Dubious dealings

26 Sep 2005

Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea
by Ruth Balint
Allen & Unwin, 2005, 188 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Peter Mares

IF YOU drive a BMW, then spare a thought for the trochus fishermen of Rote. Chances are they contributed to the final lustre of your vehicle, since trochus shell is used to help put the sheen in luxury car paints.

Rote is a small Indonesian island off the south-western tip of West Timor. For around three hundred years, its fishermen have harvested trochus shell and other treasures like trepang and shark-fin from Timor Sea, undertaking long and dangerous journeys that bring them to places like Pulau Pasir, three sandy islands that provided a temporary resting place and access to potable water. Early Rotenese visitors to Pulau Pasir planted coconut palms to provide supplies and useful materials, and to mark the location of the best well. They also built low stone fences running down into the water to make fish traps. One man would shake a coconut palm leaf at the open end of the trap to stop the fish escaping, while others would throw grated coconut into the water. The coconut oil would spread out over the surface and make the water clear, so that the men could easily see - and spear - the fish in the trap. Over time, graves were also built on the westernmost island of Pulau Pasir, for fishermen who failed to make the return trip, victims of disease or accident on the journey. The graves were carefully tended by subsequent visitors.

Pulau Pasir is of course better known as Ashmore Reef, a small piece of territory annexed by the British in 1878 and handed over to Australia in 1931. Most Australians might never have heard of Ashmore Reef had it not become the landing place for hundreds of Middle Eastern asylum seekers seeking protection as refugees. There is an intimate connection between the fishermen of Rote and the asylum seekers - since the fishermen were often recruited as crew to sail the asylum boats to Ashmore. The reason that some fishermen could be lured to the work was that their traditional lifestyle has come under increasing pressure - partly from the incursion of new boats into their habitual fishing grounds - and partly from the more vigorous and exclusive expression of Australian sovereignty in the Timor Sea, particularly since the 1970s.

This latter process is the principal subject of Troubled Waters. It is a subset of the larger history of Australian policy toward East Timor and the dubious dealings with the generals in Jakarta over the sea-bed boundaries between Indonesia and Australia. Australian perfidy is just as apparent in the intimate history of the Rotenese fishermen as it is in the big picture of East Timor - but there is also evidence of a kind of wilful ignorance.

After oil and gas reserves were discovered in the 1970s, the Timor Sea was transformed from an ‘inaccessible’ stretch of water to a valuable piece of maritime real estate. With the increased presence of Australian vessels patrolling the Timor Sea came the discovery of ‘new’ incursions by Indonesian fishermen. An Australian fisheries officer wrote that prior to the early 1970s, ‘the only known intruders had been the occasional apologetic fishing party swept off course by wind and currents’. Australian policy was premised on the view that Indonesian fishermen had stopped their visits to the Australian coast before the first world war, ‘with the exception of a few storm blown arrivals’.

This characterisation of affairs may have been more or less accurate in relation to the visits to northern Australian by the Macassan fleets from what is now Sulawesi. The Macassans would set sail during the monsoon period in large groups of perhaps 1000 men in 60 boats. When they reached Australian waters they would break up into smaller groups of three or four boats, to fish for trepang. The interactions between the Macassans and the indigenous peoples of northern Australia are well documented and many of the Aboriginal languages of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley coast contain words that have their origins in Eastern Indonesia.

The traditional fishermen of Rote were very different to the Macassans - they did not sail in fleets but in single boats - and their small-scale voyaging did not cease in the early twentieth century but has continued until the present day. In fact, their presence, and traditional right of entry to the waters around Palau Pasir and other Australian territories in the Timor Sea was explicitly recognised in Australian policy and law, albeit in a very restricted and restrictive way. Australia’s unilateral declaration of its twelve mile territorial limit in 1968 made allowance for Indonesian fishermen to continue to fish in waters ‘adjacent to the Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Seringapatam Reef, Scott Reef, Adele Island and Browse Island’, so long as their operations were ‘confined to a subsistence level’. To the Australians ‘subsistence’ meant non-commercial - yet the fishermen of Rote have always been commercial operators, trading their catch in exchange for other goods and services that cannot be accessed on their dry and infertile home island.

In September 1974, when Gough Whitlam met President Suharto in Indonesia, they reached agreement on how ‘traditional’ Indonesian fishermen could access their habitual fishing grounds within Australian waters. This memorandum of understanding is still in force. It designates an area in which fishing is allowed - a ‘box’ that stretches around five of the main reefs identified in the 1968 declaration. (The largest and most important - Ashmore - has since been excluded from the terms of the agreement, along with nearby Cartier.)

The MOU also defined what it meant to be a ‘traditional’ fisherman, not in terms of an unbroken history of past use and prior occupancy, but in terms of fishing ‘methods’. As a result, traditional fishermen were those who travelled in sail-powered boats, without the assistance of motors, radios or navigational aids. Balint highlights the absurdity of a situation where Indonesian fishermen are expected to fish within the narrow and highly specific boundaries of their allowable ‘box’ without the technology that allows them to accurately chart their position. As fisherman Johni Fakie commented after being caught outside the box: ‘The sea had no signs that we had trespassed, and at sea there are no signs marking the border of Australian and Indonesian waters.’ Australian policy also puts the fishermen at much greater personal risk, since they cannot even have an auxiliary motor on board for use in emergency, yet because of the restrictions on their access to fishing grounds they must now set sail more often and in more dangerous weather conditions.

The MOU on Indonesian fishing is much more restrictive than a similar 1978 agreement used to regulate the traditional activities of PNG fishermen in the Torres Strait. It traps the Rotenese in a ‘technological time-warp’ as if they are destined to serve as living proof of our notion of authentic tradition. Balint sums up their situation in discussing the display of confiscated Indonesian fishing boats in WA museums. The author met her first informants while she was trawling through old newspapers at the Broome Historical Society. Outside her window she watched three Indonesian men in prison garb restoring the flaking wreck of a perahu so that it could be turned into an exhibit. Two other confiscated perahu are on display in Fremantle and Darwin. As Balint comments:

In reinventing the perahu as an apolitical piece of Australia’s history, the Indonesian fishermen are also depoliticised. They, too, are turned into museum pieces.

Ruth Balint has written an engaging account in which the voices of the fishermen themselves feature prominently. She puts paid to pervasive myths - such as the idea that Indonesian fishermen keep returning to get re-arrested because they make more money in Australian prison cell than they do at home. In fact none of their paltry prison wages can be repatriated to Indonesia and Balint paints a compelling portrait of the cycle of poverty that ensues every time a boat is confiscated: the fishermen becomes more deeply indebted to the owner of the vessel, and so more desperate to return to sea in an attempt to recoup his mounting losses.

Balint combines scholarship and reportage, drawing judiciously on the historical record to contextualise her first-hand reporting of the contemporary situation. The book began as a film of the same name (which has been screened on SBS) and it was the first non-fiction manuscript to win the Vogel Prize for literature. It was a deserving winner. Troubled Waters would make a valuable edition to the reading list for any undergraduate course dealing with issues such as sovereignty, citizenship, migration, customary law, human rights, Australian nationhood or Australia-Indonesia relations. It is also worthwhile reading for any Australian citizen, to better understand the human consequences of actions that are taken in our name and in defence of our nation. •

Peter Mares is a journalist and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University

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