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Australia out of the Timor sea!

Green Left Weekly - April 28, 2004

Robyn Waite, Dili – During April 14-16, an empty block opposite the Australian embassy in Dili became a fervent and colourful site of protest, as more than 1500 people mobilised to oppose the Australian government's violation of East Timorese sovereignty in the Timor Sea.

The peaceful demonstrations were organised by the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea (MKOTT), a new coalition of non-government organisations (NGOs), community organisations and individuals. The actions were held prior to the second round of negotiations between the Australian and East Timorese governments, which commenced on April 19, to determine a permanent maritime boundary between the two nations.

The East Timorese government has called for international law to be adhered to and for the maritime boundary to be set halfway between the two countries. The Australian government is refusing to accept this, insisting that it will continue to occupy areas of the Timor sea closer to East Timor's border, from which billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue will be reaped by Australian companies.

The mood of the demonstrations made it clear that the goodwill generated by International Force for East Timor (Interfet) troops in 1999 has been quickly eroded by the legal manoeuvring and shameless greed of Australian politicians.

Furious chants of "Australian government – thief!" and "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – oil, oil, oil" punctuated the rallies. Street theatre portrayed a fat, beer-swilling Australian couple conniving to steal bread from their neighbours' back yard. An array of creative banners facing the Australian embassy carried messages such as "Fuck your petrol arrogance" and "Stop illegal occupation".

Indignation ran high as speakers demanded that the Australian government stop stalling on the maritime boundary issue, refrain from issuing exploration licenses in disputed seabed territory and cease reaping profits from existing oil fields that lie much closer to East Timor's coastline than Australia's.

The Laminaria/Corallina oil field was a particular source of resentment. Australia has already earned more than US$1 billion in revenue from this area since 1999, revenue that rightfully belongs to East Timor. This makes East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the region, Australia's largest foreign donor. Speakers pointed out that profits from Laminaria/Corallina already outstrip the costs of the Interfet operation and Australian aid programs to East Timor.

Nuno Roderiguez, coordinator of the Sahe Institute for Liberation, highlighted the resistance to the illegal occupation: "It is said that East Timor is a poor country. This is not because of a lack of resources, but because of a long history of colonisation. We became poor because our resources were taken from us by Portugal and then Indonesia. After independence, the economic reality is that we are still colonised, but this time by the Australian government.

"During 24 years of occupation we have shown the world that even though we are a small, poor country, we can defeat a powerful country like Indonesia. So again we must stand together against Australia's illegal occupation. We must encourage the international solidarity movement to work with us once more in this final struggle for independence."

Roderiguez is pleased with the success of the three-day action: "The demonstrations showed us that awareness about the Timor Sea issue is becoming more widespread. The rallies were attended by students, parliamentarians, NGOs, women's groups, cultural groups and street vendors. Everyone agreed that what we are fighting against is illegal occupation and this is very important for the movement. We have all experienced occupation before and we know how to resist it.

"The challenge for the movement now is to increase awareness and to make East Timorese people realise that this is everyone's problem – it's in the national interest. The fact that all political parties and the president are in agreement on this issue makes things a lot easier. We all have the same objective." MKOTT is launching a community outreach program and will distribute 10,000 pamphlets to communities in Dili. The movement also aims to strengthen its links with international solidarity groups.

Roderiguez encourages Australians to support East Timor's final struggle for true independence: "The revenues from oil fields closer to East Timor rightfully belong to us, but the Australian government will use this money to benefit you as Australians. That means Australians become part of the theft and that's a big shame. The Australian government is there because it was elected by the people. If it is not representing you with this greedy Timor Sea policy, then fight against it!"