Subject: SCMP: Australia Bars the Way to E. Timor's Future

South China Morning Post Thursday, August 5, 2004


Australia Bars the Way to East Timor's Future

Oil wealth was always expected to play an important role in rebuilding East Timor after independence. Two years on, thanks to the stubbornness of neighbouring Australia, there is still much uncertainty over whether the bulk of that wealth will ever be made available to the government of the struggling new country. Meanwhile, poverty remains high, there is little to speak of in terms of an economy, and unemployment runs above 60 per cent. It is a situation that could be eased by a compromise from Australia, but there are few signs that such an outcome is likely in the immediate future.

The disputed oil fields fall in the Timor Sea between the two countries. Going by a border negotiated long ago with the Indonesian government, from which East Timor won its freedom only recently, Australia claims the vast majority of one of the most lucrative deposits - in an area called Greater Sunrise. If the border was determined by the median-line method now commonly accepted in international courts, much more of Sunrise and other contested fields would fall in Timorese waters.

Negotiations, however, have been slow and may even stop completely as the Timor Sea oil issue becomes a political football in the Australian national elections. The next meeting, scheduled to take place soon, might be cancelled if the Australian negotiators follow through on their threats.

While talks stall, pumping on existing projects continues and preparations are being made to tap Greater Sunrise. Billions that could be channelled into rebuilding an area devastated by decades of guerilla war - and arguably the poorest country in Asia - are instead going into the coffers of the Australian government and international oil companies. All of it is unseemly to say the least.

There may be concerns about whether East Timor has adequate infrastructure to handle even the trickle of oil money that is now flowing into the country, much less the funds that would become available after it gains access to a fairer share of the fields.

Obviously, the non-governmental organisations already there will have to stay engaged and even intensify their institution-building work. But it is far preferable for the NGOs to be focusing on training new leaders than on providing funds for basic services and infrastructure. They are still involved in the latter. Nor will these NGOs support East Timor indefinitely, as other trouble spots demand the world's attention.

East Timor's small size, poverty and relative lack of resources other than oil mean that it has relatively few options for development. It would be a shame if greed and intransigence from one of the richest nations in the hemisphere served to close off the country's most promising means for achieving long-term stability and prosperity.

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