July 20, 2010

At the corner of Packard and Smith Street, Larrakeyah – less than one kilometre from the heart of Darwin City is the Asti Motel. A relaxing environment

'The Asti Motel'

'A promotional photograph from the Asti Motel website'

for guests .. Affordable and comfortable accommodation’ is how the proprietors describe the Asti, on the Motel’s website. ‘86 air-conditioned units, all with balcony .. colour television with in house movies .. saltwater swimming pool .. and ironing facilities.’ Even asylum seekers need to iron their clothes.

The Asti Motel is Darwin’s unofficial ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’.

From dusk each night, standing on the Asti’s first and second floor balconies you can see the asylum seekers. Men, women and children looking out onto the street; watching locals and tourists walk past – unaware who the people watching them from the Motel are. The Government says the asylum seekers are not imprisoned. While they may not be surrounded by four walls and barbed wire, these Asti Motel guests can’t leave.

The 40 plus asylum seekers are the people Prime Minister Julie Gillard wants to send to a regional offshore processing centre – Gillard’s East Timor solution. Will an offshore processing centre in Dili, PNG or Nauru really stop the boats? It might take the asylum seeker issue off the ‘front page’, but while there is a chance of a new start in Australia, people will risk their lives trying to achieve the Aussie dream.

Christmas Islands overcrowding has now become Darwin’s problem. At the height of the tourist season (the dry), the three star Asti Motel is a mid-range hotel at Capital City prices. A special website rate of $150 for a double room is available, but be quick there is only one room left. Accommodation is at a peak” says Tony Clementson, the General Manager of Tourism Top End – “… we’re in the peak season, very very busy. Last night I think we were just about at capacity”.

Darwin’s room shortage, cost saving or a mistake – embarrassingly, members of the Royal Thai Air Force who are in Darwin to participate in Pitch Black 2010, a multi-national fast jet exercise are also bunking down at the ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’. Air Commander Australia, Vice Marshall Mark Skidmore in Darwin for the launch of Pitch Black was unaware his Thai military counterparts and several dozen asylum seekers are living under the same roof. Asked if there were any security concerns about the housing arrangement, AVM Skidmore replied: That’s something we would look at, again I need to talk to the Thai and understand what the issues might be.”

'The Asti Motel'

'Promotional photograph taken inside an Asti Motel room'

The Thai pilots must not be concerned – five days later, they are still sleeping at the Asti Motel.

Like it or not, the asylum seekers are caught in the middle of a political football game called – ‘asylum seeker hard ball’. A real life match where both major parties tell potential voters they will stop the boats. A Northern Command Navy Officer whose job it is to stop the boats at sea, said to me recently – ‘we should just double our intake’ .. ‘think of the money we would save’. It’s not a bad argument.

Looking at the Asti’s booking website – ‘Extended Stay Double/Single and Studio Family rooms’ are fully booked until the first of January 2011. Promising – ‘the friendly helpful staff are always ready to welcome you and ensure a pleasant stay’ – it appears these Iraqi’s, Afghani’s and Sri Lankan’s will be calling the Asti Motel home for some time yet.


September 2, 2009
'Kangaroo Country'

'Kangaroo Country'

Like it or not.. when you say you’re Australian to a Dili local, the response is often a friendly – ‘Ahhh .. Kangaroo Country’. So when Governor-General Quentin Bryce delivered three corrugated iron sculptured kangaroos for East Timor’s Presidential Palace garden, it seemed the ideal gift.

Questions to President Jose Ramos-Horta were banned during the stage-managed picture opportunity alongside Ms Bryce. Normally one keen to wear out batteries in a radio microphone, the President has been careful not to get into a stoush over his decision to oppose an International Justice Commission into human rights crimes committed during Indonesian occupation and the violence which followed the 1999 Independence vote.

Jose Ramos-Horta believes the past is the past and building a positive relationship with Indonesia is now more important. At the official ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the Independence vote, switching between Portuguese and English – the President was keen to make his position clear: (ENGLISH) “.. there will be no criminal inquiry into past human rights abuses”. There is no questioning of Mr Ramos-Horta’s sacrifices for East Timor – three brother’s and a sister murdered by Indonesian backed forces and an attempt on his own life, but his no justice inquiry is at odds with some Timorese.

'Justice For The Dead'

'Justice For The Dead'

Displaying that Independence doesn’t mean freedom – less than three hours after the President’s Official speech a protest outside Dili’s main hotel, the Hotel Timor by two dozen people opposed to the President’s ‘no’ decision was swiftly broken up by truckloads of ‘Special Police’. Call ‘Unit Taskforce’ .. 20 officers torn up banners reading ‘No Impunity For Timor War Crimes – Justice Now’ and took away three ringleaders.

As we drove back to out hotel with the video footage of the police action, a protester said: ‘He .. (President) is betraying the mothers of East Timor’.

With unemployment as high as 70 percent across East Timor and most living on less than 50 cents a day – job building infrastructure projects are the obvious way to pull the population out of poverty.



But, the decision not to pursue prosecutions against people who committed atrocities during the 24-year fight for freedom, threatens to undermine the leaps in security since the 2006 gang violence, death of Alfredo Reinaldo and assassination attempt on Jose Ramos-Horta.   

In a sign the President has won the first round in this fight, it was the Indonesian pop star Kris Dyanti who headlined the outdoor concert celebrating 10 years since the Independence vote. It odd choice considering the past, but maybe not as silly as three kangaroos in Presidential Palace garden.