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Timor-Leste: Australia's unpaid WW2 debt?

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17 February 2012 15:11

Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU. He is writing a book entitled 'Beloved Land: Stories from Timor-Leste'.

Domingos Soares (pictured) is a spry 93 year-old from the district of Viqueque on East Timor's southern coast who says he fought alongside the Australian Army during the Second World War. He recounts the skirmishes, shootings and clashes on the cloud-covered hills and misty valleys as if they took place yesterday. He is still going strong and puts down his longevity to his years working in the fields, strong coffee, and the occasional clove-dipped cigarette.

Senor Domingos could well be among the last, if not the last, of the remaining criados, the name given to the young Timorese men who acted as guides, porters and fighters for the Australian Army during the Timor campaign. Paul Cleary's recent book, The Men Who Came Out of the Ground, is a fascinating insight into this period.

I met Senor Domingos by chance in October 2011 when I visited his village in the course of a book I am writing on Timor-Leste, and promised him that my colleague Joao Fernandes and I would draw his extraordinary story to the attention of the Australian Government, via the Embassy in Dili. 

I had seen the reverence with which other criados had been treated, and was confident Australia would be thrilled to know there was another still alive. When a well-known criado, Rufino Alves Correira, died in April 2010, his funeral was attended by the senior Australian Defence Force officers stationed in Dili. His casket, draped in an Australian flag at his request, was carried by ADF soldiers, and photos of the funeral appear on the Defence Department's website.

Senor Domingos is still waiting, his case mired in bureaucracy. An official contacted family members only this week and plans to travel down soon to meet Domingos, whereupon the Department of Veterans Affairs will assess the claim. It is a long process. Perhaps there is a sense that Domingos' demonstrated power of longevity means there is no need to rush.

The flight path of the plane that took Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to Australia today will have taken him over the southern coast where the self-professed old fighter lives. This is Gusmao's first visit down under in over three years and, according to the press release announcing his visit, he is en route to participate in ceremonies commemorating the beginning of the Battle of the Timor Sea and honouring the Australian commandos who served in East Timor. He will also meet Prime Minister Gillard to discuss his strategic development plan, which aims to transform East Timor into an upper-middle income country in less than twenty years. The plan is to be paid for from the oil and gas reserves located in the Timor Sea between the country's southern coast and Australia.

Implementation cannot start soon enough. People in Senor Domingos' village receive just six hours of electricity a day (if they are lucky) and many parts of main the road, built by the Japanese during the war, are still not sealed and are pocked with large holes. Malaria is rife. Families still need to walk to fetch water and many do not have access to clean toilets. According to a report published this month by UNICEF, child malnutrition rates in East Timor are 54%, the third highest in the world.

Hopefully, amid the pomp and sombre circumstance of Prime Minister Gusmao's visit, he and Prime Minister Gillard will find the time to discuss how to honour the Timorese who served those many years ago and who still lead hardscrabble lives. It is important to recognise the dead, but just as important to acknowledge and exalt the living. An expedited verification process would be a good start.

Photo by Joao Almeida Fernandes.

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