Timor-Leste which won independence from Indonesia in 1999 is now engaged in a new economic independence struggle with Australia over rights to oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. In March, more than ten thousand East Timorese led by the Movimentu Kontra Okupasaun Tasi Timor (MKOTT or the movement against occupation in the Timor Sea) held a two-day peaceful protest in front of the Australian Embassy in Dili demanding a re-negotiation of the maritime borders of the oil- and gas rich Timorese sea. While some would like to say the protests were orchestrated by the Timorese Government, there should be no doubt that these protests grew out of the strong sentiment held by the Timorese and it was neither government led, nor government incited. The forceful, yet peaceful, protests were organised by Timorese civil society. The Timorese know themselves what is right and wrong.
“We fought a long struggle for 24 years for our independence and for sovereignty over our land, now we are in a new struggle to secure sovereign rights over our seas,” former prime minister, Xanana Gusmao told journalists.
Agio Pereira is the Minister of State, Timor Leste's second most important Cabinet position after the Prime Minister made the case that Australia was behaving like China in its approach to the domination of the South China Sea "I think Australia cannot go on lecturing other countries about respecting international law in the limitation of maritime boundaries, and yet look the other way in its closest neighbour, Timor Leste."
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with an eye on China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea, had urged other countries to abide by international law and called on the Americans, to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), the very UN convention that the Australian Government refuses to acknowledge in its dispute with Timor-Leste. Australia has withdrawn from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of UNCLOS.
In 1972, when East Timor was still a Portuguese colony, Australia and Indonesia agreed a boundary dividing the waters separating their countries. At that time, the continental shelf was generally recognised as the basis for determining maritime frontiers. As a result, Australia received 85% and left only 15% to Indonesia. Portugal rejected this arrangement. When Portugal pulled out in 1975, Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor. The Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, sent his government a confidential telegram that has since been made public: "Closing the present gap in the agreed sea border could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or an independent Portuguese Timor.’ Woolcott revealed that he had been briefed on Indonesia's secret plans for an invasion. He cabled Canberra that the government should “assist public understanding in Australia” to counter “criticism of Indonesia” “
In 1982, the UN Law of the Sea Convention formalised the median line as the basis for such agreements. Although Indonesia stood to gain in 1989 it signed a treaty ceding most of the resources in the Timor Gap to Australia in return for de jure recognition of its sovereignty over East Timor, a recognition that violated UN resolutions. Portugal took Australia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But Indonesia refused to recognise the ICJ's jurisdiction. In the absence of one of the parties, the court declared itself incompetent to rule but warned Australia that the treaty would not be binding on an independent East Timor.
Under the treaty of 1989 Australia and Indonesia created a Zone of Cooperation A (Zoca) in the Timor Gap. If the internationally-accepted median line principle had been followed, the resulting revenues would have gone entirely to East Timor. Instead, throughout most of Zoca, the governments shared royalties equally. Timor's interests were further damaged when the lateral boundaries of Zoca were drawn so as to exclude the Laminaria-Corallina field to the west and 80% of the Greater Sunrise field to the east.
In January 2000, a UN legal adviser announced, on the grounds that "we do not want to retrospectively legitimise, or give any legitimacy to the conclusion of the treaty, which was done by Indonesia over what is part of the territory of East Timor. So this is not a case of succession, it is a new legal instrument that we will create". The terms of the 1989 treaty would be renegotiated once Timor had achieved independence.
In March 2002, Australia withdrew from the ICJ's jurisdiction and rejected arbitration by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. With recourse to the courts ruled out, there remains only the law of the strongest and where the Australian government was caught bugging the Timorese cabinet room so it could spy on Timor-Leste’s leaders and officials.
When East Timor gained independence, a consortium of oil companies led by ConocoPhilipps demanded a swift agreement on the Bayu-Undan field, which lies entirely within Zoca, so that they could pursue investments to exploit it. Australia sought to persuade the Timorese that they would lose everything if they asked for too much and Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, remarked ominously that any revision of the share-out of royalties "plays into the overall size of the Australian aid programme in East Timor". However, threatened by further action under international the Australian government conceded 90% of the royalties from Bayu-Undan - 90% of the royalties from Bayu-Undan came to $100m a year over 20 years, not an insignificant sum. But this 90% share applies only in the Bayu-Undan field in Zoca, now designated the Joint Petroleum development area (JPDA). The situation remains unchanged in the Laminaria/Corallina fields to the west, which Australia exploits unilaterally at 150,000 barrels per day, and in Greater Sunlight to the east. These fields would treble East Timor's reserves if the frontiers were redrawn in accordance with the Timorese claim, which most experts support as legally correct. Australia continues to contest the claim on the basis of the continental shelf. Having delayed its response to the Timorese request for border negotiations until 18 months after independence, the Australian government then postponed the first meeting until April 2004. When the Timorese demanded monthly meetings, Australia claimed that lack of time and personnel made a six-month interval necessary, meanwhile collecting $1m a day from Laminaria/Corallina.
In April 2004, Gusmao made an exasperated appeal to public opinion: "If our larger, more powerful neighbour steals the money we need to repay loans, that will put us deeper in debt. We will be one more country on the list of debt-ridden countries all over the world." Australia insisted upon its generosity in conceding 90% of the royalties from Bayu-Undan and in giving $170m in aid. Oxfam Australia, however, has calculated that, during this period, Australia had made more than $1bn from the Laminaria/Corallina field.
The Timorese government uses some the money raised from oil and gas revenues to provide essential services to its young population. Sixty percent of Timor-Leste’s 1.2 million people are aged under 25 years of age and the country continues to struggle on key development indicators, including hunger. According to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, malnutrition is a major concern for Timor-Leste with 44.7 percent of children under five years old underweight.