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Timor-Leste: The Importance of Personal Connections

02 Aug 2023
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA

Adopting a people-centered approach to building a shared future with Timor-Leste is in Australia’s national interest. Developing platforms for enhancing literacy, job growth, health, and agriculture are just some of the ways Australia can build lasting relationships with its closest neighbours. 

When Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Timor-Leste earlier this month, she stressed the closeness of the relationship. Importantly, she linked this to personal connections:

“There has always been a deep reservoir of respect, friendship and solidarity between the Timorese and Australian people. This friendship means all Australians want your nation to continue to flourish and reach its full potential.”

While the relationship between the two countries is close – as well as complicated – Timor-Leste has been less a part of public consciousness in recent years. COVID-19 set back many endeavours due to closed borders and lack of funds.

Australia needs to look for opportunities to revive and energise people-to-people links – and to extend them to new generations. A recent report by Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D) sets out a vision for a people-centred approach to building a shared future.

Despite periods where Australia hasn’t been a trusted friend, there are many good building blocks for the relationship. There are elements of Australian society that are strong advocates for Timor-Leste, including in the armed forces and across civil society. There is an active diaspora and strong people-to-people links. For some there is a strong sense of Australia being invested in Timor-Leste’s success, given its involvement in the successful case of regional cooperation UN missions that supported the establishment of a pluralistic democratic system.

This means that there is significant scope for Australia to strengthen its partnership with Timor-Leste, its people, and its government, thereby strengthening peace and prosperity in Timor-Leste and contributing to Australia’s strategic objectives.

Australia can build on its history of engagement in Timor-Leste in a number of ways.

First, Australia can strengthen community-community partnerships, such as “Friends” groups, local government partnerships, and other forms of people-to-people contact, such as veterans’ visits and school visits from Australia to Timor-Leste.

Second, Australia should promote civil society and peer-to-peer linkages to increase knowledge of Timor-Leste among Australians for more mutual relationships. This needs to be based on the enhanced movement of people between Timor-Leste and Australia, and increased interaction in both directions.

This includes international volunteering, such as Australian Volunteers International (AVI) programs which place Australian volunteers in partner organisations in Timor-Leste to support them to achieve their development goals across education, government, human rights, health, and agriculture. Another example is the New Colombo Plan, a signature initiative of the Australian Government which supports university students to study and undertake internships in the region, including in Timor-Leste.

Third, Australia should invest in its Timor-Leste literacy, building cultural understanding and better appreciation of shared chapters in our history. For example, this can be achieved with greater investment in the ABC’s capacity to cover Timor-Leste, providing media services into the country and also bringing content created for Timor-Leste back to Australian audiences. In March the ABC signed a memorandum of understanding with Timor-Leste’s public broadcaster, RTTL, that allows for increased content sharing and media development programs.

Finally, the increasing number of Timorese travelling to Australia for work or study provides an opportunity to build personal connections.

There are now two labour mobility programs which enable Timorese to work in Australia. The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme connects Australian employers with workers from nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to help fill labour gaps in regional and rural Australia while providing opportunities to Pacific and Timorese workers to develop skills, earn income, and send money home to support their families and communities and the economic growth of their countries. There is also now a Pacific Engagement Visa that complements the PALM scheme by offering a permanent visa pathway to citizens of Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste.

The Australian Government also provides opportunities for Timorese to study in Australia through prestigious Australia Awards scholarships. This offers the next generation of global leaders an opportunity to undertake study, research, and professional development in Australia. The Australia Awards program in Timor-Leste develops and delivers short courses to build English language skills for targeted groups, so they are ready to apply, and maintains links with alumni after they return.

Programs like these provide an opportunity to form personal relationships, and prepare Timorese to come to Australia – whether for work or study – and form cultural and personal bonds.

Australia’s foreign policy has consistently identified Timor-Leste as a country of the most immediate importance to Australia. According to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Timor-Leste’s “security and stability is a fundamental Australian strategic interest.” But the relationship doesn’t only matter because it is in Australia’s strategic interest. It also matters because Timor-Leste is a neighbour. It’s a good thing to have friendly relations regardless of what benefits it brings in the short-term.

As one of Australia’s closest neighbours, Timor-Leste needs to be front and centre in Australia’s strategic outlook, foreign policy, and – perhaps most importantly – in personal connections.

This will help create both the political will and the broader mobilisation of Australian society that is needed in order to overcome the barriers and challenges that Timor-Leste faces.

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). She was recognised as a Fellow of the AIIA in 2019 for her contribution to Australia’s international affairs .

This draws upon AP4D’s report What does it look like for Australia to Shape a Shared Future with Timor-Leste funded by the Australian Civil-Military Centre. AP4D thanks all those involved in consultations, including the ABC International Services team.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.