However, East Timor's delegation leader, vice-foreign minister Alberto Carlos, remains firmly of the view that his country has many more problems to deal with and that the processing centre plan would continue to be a low priority.

"During my statements in the meeting, I clearly stated that this issue should be taken to the regional forum (of) which the most appropriate is the Bali Process," he told the ABC.

"We still have a lot of problems to solve, a lot of priorities. That is why Timor-Leste prefer not to be asked to do this very, very hard work. We would very, very much appreciate... if Australia can find some other places in the region. We have a very, very limited space for that."

Earlier in the day, Ms Gillard said the Bali meeting was never going to be about the East Timor processing centre but a multilateral meeting about a regional framework in relation to people smuggling.

However, she said discussions with East Timor would continue. "They are bilateral discussions between Australia and East Timor," she told reporters in Perth. The two should not be confused."

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who along with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd led Australia's delegation at the summit, later downplayed the lack of progress in terms of the so-called East Timor solution, badging the reference to a processing centre in the framework agreement as a significant development.

"Of course we've said East Timor would be the focus of our discussions and they have been," Mr Bowen said.

"But today is a very significant step in the development of those discussions across our region and lays a framework for further bilateral discussions," he said. "Certainly the communication we've received from the highest levels of the East Timorese is that these discussions should continue."

Mr Rudd said the framework agreement was a milestone in the development of a co-ordinated approach by nations in and around the Asia-Pacific to address the challenge of people smuggling.

"It represents a significant win for Australian diplomacy, with the framework the key objective of the government for this meeting," he said.

But opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Australia's efforts to get other countries on board with the East Timor plan had been a farce and that the government should accept the proposal would amount to nothing.

"This government has been flogging this thing like a dead horse in the last nine months, and it has been embarrassing to watch," he told the National Press Club in Canberra.

"To watch the procession of regional leaders forced to politely nod and engage in this conversation has been excruciating... as much for the rest of Australia watching this farce."

Mr Morrison reaffirmed the coalition's tough line on immigration and flagged an extended 457 visa to address skills shortages in regional areas of Australia.

The signing of the agreement in Bali came as another boat of asylum seekers was intercepted off Australia's coast, north of Ashmore Island. Initial indications suggested there were 37 passengers and two crew on board.

East Timor open to processing centre plan

Australian Associated Press - March 29, 2011

Karlis Salna – East Timor remains open to discussing Australia's plan for a regional refugee processing centre to be built on its territory but would like to delay the negotiations.

The comments, from East Timor's vice-minister for foreign affairs, Alberto Carlos, which came on the eve of regional summit on people-smuggling in Bali, will be a boost for the Australian government, which has so far received scant support for the plan.

Carlos said East Timor, one of the region's poorest countries, while open to the further discussions on the processing centre proposal, had other priorities it needed to deal with.

"We still remain open for dialogue but we'd like to suggest that we can hold these discussions maybe later on," he told ABC radio late on Monday night. "But for the moment (East Timor) has a lot of priorities and then, maybe later on, we'll (hold) those discussions."

He said any agreement on a regional framework for dealing with asylum seekers should take into consideration the country of origin, country of transit and country of destination – a view shared by both Australia and Indonesia.

Earlier on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said he would continue to push the processing centre plan, and would take it up with East Timorese officials in Bali, but pointed out the meeting was "not for settling final details or locations".

"Obviously we were arguing for a regional framework and we have argued that a regional processing centre would be part of that regional framework, but this is not a meeting which would finalise those arrangements," he said.

"That is something that is for discussion between Australia and other nations and most particularly, in the first instance, obviously East Timor."

"We've had ongoing discussions with East Timorese ministers and I'll be talking to the East Timorese delegation, but the idea of this meeting is not to finalise those discussions with East Timor or anyother bilateral nation."

However, Carlos said East Timorese officials already in Bali taking part in preliminary talks ahead of the meeting had not been approached about the processing centre plan by anyone, including from Australian representatives.

"In Bali we are there to discuss smuggling, human trafficking and so on. But our advance team... reported to us nothing about the proposal (for a processing centre)," he said.

No refugee centre for us: East Timor

Melbourne Age - March 29, 2011

Tom Allard and Kirsty Needham – East Timor has dismissed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal for a refugee processing centre on its soil on the eve of a multinational summit on people smuggling.

The rebuff comes as the fledgling nation's foreign minister has shunned the Bali Process ministerial forum altogether, choosing instead to go to Fiji, a pariah state for Canberra, to observe a small gathering of Pacific nations.

