Founder of Australian industry website Investor Strategy News, Greg Bright, gives an inside account of how some Australian superannuation funds and financial services veterans are giving back in Timor Leste
For years Australia did nothing. Now, at least, we are giving the formerly downtrodden but-still poor people of Timor Leste a chance for a better future, in no small part due to Steve Bracks, the chair of Cbus and former Victorian Premier, and a growing band of super industry and wealth management executives.
Final negotiations between Australia and the tiny nation to our north – home for just 1.3 million – will confirm the split in revenue from the $40 billion Sunrise oil and gas field after years of haggling, which will give Timor Leste between 70 and 80 per cent, depending on whether the refining is done in Darwin, which is cheaper, or Timor.
Bracks was a long-term advisor to successive Timorese governments, having hosted former leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta while he was Premier. The day after he resigned, in 2007, Gusmao, who had become prime minister, contacted him to ask whether he would help with strategy and governance. Oil and gas production makes up 90 per cent of the Government’s revenue, but this won’t last forever. Bracks is particularly keen to see the development of tourism and modernisation of agriculture. The place is as beautiful as Bali but more expensive and difficult to get to. It’s really only suitable for ‘adventure’ tourism at the moment. And agriculture also suffers from lack of water retention infrastructure – when it rains it really rains.
Terry Bracks, Steve’s wife, has been working for a charity started in 2003 at Balibo, the scene of the murder of five Australian TV journalists in October 1975 prior to Indonesia’s invasion on December 7. Everyone – including the Australian Government – knew the invasion was coming, which was why the journalists were there. Another Australian journalist, Roger East, was executed in December after trying to investigate the murders. Australia became the first and only western country to recognise Indonesia’s sovereignty over Timor Leste for the next 24 years of brutal occupation.
Balibo House and Fort
The Balibo Trust (www.balibohousetrust.com) at first restored the Australian flag painted on the wall of the house where the “Balibo Five” stayed to film the Indonesian warships in the harbour below. It is near a centuries-old Portuguese fort, which has been restored (www.baliboforthotel.com) to include eight hotel rooms where Australian dentists often stay. The charity started a dental clinic that employs two Timorese dental assistants but mainly relies on the philanthropic efforts of the visiting Australians.
Terry Bracks says that big projects this year are the installation of a large water tank and to build a new school about five kilometres from the town.
Support for the activities has come from various sources, including TV channels 7 and 9, for whom the Balibo Five worked, and the super industry fund Media Super, with its chair, Gerard Noonan, and chief executive, Graeme Russell, active in their involvement and monetary help.
There are various charities, NGOs and governments, including Australia’s, looking to help nowadays.
Emerge Foundation: teachers and nurses
Another important one is the Emerge Foundation, started in 2008 by financial planner Ian MacRitchie, and wife Marrion. They travelled to Dili and Bacau in February, as they have done every year for the past 10, to witness the graduation of trainee teachers from the university they help fund. About 46 per cent of Timor Leste’s population has never had formal schooling.
The foundation (www.emergefoundation.org.au) is holding its annual Moulin Rouge Ball on Friday, May 11 at the Westin Hotel in Sydney. Approximately 40 of the 70-odd sponsor organisations for the foundation are from financial services, according to Ian MacRitchie. Steve Bracks will address this year’s event, which takes place just one day before the important Timor Leste national election which may see a change of government. Another industry identity, Sheridan Lee of Shed Enterprises, well connected in political circles, will be one of Australia’s “scrutineers” overseeing ballot counting in Dili on May 12.
The foundation “industry patrons” include van Eyk Research founder, Stephen van Eyk, now a research consultant, Amanda Gillespie from Perpetual Investments, Chris Larsen from Ironbark Asset Management, Geoff Lloyd from Perpetual, Mike Taylor from Money Management, Linda Elkins from Colonial First State, Sally Loane from the FSC, and Bronwen Moncrieff from Zenith. Chair of the sponsorship committee is Frank Casarotti from Magellan Financial Group.
Sponsors of the ball are guaranteed a seat at what has become the best-attended rugby lunch of the season, organised by Ian MacRitchie, and this year to be held on August 17.
