Subject: GLW: East Timor: Australia’s double betrayal

East Timor: Australia’s double betrayal

Max Lane

Since the East Timorese independence referendum in 1999, the Australian government has received approximately $1 billion dollars in taxes on oil taken from the Laminaria Corallina field, which is fully situated in East Timorese territory.

During the same period, East Timor has received absolutely nothing from this oil field. One billion dollars is four times the amount of “aid” that has been “given” to East Timor through AusAID since 1999.

In Melbourne, the Timor Sea Justice Campaign has been established and other groups are screening the documentary Timor Gap Oil and Gas: Don't Rob Their Future to raise awareness about this rip-off. Clearly there is a massive challenge to reawaken and mobilise the Australian people’s solidarity with East Timor against the Australian government’s robbery.

It should concern us all that the campaign to give East TImor its resources back is stronger in the United States than in Australia. The US East Timor Action Network, ETAN, issued a petition signed by scores of organisations worldwide calling on the Australian government to change its position. Even members of the US Congress have written to Howard on this issue.

The complete moral bankruptcy of so-called ``mainstream'' politics is illustrated by the deafening silence in the Australian media and parliament about what amounts to an Australian occupation of East Timorese territory and the direct theft of billions of dollars worth of oil.

Between Suharto’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and Indonesian president Habibie’s agreement to withdraw Indonesian troops in September 1999, the Australian political establishment relentlessly and mercilessly pursued a policy of support for Jakarta’s annexation and military occupation of East Timor.

More than 200,000 East Timorese were killed, or died from hunger, during Jakarta’s war of occupation. Most of these deaths occurred during periods when the Australian government was sending military equipment to Jakarta.

From 1975, the motivation behind Australian policy was clearly that it would be easier to get access to the oil in the Timor Sea from the dictator Suharto than from a new independent and nationalist East Timorese government, which may have opted for Chinese, Soviet or European oil partners. Now, thirty years on, the Australian government is doing all it can to keep what it was given by Suharto.

According to international law, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the international sea boundary between countries situated close to each other is the median line (the half-way point). But the Australian government insists that an old border - the 1972 Australia-Indonesia seabed boundary agreed with the Suharto — be the basis of current negotiations between Canberra and Dili on exploration of oil in the Timor Gap.

To protect itself from legal challenge, since March 2002 the Australian government has refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice or any dispute-settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS.

There are four major oil or gas fields in East Timorese territorial waters: the Laminaria Corallina oil field, the Elang Kakatua oil field, the Bayu-Undan oil and gas field and the Greater Sunrise gas field. The Australian government, resting on the agreement with the deposed Jakarta dictator, claims 100% sovereignty over Laminara Corallina and sovereignty over 80% of the territory of the huge Greater Sunrise.

Canberra’s one concession to the new East Timorese government was that it agreed to accept 10% of taxes, rather than the 50% Suharto had agreed to, on takings from the Elang Kakatua and Bayu-Udan fields (the smaller of the yet unexploited fields). This was set out in the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty signed with the East Timorese government at the time of formal independence.

If this new occupation of East Timor’s territory is maintained, East Timor will be robbed of approximately US$30 billion dollars over the next three decades.

On March 10, the federal Coalition government introduced several bills to give effect to an agreement signed in March 2003 between Dili and Canberra on how to calculate the division of revenue from the Greater Sunrise field. Dili signed this under pressure from the Australian government, which threatened to not ratify the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty until Dili signed. Without ratification of the treaty, exploitation of the Baya Udan field was likely to collapse, and East Timor would have lost urgently needed short-term funds.

However, Dili still insisted that the Greater Sunrise agreement include a clause stating that all existing agreements with Australia could be renegotiated once there was an agreement on a new sea border (as Dili rejected the 1972 Australia-Indonesia sea boundary).

Dili has not ratified the agreement, calling for negotiation on the border issue and for a date to be set for the conclusion of these negotiations. The Australian government’s refusal to set an end-date and claims that it can only afford to hold two meetings a year have sparked fears that it will attempt to drag out the whole process, knowing that all the oil will be exhausted within ten years or so.

The government initially attempted to get the new bills, including the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Implementation Bill 2004, passed through both houses of parliament in one day. In doing so, industry, tourism and resources minister Ian McFarlane made a point of calling on the East Timorese government to quickly follow suit.

In the House of Representatives, the bill was fully supported by the Labor Party, and several Labor MPs gave speeches discussing the benefits of the bill for the Australian economy. The ALP’s only substantive criticism was that the government was not insisting that the oil and gas companies (including British, Japanese and American companies as well as Australian) be forced to buy the equipment they needed in Australia.

Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon’s main concern was that “this stuff is brought onshore”, in effect denying the Timorese the right to insist that their oil be refined in East Timor rather than in Darwin. This latter point, and an ALP proposal that companies should lose their lease if they do not start exploitation within a specific period of time, were the only real points of “debate” with McFarlane, who attacked Labor as “anti-business”. Neither the Coalition nor the ALP questioned Australia’s right to grant leases for East Timorese oil.

Country Liberal MP David Tollner attacked the ALP for allegedly treasonous behaviour in arguing for East Timor’s interests rather than Australia’s. However, the closest ALP mining, energy and forestry shadow minister Joel Fitzgibbon got to this was his racist and patronising statement: “East Timor is an impoverished nation... We cannot bring it to self-sufficiency by hand-out alone. The best we can do for the East Timorese people is to give them an industry, an economic base and an opportunity to grow their economy to create local jobs.” Such a statement ignores the fact that it is East Timor doing the “giving”, as all the oil and gas being discussed is within East Timorese territory.

Snowdon read a quote from an ALP national conference resolution, which states that a Labor government will negotiate with East Timor in good faith on a new border, and will accept international law. However the resolution then negates this affirmation by stating that the negotiations may take 3-5 years and: “The conclusion of the maritime boundary should be based on the joint aspirations of both countries”.

In reality, there is nothing to negotiate. The Australian government and Labor opposition should simply state that they accept the median line as the border and acknowledge that they have no rights at all over any of the oil and gas resources on the East Timorese side of the border.

This was the stance taken by Greens MP Michael Organ, and even more clearly by independent MP Peter Andren, who made a clear statement that Australia had no moral right to the resources at all. Under threat of an embarrassing attack by the Greens in the Senate, the bill was referred to a committee for one week’s perusal. However, this committee has concentrated on ALP concerns about insufficient requirement for purchase of Australian-manufactured equipment and similar matters.

From Green Left Weekly, March 24, 2004.

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