East Timor's chief diplomat, Zacarias da Costa, will be replaced by his deputy, Alberto Carlos, who gave the Australian government little cause for optimism in an interview with The Age yesterday.

"It is not a priority," said Dr Carlos, when asked about East Timor's attitude to the proposed centre. "Timor Leste is a new country. We have lots of problems to deal with. Our priority is to find the best way to solve our problems. We have to improve the living conditions here. At this stage, we don't see any urgency to discuss this matter."

It is a message that has clearly got through to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who spent yesterday playing down expectations before the key meeting, which begins today in Bali. The detail and location of a regional processing centre would not even be discussed at the meeting, he said.

The summit, he said, should be seen as a "stepping-stone meeting" focused on a regional framework to combat people smuggling: "We are arguing for a regional framework and we have argued that a regional processing centre would be part of that regional framework."

Ms Gillard flagged the refugee facility in East Timor before last year's election to combat widespread anxiety about the surge in asylum seekers arriving in Australia after the Labor government relaxed immigration laws in 2008.

Regional leaders have shown great ambivalence about the proposal since it was floated, and there is heated opposition in East Timor's Parliament.

Reflecting the displeasure, Mr da Costa now considers it more important to go to Fiji as an observer at the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting, a forum of four Pacific states.

More than 45 nations and organisations such as the UNHCR will participate at the Bali Process summit. Given Fiji's dictator, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, expelled Australia's high commissioner in 2009 and is reviled in Canberra, Mr Da Costa's preference to attend the talks in Suva appears a direct diplomatic snub.

Asked about the slight, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, who reportedly expressed deep reservations about the Timor refugee centre before he was toppled as leader by Ms Gillard, said he was looking forward to meeting with a "substantial" delegation led by Dr Carlos.

Under the Gillard proposal, irregular immigrants who arrive by boat in Australia would be shunted off to East Timor for processing of their refugee claims before eventual resettlement in third countries.

The lone vocal supporter in East Timor for the refugee centre has been its President, Jose Ramos-Horta, who was tasked initially with leading negotiations on the matter. It appears he has been sidelined by Prime Minister and head of government Xanana Gusmao. A spokesman yesterday said Mr Ramos-Horta "unfortunately" cannot attend the summit.

In a fillip for Australia, however, the UNHCR has given qualified support to the idea of offshore processing, as long as nations in the region agreed first to honour international refugee conventions.

"Under certain circumstances, which would need to be further defined, this might involve practical co-operation on issues such as readmission or transfer from the territory of one participating state to that of another," the UNHCR paper, delivered to Bali Process officials in November, said.

The paper also sees merit for a dedicated regime to handle asylum seekers who travel by sea given the inherent dangers.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison yesterday said the proposal for an East Timor refugee centre was a "farce". "Julia Gillard's promise of a regional processing centre was nothing more than a pre-election talking point and that's all it remains," he told the ABC.

No deal in sight for East Timor immigration centre

Australian Associated Press - March 28, 2011

Jeremy Thompson – Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says an agreement for an offshore immigration centre on East Timor will not be reached at a regional meeting in Bali this week.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard foreshadowed a detention centre on East Timor before last year's election as a way to ease pressure on Christmas Island, but East Timor has not agreed to host the facility.

Mr Bowen says the meeting – part of the so-called Bali Process to combat people smuggling – is not for settling final details or locations.

"We are arguing for a regional framework and we have argued that a regional processing centre would be part of that regional framework," he said.

"This is not a meeting which would finalise those arrangements. That is something that is for discussion between Australia and other nations and, most particularly, in the first instance, East Timor."

The United Nations refugee agency says Australia recorded a 33 per cent increase in claims from asylum seekers last year compared with 2009. It says Australia received a total of 8,250 claims in 2010, a figure well below levels recorded in other countries.

Mr Bowen says there is no quick fix to the overcrowding on Christmas Island and says discussions between Australian and East Timorese officials will continue.

"It's no revelation that the proposal itself is controversial in East Timor," he said. "There are supporters and opponents of it. That doesn't undermine the need for the idea and doesn't undermine the fact that we think a regional framework with a regional processing centre is an appropriate way forward."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Government's promise of a processing centre in East Timor is a "farce" and a pre- election stunt.

"Before the election Julia Gillard promised there would be a processing centre in East Timor and there is not one," he said.

"Having failed the test to change the Government's failed policies on border protection after the riots on Christmas Island, Minister Bowen now faces another test to end the farce over East Timor, which is clearly a never-never policy.

"Julia Gillard's promise of a regional processing centre was nothing more than a pre-election talking point and that's all it remains."