If the occupation of Timor Leste by Indonesia and the atrocities committed weren’t bad enough, the destruction by their militia and some regular army soldiers after UN-sanctioned elections granted independence, was mind-boggling. A museum in Dili has photos and film footage of whole towns being burnt to the ground and infrastructure destroyed. At least the Portuguese, who had been relatively benign colonialists, left peacefully in 1975.
The Indonesians supplied most of the teachers as they tried to change the official language from Portuguese to Bahasa Indonesian. Almost all left after independence. Teachers now need to be multilingual, including in Tetun, an amalgam of Portuguese and local languages, adding to training difficulties.
The atrocities are many
An old Portuguese gaol near Dili, used by the Indonesians to torture suspected freedom fighters, their families and dissidents, now houses an archive project (www.cavr-timorleste.org). Hugo Fernandes, the centre’s director, rattles off some statistics before providing a tour of the gaol for the visiting Emerge Foundation group.
Fernandes says various estimates of total killings, forced displacement, starvation and disease range between 108,000 and 208,000 over the 24 years of occupation. Little-known facts include an estimate of at least 100,000 refugees who fled East Timor and are still in Indonesian West Timor, with no organised mechanism for their return. Also, the Indonesians took a “number” of children from their families and sent them to Indonesia. He said an estimated 4,000 are still “missing” – only 150 have come back to Timor Leste.
A shard of light from one narrow slot of a window in one of the cells gives just enough illumination for the visitor to get a picture of what it was like for inmates. As many as 30 may be in a cell for days or weeks, with just enough room to stand up, Fernandes says. He doesn’t go into the details of other means of torture.
But back in the small city of Dili a beach opposite our modern hotel is rarely frequented by locals. Ian MacRitchie says that dissidents were occasionally lined up on the beach and had their ears cut off. Family and friends were forced to clap at the spectacle.
But the worst in terms of number of killings was to take place in 1999 at the “Massacre at Santa Cruz”, which at least had the positive effect of bringing the weight of world opinion against Indonesia. Locals mounted a demonstration following the killing of a dissident. Indonesian troops and militia, many not in uniform, went on a rampage against the demonstrators, killing an estimated 260. The slaughter was secretly filmed and smuggled out to Europe where it was broadcast. Fernandes says that the sight and sounds of fleeing demonstrators, praying loudly in Portuguese, was a shock to many Europeans.
Catholicism and the ICFP
Bacau, a quieter and more picturesque town than Dili, is the home of the modern teachers’ college known as the ICFP (Instituto Catolics para Formacas de Professores), run by the Marist Brothers under the curriculum guidance of Australia’s Catholic University of Canberra, of which General Sir Peter Cosgrove – sometimes referred to as “the hero of Timor Leste” for his work installing peace there after 1999 – is the Chancellor.
Brother Peter Carr, the ICFP director, says that 105 of the 160 students are on scholarships for their training, which includes tuition and about $100 a month for food and lodgings, often supplemented by family and villagers keen to see them return after graduation.
He said at the graduation ceremony after mass in a beautiful old Portuguese-built cathedral: “I’d like to congratulate the parents of the graduates, as well as the students themselves. For the families it is a big sacrifice to support their sons and daughters to come and live in Bacau for three years.”
He said without scholarship funding from organisations such as Emerge, it would be that much more difficult for the families. The scholarships used to be the only charitable spending by the foundation, but in recent years it has also been involved in training “barefoot nurses” and has introduced an innovative program called “Future in Youth”, which uses organised sport to help teach life skills.
One of those skills is to try encourage teamwork and a greater appreciation of others in order to stem sometimes violent behaviour against each other. Fights among children, including girls, are fairly frequent Brother Peter says.
And, of course, everyone alive today has been touched by the violence of the occupation period, if not first hand, then certainly through family members.
Back in Melbourne, Steve Bracks says that both Gusmao and Horta, with whom he has forged close relationships, emphasise the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Timor is seeking a better relationship in the future,” he says. “Indonesia too has changed and wants a better relationship.”
Greg Bright is publisher of Investor Strategy News (Australia)
NOTE: The author travelled with the Emerge Foundation contingent, paying his own way, like the others in the group. The foundation pays 100 per cent of funds raised to the Timor Leste activiti