Subject: IPS: Maritime border dispute with Australia

Monday, 24 May, 2004

Maritime border dispute with Australia

East Timor independence remains a challenge

By Mario de Queiroz Inter Press Service

LISBON—East Timor, the world's youngest republic, celebrated its second anniversary on May 20, but its struggle for a viable independence continues.

But in 2004 the threat does not come from its giant neighbor and now democratic Indonesia, which in 1975, under the iron-fisted dictatorship of Suharto, invaded Timor. Nor are neo-colonial appetites returning to Portugal.

The new threat is Australia's thirst for petroleum.

Oxfam report

That is the position of the non-governmental humanitarian group Oxfam, in an extensive report that warns the international community about the real danger that Australia could turn East Timor into a failed nation.

Oxfam recognizes that Australia has been generous to East Timor, but points out that the smaller nation has already paid back ten-fold in oil revenues the aid received since 1999, when a multinational force led by the United Nations forced out Indonesia, and even as Jakarta's “scorched earth” withdrawal destroyed East Timor's entire infrastructure.

The UN took control in 2000 and 2001, although East Timor formally remained a “territory under Portuguese administration” until it completed the process of decolonization, which ended with the formal declaration of independence on May 20, 2002.

Two years after independence, the stance of the Australian government on maritime border negotiations with East Timor is limiting the capacity of the latter to plan and finance its future development, Oxfam charges in the report published last week in London.

East Timor invokes international law

The new republic demands that the maritime border be set 200 miles from its coast, as stipulated by international law, which would guarantee it control over the rich petroleum and natural gas resources in the area. But Australia refuses.

Instead, Australia argues that the maritime border should respect the agreement it signed in 1989 with the Suharto dictatorship, which at the time was considered as compensation from Jakarta to Canberra for being the only government to recognize Indonesia's sovereignty over the former Portuguese colony that it occupied.

Canberra's firm position in this matter has been reiterated in many international forums. Australian officials have stressed that even if the petroleum and natural gas reserves prove to be closer to East Timor than Australia in the Timor Sea, it will stand by the validity of the 1989 accord.

The reserves are estimated at 30 million barrels of oil and 175 million barrels of natural gas, with royalties calculated to reach 21.3 billion dollars.

Heavy pressure from transnationals

Another crucial aspect is the heavy pressure on the Australian government and on the mission of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) from the US-based Phillips Petroleum company and Australia's Woodside Petroleum.

Both transnationals have said they could cancel or delay investment and exploitation plans if the maritime border dispute is not resolved in the next few months.

Officially these firms are staying out of the controversy, but behind the scenes they prefer Australia, which keeps 30 percent of oil and natural gas profits, compared to the 40 percent that East Timor holds on to.

East Timor is the poorest country in the world and its only possibility for development seems to be the fossil fuels that lie beneath the sea bed that Australia refuses to hand over, according to Oxfam's argument.

East Timor's President José Alexandre Xanana Gusmao, who on Wednesday took the reins of autonomy when UNTAET ceded control over the army and the police, expressed confidence in the country's national security.

The legendary former guerrilla, who resisted the Indonesian army for 20 years in the mountains, says what keeps him awake at night now is the country's deep poverty.

The figures are dramatic: 41 percent of the half-island's 760,000 inhabitants live in extreme poverty, 51 percent are illiterate, one of 10 children dies before reaching age five, and around half of the working-age population is unemployed.

Culturally, as in all countries of colonial origin, East Timor faces hard to resolve problems resulting from borders drawn by the imperial powers, which do not always correspond to ethnic geographic divisions.

Territorial limits defined by European colonial interests

Historian José Mattoso, in a report released Thursday by the Mario Soares Foundation, says the territorial limits of the so-called Third World “resulted from political agreements and compromises defined by European interests”.

This delineation by the colonial powers, he adds, “was established especially in the language and administrative customs that remained, and most of the colonial borders have lasted, even if they were arbitrary from the outset”.

Out of that policy of European convenience, often backed by the United States, frequent ethnic conflicts have emerged, and even today there is blood spilled in African and Asian countries as a result, says Mattoso, a professor at the University of Lisbon.

East Timor is no exception, and occupies half an island because of a border “imposed by the arbitrator of the colonial vicissitudes” of Portugal and the Netherlands, which administered the western part of the island until Indonesian independence, which occurred gradually between 1954 and 1963.

For two-year-old independent East Timor, sustaining its unique culture while faced with the two hegemonic powers of Indonesia and Australia will not be easy.

Says Mattoso, although “in today's world there are no colonies, cultural and economic colonialism can turn independence into a farce.”

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