Federal government lobbies for East Timor processing centre

Australian Associated Press - March 27, 2011

The federal government will attempt to rally support for a regional asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor during a meeting in Bali this week.

But details of the proposed centre are unlikely to be nutted out. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen will use the March 29-30 meeting in Bali to garner support for a centre on East Timor.

The meeting will focus on ways to combat people smuggling but Mr Bowen says it is not a forum to make final decisions on the so-called East Timor solution.

"It (the Bali process meeting) won't be the be all and end all," he told Network Ten on Sunday, acknowledging the proposal was "controversial" in East Timor.

East Timor will be one of many nations in the Asia-Pacific region represented at the Bali meeting, co-chaired by the Indonesian and Australian governments.

The meeting comes as Mr Bowen was today forced to defend the number of police on Christmas Island prior to breakouts and riots at its immigration detention centre.

The Australian Federal Police stationed 189 more officers on the island following serious disturbances earlier in March. Mr Bowen said he was "perfectly satisfied" with the AFP response to the events.

"The AFP moved very quickly back to Christmas Island," he told Network Ten, responding to reports that police numbers on the island were scaled back in November 2010.

"Frankly more AFP presence in the broader community wouldn't have made a difference in those early days inside the detention centre."

All 170 detainees who broke out of the centre have been accounted for, and some charges have been laid. The AFP has rejected allegations of mistreatment of detainees, after police were forced to use tear gas and bean-bag bullets to quell rioters.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reiterated his call for a tough government response to the rioters.

"We should not give visas to people who have been responsible for destroying taxpayer property and obstructing commonwealth officers," Mr Abbott told Sky News.

"What happened on Christmas Island was a succession of criminal acts, serious criminal offences and the people responsible should be denied Australian citizenship."

Bali test looms for Timor plan

Australian Associated Press - March 23, 2011

Karlis Salna – Indonesia says the Bali Process remains the best forum for achieving a regional agreement on how best to deal with asylum seekers.

As pressure mounts on Prime Minister Julia Gillard over her asylum seeker policy, Indonesia on Tuesday affirmed it wanted a solution that deals with the issue in terms of the countries of origin, transit and destination.

Indonesia has not commented directly on Australia's proposal to build a regional refugee processing centre in East Timor, for which Australia will make its case at the Bali Process summit next week.

The Australian plan has found little backing in the region, including in East Timor, where the main opposition party as recently as two weeks ago vowed to make it an issue in elections expected early next year.

East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta on Tuesday, but a spokesman for Dr Yudhoyono said the issue of asylum seekers and people smuggling was not discussed.

The president's spokesman on foreign affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said such issues were best dealt with at next week's summit, adding that the regional processing centre plan should also be discussed within the Bali Process framework.

"The Bali Process is the most comprehensive regional architecture to deal with this issue (in) the country of origin, the traffic countries and country of destination," he said. "It's still very much in line with Indonesian policy to discuss all these issues... people smuggling, trafficking persons, at the Bali Process."

The Australian government is facing renewed pressure over the asylum seeker issue amid breakouts by detainees from the Christmas Island Detention Centre and overcrowding in facilities on the island and on the mainland.

There are now more than 6000 asylum seekers in detention in various facilities throughout the country.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who will leadAustralia's delegation in Bali, earlier on Tuesday said he remained hopeful about gaining support for a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem.

"It won't, of course, be the final sign-off on all the answers, but I am very hopeful that it will endorse governments working together on a regional basis to break the people smugglers' business model," he told ABC Radio, when asked about the chances of getting an agreement on a regional processing centre.

"Nobody should underestimate my or the government's determination to do that," Mr Bowen said.

Time ticking on East Timor plan

Australian Associated Press - March 16, 2011

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor has discussed the so-called East Timor solution with Indonesian officials as Australia prepares to make its case for the plan at the Bali Process meeting in less than two weeks.

Mr O'Connor, following a series of meetings in Jakarta today said the matter had been discussed with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, adding that both countries shared concerns about the need for a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem.

The visit to Indonesia comes ahead of a meeting of senior ministers from around the region in Bali on March 29-30, and follows a visit on Monday to Malaysia, another country which is seen as key in helping reduce the flow of asylum seekers to Australia.

"Australia and Indonesia share the same concerns about developing a regional protection framework and I spoke to the foreign minister about our shared concerns," Mr O'Connor told reporters in Jakarta. "These matters of course will be considered in more detail at the Bali Process later this month."

Asked if the East Timor plan was raised, he said: "We discussed the regional protection framework and the elements that go to providing a regional solution to a regional problem."

