How Australia steals East Timor's oil

Saturday, February 1, 2014
Protesters in Dili demand the maritme border between Australia and East Timor be set half way between the land borders. This would give East Timor, the region's poorest nation, a far greater share of the sea's resources.

East Timor has taken Australia to an international court in an effort to take control over large oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

But this isn't the only time the Timorese have come up against Australia ― which has sought to impose its interests on the former Portuguese colony in recent decades.

The Portuguese had a presence in Timor from 1509, trading sandalwood, converting Timorese to Catholicism and fighting against the Dutch for control. In 1859, the Treaty of Lisbon finally stopped the colonial conflict, dividing the island into the Dutch western half and Portuguese east.

The Portuguese were cruel and exploitative, ruling the island through local chiefs. Sandalwood and coffee were the main exports; otherwise, they mostly neglected the colony, using it as a dumping ground for criminals.

In the 1930s, East Timor began to attract the attention of competing imperialist powers. Japan, with plans to expand across Asia and the Pacific, needed access to oil for its war machine. The East Indies had plenty and Japan saw the Portuguese colony as an access point into the otherwise Dutch region.

Australia and the British noticed Japan investing in East Timor's resource companies. To gain influence over Portuguese administrators, Australia offered to provide a Qantas airline service to Dili.

When the Pacific war began in 1941 and Japanese forces swept across Asia, fear grew in Australia that the Japanese would invade East Timor and use it as a base to attack the surrounding Dutch holdings, and then Australia.

But as Tom O'Lincoln explains in 2011's Australia's Pacific War, the Japanese never intended to invade East Timor. Instead, they and their German allies hoped to keep Portugal neutral and out of the war.

Nevertheless in December 1941, Australian and Dutch troops invaded the Portuguese colony first. One Australian soldier, Archie Campbell, wrote: “Our single claim to fame and glory is that we shall go down in history as the first troops of Great Britain or Australia to violate another country's neutrality in the war.”

Former diplomat James Dunn wrote that as a consequence of the Allied invasion, East Timor became one of the great catastrophes of the war in terms of casualties relative to population. The ensuing conflict and occupation would claim the lives of up to 50,000 Timorese, or one in ten people.

Much has been made of the good relations between the East Timorese and Australia's Sparrow Force. The truth, however, is many Timorese were anti-European and joined the Japanese side when their offensive made gains.

Australian soldier Jim Landman told how Sparrow Force killed uncooperative local people and used women as commodities. Alfredo Pires, son of a Portuguese official, recounted how the Japanese would torture for information, but then let you live, whereas if the Australians suspected you, you were dead.

When the Allies were forced to retreat, those Timorese who had fought alongside them were left to the mercy of the Japanese.

After the war, Portugal regained control of East Timor. In 1972, Australia claimed nearly 80% of a maritime area that Indonesia also laid claim to. Australia, however, failed to secure an agreement with Portugal.

The 1974 Portuguese revolution created an opportunity for East Timor to declare independence the next year. The left-wing Fretilin party, which lead the independent government, was a source of concern for Indonesia and Australia, who feared a “Cuba” on their doorstep.

Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, wrote in an August 1975 diplomatic cable that Australia would get a much better agreement over oil in the Timor Sea with an Indonesian-controlled East Timor. He wrote that a treaty favourable to Australian interests “could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia by closing the present gap than with Portugal or an independent Portuguese Timor.”

Then-prime minister Gough Whitlam let Indonesian dictator Suharto know that his government would back Indonesian annexation of East Timor by saying the half-island was “in many ways part of [the] Indonesian world”.

With tacit Australian support, Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975. Hundreds of thousands of Timorese were killed during Indonesia's occupation, in a country with apopilatuon that now sits at just over 1.1 million.

Australia's interest was in negotiating a favourable maritime boundary that would allow Australian corporations to exploit the profitable resources in the Timor Sea. Australia was the only nation to officially recognise Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.

In 1991, Australia and Indonesia signed the Timor Gap treaty. It gave the two nations spoils from gas and oil extraction among themselves exclusively. The treaty was illegal under international law because, as an occupying force, Indonesia had no right to negotiate a treaty relating to East Timorese territory or resources.

Portugal challenged the treaty in the International Court of Justice. Australia defeated the challenge in 1995 on a procedural technicality caused by Indonesia's failure to show up.

With East Timor's independence struggle connecting with a growing international solidarity movement, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia opened the way for a 1999 referendum on self-determination. Despite Indonesian forces using terror to intimidate voters, East Timor's people voted overwhelmingly for independence.

In the aftermath of the vote, Indonesian-backed militias carried out a wave of terror that sparked international revulsion. With protests growing across Australia demanding action against Indonesia's mass killings, the then-John Howard government finally sent Australian soldiers to head a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

Timorese independence annulled the illegal Timor Gap treaty. Australia responded by lodging a reservation to the jurisdiction of the ICJ and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This meant East Timor could not sue Australia over the disputed zone since Australia does not recognise the international bodies jurisdiction.

Then Australia and East Timor signed a new treaty over the Timor Sea, whereby Australia would get control of 82% of resources and East Timor 18%. The Greater Sunrise field, controlled by Australian corporation Woodside, is the largest in the zone. It contains up to $50 billion worth of oil and gas.

East Timorese pressure eventually resulted in a treaty signed in 2006 leading to a 50/50 split in revenue. Although more generous than previous arrangements, East Timor still has a legitimate claim under international law to have the border drawn halfway between the two nations. This would place the vast majority of oil and gas on East Timor's side.

This is a struggle between the poorest nation in the region ― more than a third of whose people live below the poverty line ― and a powerful corporation backed by the Australian government. Revelations about Australian government spying on East Timor ― under the cover of an aid program ― reveals Australia's violations of Timorese sovereignty in a bid to control its resources is still going on today.

If East Timor wins its challenge, it could secure access to the resources it so badly needs to overcome the devastation wrought on it by foreign powers.


From GLW issue 995