Bob Burton, Canberra – Australia's effort to block East Timor from billions of dollars of oil resources – by refusing to agree to a maritime boundary between the two countries – will be tested by an emerging coalition of community groups, which insist on economic justice for the world's newest nation.
The Australian government met April 19-22 with East Timorese officials. The next meeting will be held in September.
The government of East Timor, which estimates that each day's delay in adopting a maritime boundary results in Australia unlawfully reaping one million US dollars, wants monthly talks to promptly resolve the issue.
But the Australian government argued for negotiations every six months and, according to reports from East Timor, informally let it be known that it is prepared to take 20 years to discuss the issue if necessary.
While Australia may have had the upper hand in the talks, its adamant negotiating position has crystallised opposition in both East Timor and Australia.
In a blunt 'welcome' statement to the Australian government negotiating team, East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri signalled his willingness to ensure that the debate plays out as much as possible in front of the world's media.
Pointing out that a fair boundary would triple the income of his country, Alkatiri spelt out what it would mean for the East Timorese.
"Concretely, it means the money to immunise and educate every child in Timor Leste.
It means more children will reach the age of five years. It means more lives spent productively. It is quite literally a matter of life and death," he said.
While the Australian negotiators ignored Alkatiri's plea, outside the meeting room it was a different story.
Within East Timor there is a growing anger toward the Australian government reflected in a series of demonstrations outside the Australian Embassy and the venue of negotiations – for what is regarded as the theft of their resources.
As East Timorese leaders and civil society groups argue their case, their plea for justice is resonating with an emerging coalition of religious, environmental and social justice groups in Australia. International media coverage too has grown of what has been dubbed 'Australia's greedy grab for oil'.
For those supporting East Timor, the facts speak for themselves. While East Timor gains the bulk of the royalties from the small Bayu Undan oil field – which is covered under the Timor Sea Treaty, the real prize is the 7 billion US dollars in royalties from the much larger proposed Greater Sunrise oil and gas project.
But in March 2003, after the United Nations Transitional Authority relinquished control of a country ravaged by the retreating Indonesian military and its proxies, Alkatiri discovered that there was a catch.
In order to gain immediate access to the revenues from the Bayu Undan oilfield, Alkatiri was pressured to sign an agreement that divides the Greater Sunrise revenues with 82 percent to the Australian government and only 18 percent for East Timor.
The week also saw the leader of the Australian Greens, Sen. Bob Brown, visit Dili to meet with and support the efforts of community groups and East Timorese leaders, including Alkatiri, and demand economic justice from the Australian government.
Also added to the critics' voices will be that of Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, a former resistance leader during the Indonesian occupation who won the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation's annual awards for environmental heroes.
This week, De Carvalho will be touring Australia and speaking out against Australia's grab for East Timor's oil and gas reserves.
The project proponents for the Greater Sunrise project – a consortium of companies including Woodside, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Osaka Gas – are feeling the heat too.
Alkatiri has stated that he will not present legislation for the ratification of the Greater Sunrise Agreement to East Timor's parliament, increasing the pressure on the project developers.
Companies such as Shell and Woodside, which say they are good corporate citizens, are also vulnerable to international criticism for backing Australia's claims.
Critics also do not find credible the Australian government's claim that it needs six months between meetings to consider the complexity of the issues around the delineation of a maritime boundary with East Timor.
The fact remains that the Australian government negotiated a 900-page free trade agreement with the United States, covering every sector of the economy, in 12 months of negotiations.
While the Australian government withdrew the issue of the maritime boundary with East Timor from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, East Timor has hinted that it may still have other legal avenues.
"International law requires countries to exercise restraint by not unilaterally exploiting resources in disputed areas," Alkatiri told Australian negotiators this week.
There is also the prospect that the Australian government's audacious claims will backfire domestically. While the opposition Labor Party voted with the government to ratify the Greater Sunrise agreement, it has subsequently criticised the Australian government for its bullying.
Even if the Labor Party government has no intention of renegotiating the boundary, its rhetoric reflects an assessment that the issue has managed to cut through the clutter of other issues competing for public attention.
The spokesman for the Timor Sea Justice Campaign, Dan Nicholson, argues that a change of government is possible at the election due later this year – and this may open the door, at least a little, for East Timor.