Mr O'Connor confirmed both Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen would attend the Bali Process meeting to push Australia's case for a regional processing centre to be built in East Timor.

However, the visits by the home affairs minister to both Indonesia and Malaysia, where he announced on Monday that Australia would boost its investment in measures aimed at helping the country combat people smuggling, come after recent criticism of the East Timor solution.

The plan to build a regional refugee processing centre in East Timor has faced heavy criticism in recent weeks after reports that it has little support from political leaders in Dili.

When asked directly about the East Timor solution last week, Mr Natalegawa said that it would be up to Australia to make the case for the plan at the Bali meeting.

Timor opposition slams refugee processing plan

Australian Associated Press - March 3, 2011

Karlis Salna – East Timor's main opposition party has reaffirmed its objections to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's regional refugee processing centre plan, vowing to make it a key issue at possible elections later this year.

Fretilin MP Jose Teixeira on Thursday said that while East Timor was committed to honouring its international humanitarian obligations, it was more "appropriate and feasible" for a regional processing centre to be built in Australia.

"After all, it is Australia that these asylum seekers are looking to find a new life in. Australia has both the space and financial (means) and other resources to better deal with this issue than we in Timor-Leste," he told AAP.

"Others should bear their own, instead of seeking to thrust them on others such as ourselves," he said.

While negotiations about Ms Gillard's proposal with the government of East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao are ongoing, the plan is also opposed by members of his ruling but shaky coalition, which is made up of four parties.

With elections widely expected to be held later this year, it's also possible the powerful Fretilin party could win back government, scuppering the plan altogether.

Mr Teixeira said Fretilin's position was very clear and that the party would continue to oppose the building of an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor. "Fretilin will maintain this position at the next elections," he said.

The comments came after Malaysian Prime Minister Razak Najib, during a media conference in Canberra on Thursday, said his country while remaining open to the idea also had reservations, pointing to divisions in East Timor regarding the proposal.

"We need a bit of time to study Australia's proposal but we will be as positive as we can," Mr Najib said.

Mr Teixeira called on Mr Gusmao to clarify his position, saying he had remained largely silent on the proposal.

"This has created uncertainty in the minds of many as to what precisely the Timor-Leste's government position is on the issue. He must clarify what his position is," Mr Teixeira said.

"It is of course reasonable also to suggest that his silence may well be acquiescent to the possibility of such a concept. We cannot rule that out at this stage.

"Fretilin will review the situation in the unlikely event that the current Timor-Leste government gives in to Australia's desire to go down this line."

The processing centre plan is expected to be discussed at a regional level by foreign ministers, including Kevin Rudd, in Bali later this month.

Malaysian PM undecided on Australian East Timor refugee plan

Associated Press - March 3, 2011

Canberra – Malaysia's prime minister said Thursday he remained undecided on supporting Australia's plan to make East Timor a regional hub for processing asylum seekers, adding that cost as well as the wishes of the East Timorese would be major factors in his final decision.

Prime Minister Najib Razak met with his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard at Parliament House and pledged his government's cooperation in preventing people smugglers from taking asylum seekers fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka by boat from Malaysia to Australia.

Gillard plans to thwart their ambition to reach Australia by building a regional detention center on neighboring East Timor. Australia is negotiating the plan with the East Timorese government as well as other regional governments.

Most boat arrivals are currently held at an overcrowded detention center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland. Australia would prefer they were held on East Timor because it has signed the UN refugee charter and detainees held there would not be able to take their fight for asylum to the Australian courts.

Najib declined to give an opinion of the plan, which will be considered by a 38-nation forum against people smuggling chaired by Australia and Indonesia.

"We need a bit of time to study the Australian proposal, but we will be as positive as we can," Najib told reporters at a news conference with Gillard.

Najib later told reporters on the sidelines of meetings at Parliament House that the East Timorese remained "quite divided" over the prospect of hosting such a detention and processing center.

"We have to see how... that has been accepted by the East Timorese first," Najib said. Australia had offered no details of how much the plan might cost Malaysia, he said.

"Certainly payment is a major factor," Najib said. "We'll consider all things that we can do together, but of course how do we apportion responsibility financially and all that are big questions that we have to address," he added.

Australia receives just a tiny proportion of the world's asylum seekers, but a surge of people arriving via Indonesia and Malaysia in rickety boats in recent years has become a divisive political issue in Australia.

Najib said Malaysia had responded to the problem by increasing penalties and intercepting more smuggling boats in Malaysian waters.

During their meeting Thursday, the two prime ministers agreed to finalize a bilateral free trade agreement within a year.

