Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea

Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea

Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea

Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea


The dramatic transformation of Australia's northern seas- from an ignored backwater to the most militarized and fiercely guarded waters in the region- is chronicled in this fascinating volume. Once a bridge between two coastlines and two cultures, in the last years of the 20th century the Timor Sea has become Australia's frontline against the threat of invasion. When Australia expanded its territorial boundaries by 200 nautical miles in 1979, its territory reached the doorstep of eastern Indonesia- an occupation driven by the concept ofmare nullius, the idea that the sea was empty and that no one would suffer for their claims. But for the traditional fishermen of West Timor, these waters represented the source of their livelihood, and this powerful story includes the struggles of a people evicted from their seas.


A young Rotenese fisherman picks up a stick and begins to draw a map in the sand. "This is where Rote Island is located and to its south is Pulau Pasir," Gani Pello says, the stick perfectly tracing the three crooked shapes that make up what Australians know as Ashmore Reef. The shapes of other reefs - Cartier, Seringapatam, Scott - follow, their Indonesian names too quick for me to catch. A huddle of children watch on and as his map becomes more detailed, Gani teaches them how to sail there too. "At night we use stars to give us direction." Gani sketches the sky. Winds and currents are woven into the story, together transforming Gani's canvas into a theatre of voyaging that encompasses the oceans of his father, grandfather and all the seafarers of his ancestry. The oil rigs in the Timor Sea make it the modern seascape of his lifetime as well.

We are standing on the beach in Pepela, a fishing village on the southeast coast of the island of Rote. Rote is in the Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia, just south of West Timor. I am there to make a documentary film about the impact of the expansion of Australia's maritime borders on the traditional fishermen of this tiny fishing village. For me, the route to Pepela has been fraught with endless obstacles and bureaucratic red tape. But for Gani, the journey has taken much longer. He has been back in Pepela only a month, after spending sixteen months in Australian prisons and another four weeks finding his way home.

I had first met Gani two months before. My intention had been to interview him while he was in prison, and to follow his story from there. I knew that he was due for release soon. But getting access to Indonesian fishermen in jail as a film- maker proved impossible. On the day that I heard he had been transported from prison to the immigration detention centre at Perth airport pending his repatriation to Denpasar in Indonesia, I decided to chance a visit. The plan was risky. I wasn't even sure whether he would still be there, and even if he were, Gani had never seen or heard of me. The only visitors allowed were friends and relatives, and visits had to be requested by the prisoner. With my friends waiting in the car, I went in alone. Somehow, after jumping through all the security hoops, I was admitted to the visitors' room. The guard had gone to talk to Gani and he had, miraculously, verified our acquaintance.

A couple sat in a corner, a young Australian woman like myself saying a teary farewell to another male deportee. When Gani was escorted into the room, he played along beautifully. No one watching, neither the officer standing guard nor those monitoring the surveillance cameras positioned around the ceiling, would have guessed we were anything but old friends. Please, tell me my family is OK, he had whispered urgently, imagining that I was the bearer of ill-tidings. Sadly, bad news from home is a common enough experience for the dozens of . . .

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