Sonny Inbaraj, Dili – East Timorese activists have thrown their support behind their government's refusal to ratify an agreement giving Australia the lion's share of disputed oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea as talks begin here this week to demarcate the two countries' maritime boundaries.
Hundreds of East Timorese demonstrators protested late last week outside Australia's embassy, here, against what they termed as a robbery of the region's poorest country by its richest neighbor of its oil and gas resources. Bilateral talks are being held Apr. 19-22.
"This is not a war of weapons, but of words," said Joao Saramento, spokesman for the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea, which comprises non-government organizations, individuals and other civic groups in the fledgling country.
"We thought foreign occupation of our territory had ended in 1999. We did not expect to emerge from Indonesia's bloody occupation of our land only to face Australia's greedy occupation of our sea," he said.
For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia. The Timorese, in a United Nations-sponsored referendum, opted for independence in late August 1999. But when the ballot results were announced in September 1999, Indonesian military-sponsored militias went on an orgy of terror and razed Dili to the ground.
Added Saramento: "Australia is a wealthy country, with a high standard of living and vast amounts and variety of natural resources. East Timor suffers the legacy of centuries of colonialism and war and we have only one significant material resource – the petroleum deposits under our part of the Timor Sea."
East Timor gained independence in May 2002 after a two-year interim administration lead by the United Nations. But nearly two years after independence, the country is one of the world's poorest nations.
Earlier in the week, East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said his parliament would not ratify an agreement which paves the way for oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea to be developed.
Alkatiri said there has not been good faith on the part of the Australian government. "I trust the Australian people, the Australian politicians, academics and all of the Australian of goodwill and I think they can really influence the government," he said.
"They still can put pressure on the Australian government, to change the government's position," he added.
Echoing Alkatari, Saramento urged the Australian government to return what he claimed is their rightful oil and gas resources under international law. "We are not asking for charity from Australia. We only want what is rightfully ours under international law to develop our country for future generations," he said.
In March, the Australian parliament passed laws giving effect to an agreement between Australia and East Timor to develop oil and gas resources expected to generate revenues of seven billion US dollars. East Timor is not happy with the deal because it will receive only 18 percent of revenue, even though the oil and gas are far closer to the shores of East Timor than they are to Australia.
On Independence Day on May 20, 2002, Dili and Canberra signed the Timor Sea Treaty. This treaty gives East Timor 90 percent of revenues from inside the so-called Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) between the two countries.
The Timor Sea Treaty would allow for the production of the " Undan area, within the JPDA, to begin with. Ninety percent of the government share of revenue would go to East Timor, which needs urgent funds to jumpstart its beleaguered economy.
But months later, Australia refused to ratify the treaty unless East Timor signed another resource-sharing agreement, the Greater Sunrise Unitization Agreement. This is an interim arrangement between East Timor and Australia to put in place a legal regime necessary for the " Undan project to progress while maritime boundaries are finalized.
In March 2003, Australia and East Timor signed the Greater Sunrise Unitization Agreement, which was ratified last month by the Australian parliament. Dili says it signed this to get movement on the " Undan accord.
Greater Sunrise lies about 450 kilometers north-west of the Australian city of Darwin and 150 kilometers south of East Timor. It contains an estimated 235 billion cubic meters of gas and 300 million barrels of condensate.
This is despite the fact that "the Greater Sunrise field is twice as close to East Timor as it is to Australia," said Darwin's Timor Sea Justice Campaign coordinator Rob Wesley-Smith.
But East Timor's maritime disputes with Australia do not end there.
Two months before East Timor's independence, Australia withdrew from the jurisdiction of the two international arbitration bodies used to settle maritime boundary disputes, the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, saying it preferred "negotiation to litigation".
East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta accused Australia of dragging its heels on negotiations on the disputed sea frontier between the two countries in order to drain the region of its oil and natural-gas riches.
"The longer the negotiations last, the better it is for Australia", said Ramos-Horta. "Perhaps when the gas and oil run out, then Australia will want to negotiate".
"Had Australia accepted the median line for the maritime boundary, as defined in international law, then today East Timor would be a country like Kuwait," said Ramos-Horta.
He added: "East Timor's strength in this question lies in international law. We haven't invented anything and we're going to see whether Australia is a democratic country, and whether or not it accepts international law."
While Australia is seen as the region's bully-boy in East Timor, President Xanana Gusmao is confident the current Timor Sea spat will not affect relations between the two countries.
"The Timor Sea treaty protest in front of the Australian Embassy in Dili does not affect at all the relations between Australia and East Timor," said Gusmao."There will always be problems when someone speaks about the economy, the market or natural resources."