Malaysia concerned over East Timor asylum centre cost

Australian Associated Press - March 3, 2011

Adam Gartrell – Malaysia's support for Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposed East Timor asylum seeker processing centre could hinge on who's expected to pay for it.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday said his government would be as cooperative as possible in working with Australia and the region to combat people smuggling.

Asked specifically about the East Timor plan, Mr Najib was non-committal. "We need a bit of time to study Australia's proposal but we will be as positive as we can," he said in a press conference with Ms Gillard in Canberra.

But in a subsequent exchange with journalists Mr Najib expressed some reservations, noting the East Timorese were themselves still divided on the proposal.

Mr Najib said he was still unsure whether Malaysia would be asked to contribute financially to the centre.

"Certainly payment is a major factor," he said. "We'd consider all things that we can do together but of course how do we apportion responsibility financially and all that – these are big questions that we have to address."

Ms Gillard praised Mr Najib for his "impressive leadership" combating people smuggling. The leaders also discussed the war in Afghanistan, education links and trade.

They agreed to finalise long-running bilateral Free Trade Agreement negotiations within the next 12 months. Malaysia is Australia's 11th biggest trading partner. But Mr Najib said there was room for improvement.

"Our total trade is in the region of $10 billion, which is a good level, but we believe we can push it to even greater heights," he said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott welcomed Mr Najib's visit and made a joking reference to the diplomatic spat former prime minister Paul Keating sparked when he labelled Malaysia's then-leader Mahathir Mohamad "recalcitrant".

"When it comes to the relationship with Malaysia we stand united in our determination never, ever to be recalcitrant," Mr Abbott told a lunch in Mr Najib's honour. Mr Najib said: "We will delete the word recalcitrant from our dictionary. None of us are recalcitrant, every one of us is very positive."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Mr Najib's visit had confirmed Ms Gillard's East Timor proposal was going nowhere.

"This prime minister just can't take a hint – they're just not into this proposal," Mr Morrison said. "Kevin Rudd gets it, the Indonesians get it, the Malaysian prime minister knows it."

Foreign affairs & trade

Indonesia supports East Timor's bid to join ASEAN

Reuters - March 30, 2011

Brian Padden – Indonesia's unreserved support for East Timor's membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reinforces the growing ties between two countries that were on opposite sides of a struggle for independence, a little more than a decade ago. Economic interests, democratic development and geopolitical realities have helped both countries overcome the past.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene uses the word "neighbor" to connote both equal status and a close relationship, in describing his country's support for East Timor's membership in ASEAN.

Growing relationship

"East Timor is our neighbor and, likewise, we have to work together as good neighbors," Tene said. "And, there are many occasions in which the interests of Indonesia and East Timor's are in line."

But it was only in the last decade that the relationship between these neighbors turned positive. Prior to that, East Timor was not a country but a province of Indonesia. In 1975, during the rule of military strongman President Suharto, the Indonesian military took control of the former Portuguese colony and occupied it for 24 years.

In 1999, after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia allowed the East Timor people to vote for independence. The United Nations-backed referendum passed overwhelmingly, but Indonesian-backed militias responded by ransacking the country and killing an estimated 1,400 people.

In 1999, Dewi Fortuna Anwar was the spokesperson for then-president of Indonesia B.J. Habibie, who supported East Timor's independence. Today, she is the research director at the Habibie Center think tank. She says that as East Timor – or Timor Leste – was transitioning to an independent country, Indonesia was transitioning to a democracy and, by 2002, relations between the countries were on the mend.

Move beyond past history

"Immediately after the transfer of power from the United Nations to Timor Leste, the Indonesian president, President Megawati attended the celebration in East Timor and the process of reconciliation really started from its earliest stage in 2002," Anwar said. "And, from that time onward, both Jakarta and Dili have worked very hard to put the history behind us."

She says the fact that, unlike Indonesia, East Timor was never a Dutch colony was an important distinction in the minds of most Indonesians and was a rationale for accepting independence. She says other Indonesian provinces are looked upon differently, because they have been part of Indonesia since independence.

The newly independent East Timor, impoverished and with a population of approximately one million people, has embraced Indonesia's support. But it has not forgotten the past. Lan Shaow Tai, who works on East Timor governance issues with the human rights and development organization Access to Justice Asia, says the growing economic ties between the two countries have not prevented East Timor from seeking justice for the past.

"It's not an attempt to play down the crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation," said Tai. "But, rather, Timor Leste understands it is pointless for the relationship between Timor Leste and Indonesia to remain stagnant at oppressed or victim status and that it would be counterproductive to refuse cooperation."

