In 1975, when Indonesia invaded East Timor, beginning a 24-year occupation that cost over 200,000 Timorese lives (over a third of the population), Australia's support for this genocidal occupation was predicated on a policy outlined in the infamous "Woolcott telegram": that Australia's interest in East Timor was derived from the oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.
On August 31, 1999, East Timor voted for independence in a UN-supervised referendum. This was followed by a rampage of killing and destruction by Indonesian-organised militia gangs that continued for over a month until the deployment of an Australian-led UN military force and the withdrawal of Indonesian troops on October 20.
With East Timor officially becoming independent in 2002, the UN military and police presence was progressively reduced and was due to cease completely in 2006. However, in that year a new Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) was deployed in response to appeals from the Timorese government following mutinies, and clashes between rival factions, in East Timor's police and defence forces.
Australia explains its ongoing military presence in terms of regional stability and preventing a neighbour from becoming a "failed state". However, Canberra's hard-line stance in negotiations over the Timor Sea maritime boundary and resource exploitation, the meagreness of Australian development aid and its use as a bargaining chip in these negotiations, the perception of Australian and ISF interference in East Timorese electoral politics and growing evidence of Australian covert involvement in the unrest that led to the ISF's deployment, all suggest that Australian policy towards East Timor continues to be driven by the same concern as in 1975: a predatory interest in the Timor Sea oil and gas.
"We would like to see all solidarity groups calling for a withdrawal of Australian troops from East Timor. That's really important. It's different from the Australian presence in 1999. We really needed Australian troops then but now we don't", Tomas Freitas, director of the East Timorese NGO Luta Hamutuk, told Green Left Weekly. "In East Timor, the sentiment of the people if you go and talk to them in the street is that they don't like Australian troops ... Their tanks destroy the asphalt roads in Dili. My children can't sleep because they fly their helicopters really close to houses."
He added that money spent by ISF soldiers went straight back to Australia: "They don't rent from the community. They don't drink our water, they bring their own. They bring their own beer, cigarettes and food ... So what's the benefit for East Timor economically? Nothing!"
He pointed to harassment of Luta Hamutuk: "Sometimes when we have meetings they send tanks round our office." While Luta Hamutuk's grassroots approach to development includes organising community activism around issues such as opposing the eviction of street vendors and campaigning for access to electricity and the rehabilitation of roads, it is their role in scrutinising development projects and the oil and gas revenue that is the likely cause of Australian military harassment.
"We have two main programs, the first is monitoring the use of oil and gas resources, the second is monitoring state budget expenditure", the organisation's administration officer, Joaozito Viana, explained to GLW. "Contributing to the country includes monitoring the implementation of development projects. Because the projects belong to the community, they have to keep an eye on it."
Luta Hamutuk's analysis reveals that Australian aid to East Timor is far outweighed by the revenue derived from the Timor Sea oil and gas, and that the former is usually provided primarily to facilitate the latter. Within a month of Australian troops landing in 1999, Australian companies began operating three oil wells. "We did not even get 50 cents from those three wells, all the money's been taken by the Australian government. They sucked 110,000 barrels per day, let's say $1 million per day", Freitas told GLW.
He speculated that the delay in the deployment of Australian troops during the September 1999 massacres by Indonesian army-led militias was to put pressure on Timorese political leaders to allow Australia unrestricted access to these wells. "I think some of our leaders made a deal with [Prime Minister] John Howard and [foreign minister] Alexander Downer ... I think if that deal hadn't been agreed to I think maybe Australian soldiers would still be waiting in Darwin. The delay from September 1 until October 20 caused a lot of Timorese deaths."
In 2002 East Timor signed a treaty with Australia under which 90% of royalties from the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) went to East Timor. However, the JPDA lies on the East Timorese side of the median line between the two countries which would form their maritime boundary if international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was applied. The 2002 treaty deferred a final decision on the maritime boundary. In 2004, Australia withdrew from UNCLOS. Having to share control of the JDPA with Australia also denies East Timor full control over which companies can operate and on what terms.
Luta Hamutuk opposed the signing of the treaty. "At that time we organised a demonstration against our own government and against Howard. We were arguing for establishing maritime boundaries first before exploiting oil and gas", Freitas said. "However, I think our government had no choice. We had no money ... I think that if [former Prime Minister Mari] Alkatiri hadn't signed that deal we'd still be dependent economically on the donors. Now we've got $1.3 billion in our development fund. If we didn't sign, how could we pay salaries to our police, our civil servants, our teachers, our doctors? Last fiscal year, our budget was $328 million and around 80% came from oil."
Freitas argued the funds were still inadequate for East Timor's development needs. "We've got $1.3 billion but the Australian government and the companies are getting more than that ... $1.3 billion is not enough to build our own oil refinery or our own LNG plant. An LNG plant costs $3-4 billion, a refinery $1-2 billion."
A current sticking point between East Timor and Australia is over where gas will be piped to from the Greater Sunrise gas field. "The pipeline should come to East Timor because Australia already has the pipeline from Bayan-Undong to Darwin", Freitas said. "We want to get the pipeline to Timor because that's going to create jobs ... Every year there are 6000 new unemployed ... It's not just direct jobs but also the indirect economic effect."
While the proposal for the pipeline to go to East Timor has been supported across the Timorese political spectrum, Freitas suggested that the military intervention has given Australia leverage over the current government. He stressed the partisan nature of the intervention: "When the Australian presence came last year, the burning of houses started. Always Fretilin [supporters] houses got burned and they arrest the people who are pro-Fretilin but not the people who are pro-Xanana. I heard them asking boys in my neighbourhood: Are you pro-Fretilin or pro-Xanana [Gusmao]?"
He said that this had left Xanana dangerously dependent on the Australian forces: "Canberra can say to our leaders: 'If you keep making demands about the pipeline we will withdraw our troops' and Xanana would be scared about that because he doesn't trust our own defence force."
He called for Australian solidarity activists to support East Timor's rights over its oil and gas and to campaign for scholarships not soldiers: "Cuba gives us 600 scholarships for our young sisters and brothers to study in medicine in Cuba but Australia gives just eight scholarships ... In 1999, the Australian troops were really welcome, but this time we don't want them.´´