East Timorese Deputy Prime Minister Mario Viegas Carrascalao yesterday rejected an Australian proposal to process asylum-seekers in East Timor, saying Dili was nobody’s “puppet.”
Carrascalao said tiny East Timor, a country of just more than 1 million people that is dependent on aid eight years after gaining independence from Indonesia, had too many problems of its own to deal with Australia’s as well.
“Timor Leste is not a colony of another country. We have sovereignty and our people have rights to decide for themselves what they want,” he told reporters.
“We don’t want another country to dictate to us. We’re already independent and won’t be a puppet of any other country,” he said.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said she is negotiating with the government in Dili about her plan to establish a “regional” refugee processing center in East Timor to handle asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat.
The migrants generally pay Indonesian smugglers to arrange the dangerous trip to Australian waters in unseaworthy boats, and many die or need to be rescued each year as they try to make the crossing.
East Timorese lawmakers voted on Monday to reject Gillard’s proposal, and several government and opposition leaders have expressed strong objections.
However, East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao have not ruled out the idea, and Gillard says she is determined to win their approval for a plan that could be key to her fortunes in upcoming elections.
Opposition within Gusmao’s government appears to be growing, however, with Carrascalao echoing fellow Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres’ earlier rejection last week.
“My personal opinion is that I am against the proposal as our people have many problems to be solved and that’s enough for us. Don’t find more problems from another country which will trouble our development,” Carrascalao said.
“Australia is a big and vast country. There should be a place for the refugees there,” he said.
“As a government member, I’ll vote against the plan. I’m completely against the refugee center in Timor Leste,” he said.
He said the majority of ministers in Gusmao’s Cabinet were also opposed.
Meanwhile, Australia yesterday rebuffed the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru’s offer to host the center, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying Australia was “squarely focused” on East Timor despite opposition there.
Smith was heading to Indonesia yesterday for talks on the plan, which is an important plank of the government’s pre-election strategy but has caused problems for Gillard just weeks after she ousted Kevin Rudd.
Gillard was accused of not consulting widely enough before announcing her tough new policy on asylum-seekers and created confusion about the center’s location when she backed away from initial indications it would be in East Timor.
Sending asylum-seekers to Nauru is politically difficult for the ruling Labor Party, which strongly opposed previous prime minister John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” of mandatory detention there while in opposition.
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