Jointly investigating atrocities The two countries participate in an ongoing Commission on Truth and Friendship that is charged with investigating past atrocities, although some human rights groups say the commission's powers to investigate and prosecute are too limited.

Some countries like Singapore cite East Timor's lack of development as a reason for rejecting its bid to join ASEAN. But Indonesia sees East Timor's membership in ASEAN as a means to help the country develop. This support is driven in part by investment opportunities in East Timor's vast oil and gas reserves, but Anwar says it is also in Indonesia's security interest to help its neighbor succeed.

Advancing mutual interest

"Indonesia does not want to see East Timor to continue to lag behind, because a weak East Timor would continue to be a weak underbelly for Indonesia's overall security," Anwar added. "So it is in Indonesia's best interest to see that East Timor succeeds to become a new state and to become a center for prosperity, so that, when it engages with the outside world, it will not be to the detriment of its bigger neighbor."

And, Indonesia knows that if ASEAN does not increase political and economic ties with East Timor, China and India will.

Experts, Indonesia agree: Let Timor Leste join ASEAN

Jakarta Post - March 7, 2011

Mustaqim Adamrah, Jakarta – The government has said that Indonesia would support Timor Leste's full membership in ASEAN – despite opposition from other countries.

Experts have agreed with the move, saying admitting Timor Leste into the bloc would reflect ASEAN's maturity and show that ASEAN belongs to all Southeast Asian nations, despite economic differences.

"Geopolitically, geo-economically and geo-socioculturally, the future of Timor Leste will be enmeshed in the future of Southeast Asia in general," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said over the weekend after meeting his Timor Leste counterpart, Zacaria Albano da Costa.

"It is our choice to postpone, ignore or manage this from the very beginning. In Indonesia's case, we choose to manage this from the start. Timor Leste is already part of [our] efforts towards building the ASEAN Community by 2015."

He said, however, Timor Leste's fate would not necessarily be decided this year.

Da Costa was in Jakarta to submit Timor Leste's formal application for full membership in the bloc to Indonesia, ASEAN's current chair.

Several ASEAN countries reportedly object to Timor Leste's membership in ASEAN, saying it will hard for the nation to catch up with existing members in time for the ASEAN Community's launch in 2015.

Some fear that ASEAN's focus in developing Laos, one of the bloc's least- developed countries, would shift to Timor Leste.

Marty said that it was not the first time that ASEAN had been challenged to admit a less-developed Southeast Asian nation.

"When ASEAN decided to open itself to admit [Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam], different opinions were also raised," he said. "But we made a strategic decisions and did not count on very limited documents only."

ASEAN would discuss how to respond to opposition as Timor Leste's admission would be achieved only through consensus, Marty added.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an ASEAN expert at the Habibie Center, said Singapore's objection, for example, to Timor Leste's membership on development grounds, was understandable.

She said Singapore's gross domestic product per capita was US$30,000 a year, while Laos, the relatively least-developed nation in the bloc, recorded a per capita GDP of $600.

"There's always a risk that the [integration] process would become more complex when there's a widening gap. "

"The geopolitical aspect is something that needs consideration as well, when an island has not well-integrated yet into a region," she said, adding it would be better for ASEAN to admit Timor Leste into the bloc so there would be a common platform in the region.

ASEAN expert Bantarto Bandoro of Parahyangan University said Indonesia should use the same arguments it made during the Bangkok Declaration, when the bloc decided to accept Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam as full members of ASEAN.

East Timor applies to SE Asian regional group

Associated Press - March 4, 2011

Jakarta, Indonesia – East Timor has applied for a membership in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. Its application was submitted Friday by East Timor's foreign minister.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa accepted the application on behalf of the association. He said he will soon convene a meeting to study the application, since Indonesia is the group's current chairman.

He added that "East Timor's future will be very much linked to the future of the Southeast Asia region."

The group includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999.

Indonesia supports East Timor ASEAN membership bid

Agence France Presse - March 3, 2011

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono voiced support Thursday for East Timor's bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, his spokesman said.

"The President has asserted that Indonesia will make diplomatic efforts and ensure that at the right time, East Timor can become a member of ASEAN," presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said.

Indonesia is the current ASEAN chairman and it was the first time Yudhoyono himself had endorsed the application, although Jakarta's foreign minister had previously done so. East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years from 1975, a period marked by widespread human rights abuses.

The impoverished nation gained formal independence in 2002 after winning its freedom in a 1999 UN-backed referendum marred by violence.

"Indonesia fully supports East Timor's ASEAN membership and will use our term as ASEAN chairman to direct its acceptance," said Faizasyah said after Yudhoyono met East Timor foreign minister Zacarias da Costa in Jakarta.

Da Costa said his country hoped ASEAN leaders would soon consider the Timorese candidacy, adding that it would represent "a new phase in our history".

Besides Indonesia, the other ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Mining & energy

Woodside faces further East Timor risk: Report

Business Spectator - March 10, 2011

A treaty between Australia and East Timor covering the Greater Sunrise liquefied natural gas development is at risk, according to a report in The Australian, with East Timor threatening to cancel the treaty unless the Woodside Petroleum Ltd-led joint venture agrees to local processing.

Chief petroleum negotiator Francisco da Costa Monteiro told the newspaper East Timor would consider terminating the treaty if a dispute over the project's floating processing plant remained unresolved.

"Any treaty must ensure the two sides are happy, but at the moment Timor Leste is not happy," Mr Monteiro is quoted as saying.

East Timor currently receives a 90:10 royalty split in the Joint Petroleum Development Area, which covers 20 per cent of the Sunrise project.

Overturning the treaty would lead to fresh negotiations and a reopening of a long-standing boundary dispute over the area which is currently frozen by the treaty until 2057, according to the report.

Australian government won't intervene in Woodside/East Timor row

Reuters - March 9, 2011

Australia sees no need to intervene in the dispute between oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum Ltd and East Timor over how to develop the vast Greater Sunrise gas field, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson told Reuters.

"These matters get resolved over time,' Mr Ferguson said in an interview.

"It's an issue I'm obviously paying attention to. I'm not in a hurry. These things will sort themselves out. I accept that we have a responsibility because there's a treaty. And a company such as Woodside has invested substantial amounts of money to get the joint venture where it is."

Woodside and the East Timorese government are in a bitter dispute over the location of a liquefied national gas (LNG) plant for the field in the Timor Sea in waters straddling both countries. Woodside wants a floating plant, while East Timor wants the plant built in East Timor.

Ferguson also rejected Greens proposals to change the tax treatment of condensate from Australia's North West Shelf oil and gas project. The minister said government changes in 2009, removing a tax concession for condensate, had already gone further than the Greens' proposals.

Invasion & occupation

Secrets of East Timor invasion to be revealed

Sydney Morning Herald - March 29, 2011

Dylan Welch – The veil of secrecy obscuring what Australia knew about Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor will be pulled back a little, after a successful court challenge against the censorship of secret intelligence briefings.

It follows a four-year battle with the government waged by an Australian Defence Force Academy academic, Clinton Fernandes, to reveal what he believes is evidence of Australian complicity in the invasion, which led to a bloody 24-year occupation.

The documents may also shed light on the fate of the five Australian-based newsmen killed in the East Timorese border town of Balibo in October 1975, when the Indonesians swept through.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled yesterday that about 250 lines in a total 42 intelligence "situation reports" written by the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) should not have been censored.

Once the national archives has reinstated the relevant lines, Dr Fernandes will be able to inspect the reports, dated between October 1 and December 31, 1975.

Senior members of Australian defence intelligence agencies testified in earlier hearings that disclosure of the material would damage national security by disclosing sources and methods of intelligence gathering.

Dr Fernandes, an adviser on the 2009 film Balibo, first applied for the reports in late 2007. In 2009, after legal proceedings had begun, he was granted access to the documents but they were so heavily censored as to be virtually useless.

In an affidavit, the deputy director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, said secrecy was needed due to "highly sensitive communications from the US government which were then, and remain now, confidential".

Dr Fernandes yesterday thanked the people who helped him fight the battle, including journalist Philip Dorling, cryptographer Peter Donovan, former JIO analyst Jenny Norvick and lawyer Ian Latham.

"It was a team effort that led to this substantial victory: the first time ever that records of [Australian defence] intelligence agencies have ever been ordered to be released," he said.

Last year the then defence minister John Faulkner said the government would abide by the tribunal's decision.

Analysis & opinion

East Timor solution dying the death of a thousand cuts

Crikey.com - March 30, 2011

Damien Kingsbury – The government's East Timor asylum seeker solution is dying a death of a thousand cuts. It is a slow and painful process and unedifying to watch it writhe in agony. The plan has not yet been killed outright, but only an unreconstructed optimist would now suggest its fate is other than sealed.

The Bali Process ministerial forum has been one of the more damaging cuts to the East Timor solution, even if the decision by East Timor Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa not to attend was not a snub to Australia, as presented by some. Rather, East Timor has correctly pointed out that it has much more pressing priorities than Australia's domestic concerns with asylum seekers and its half-baked plan about where to process them.

East Timor's overwhelming foreign policy concern has been to integrate into regional forums. Da Costa is consequently attending a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Fiji. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is similarly visiting the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta.

That East Timor has sent its deputy Foreign Minister, Alberto Carlos, to the Bali Forum indicates that it is at least being polite to Australia. However, Australia's priorities – overwhelmingly driven by shallow domestic political considerations – are not East Timor's priorities nor are they the priorities of any other regional state. As Carlos observed yesterday, as a country still attempting to pull itself out of overwhelming poverty, East Timor had much more pressing matters to attend to.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said that under certain conditions, a small-scale emergency asylum seeker processing centre or centres could be a viable option. East Timor has similarly done Australia the courtesy of at least considering the proposal, if against a backdrop of widespread local opposition to such a plan.

Conditions that have been outlined to allow such a centre to be established in East Timor have been generous, leaving other countries, in particular Indonesia, concerned that such favourable conditions would act as a "honey-pot" and actually encourage the flow of asylum seekers. Indonesia is therefore highly unlikely to back such a plan, while East Timor will do little more than pay it lip service until after its mid-2012 elections.

But the real problem for Australia's neighbours with the issue of the Australia government seeking to off-load asylum seekers is that they are aware that it is playing to the irrational fears of a small minority, which is in turn driving its foreign policy. To Australia's neighbours, unsurprisingly, allowing domestic wedge politics to drive foreign policy makes very little sense.

Meanwhile, Australia's neighbors are humouring it in its embarrassment, when perhaps they could do everyone a favour by delivering the final cut and putting this flailing policy out of its misery.

Better to bring East Timor into the fold now

The Nation (Thailand) - March 9, 2011

The young nation's application to join Asean should be approved despite the problems it may cause to the grouping's integration plan

Finally East Timor has officially applied to become the 11th member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – in the words of Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa "as soon as possible".

There are indeed many hurdles that this small and young democracy will have to cross, but the foreign minister's emphasis was on the time frame. Unfortunately at this stage, East Timor's membership could be a problematic one.

After East Timor gained independence in 2002 Asean was quick to guarantee the country's right to join the 10-member regional grouping at some point in the future. But no member country was willing to discuss the time frame. Now, membership has suddenly become a major concern. There has been growing Chinese influence in East Timor since the outbreaks of violence in 2006. While other foreign nationals left the country at the time, Chinese traders and investors dug in and rapidly built up their presence and influence.

When Asean agreed to take in East Timor almost a decade ago, China was not a factor. The focus then was on the island nation's limited ability and its scarce economic resources. The concern was over how it would cope with normal Asean activities – more than 800 meetings and conferences per year – and the strategy for overall integration. With its limited human resources and English-language ability, East Timor could have been a drag on Asean's further development and its ambition to become one economic community by 2015. At the moment, full integration of Asean has its own problems due to the sluggishness among new members as well as Burma's internal political dynamics since the November election.

Most of the Asean members want to take East Timor's membership application more slowly. Singapore has been quite adamant that the prospective new member needs to prepare properly before it can join the bloc. To admit a new member, and a poor one at that, would be a long-term hazard to the grouping's road to integration. Past lessons show that after admission, there is no further commitment or incentive for new members to change or adopt new practices. Therefore, membership status will have to wait until after 2015 when Asean becomes fully integrated, even though this integration may be in name only.

Other Asean members, especially Indonesia, have a different take. China's influence in East Timor – literally in Indonesia's backyard – must be fully addressed in an urgent manner. Certainly, Jakarta thinks that the best way to manage China's influence in East Timor is to bring the country into the grouping immediately. It would be a purely political decision, not an economic one.

Indonesia's thinking here is problematic. No single country in Asean can place a limit on China's growing influence in the region. In 1995 Asean decided to admit Burma on a fast track as the most effective way to counter Beijing's southward moves. The approach was not productive as the Chinese influence in Burma continues to rise.

Thailand is among East Timor's strongest supporters but for a different reason altogether. Bangkok and Dili are very close due to shared values and economic cooperation. A young democratic member would be a big boost for Asean's democratic credentials. In addition, Thailand also has a good reputation from helping the East Timorese to stand on their own feet when they were struggling to build their nation.

In the months to come, Asean will have to decide if East Timor should be left alone for the next few years to engage mainly with China, or be admitted to the club, with all the envisaged problems and consequences that might bring.

When push comes to shove, the history of Asean shows that it is better to suffer internally from growing pains rather than face uncertainty caused by the unpredictability of an outside player.

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