Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A "Fair Go" for East Timor? Sharing the Resources of the Timor Sea

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A "Fair Go" for East Timor? Sharing the Resources of the Timor Sea

Article excerpt


On 16 November 2004 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the UN Mission in East Timor (UNMISET) for what was set to be a "final" six month period. This action was taken on the recommendation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who argued that East Timor had yet to achieve "a critical threshold of self-sufficiency" as a consequence of "weak and fragile" levels of public administration. (1) Subsequently, in March 2005, the Secretary-General argued that the "premature termination" of the UN mission could have a negative impact on East Timor's security and stability and therefore urged the Security Council to renew its mandate, albeit in a scaled-back form, for up to 12 months to 20 May 2006 (UN 2005, p. 16). Despite initial misgivings by some States, notably Australia and the United States, on 28 April 2005 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to authorize the establishment of a one-year follow-on "special political mission" in East Timor to 20 May 2006. (2)

The Security Council debate on the Secretary-General's report coincided with a fresh round of sensitive maritime boundary negotiations over the resource-rich Timor Sea lying between them in March 2005, following a breakdown in dialogue at the end of 2004. Given Australia's leading role in the 1999 intervention in East Timor, which facilitated independence in 2002, the close personal and political relationships that were forged as a result, and Australia's continuing and substantial development aid to its "new" neighbour, it might be thought that maritime boundary delimitation negotiations would be smooth. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case and the issue became the key point of contention between the two states. A breakthrough does now appear to have been achieved after further negotiations concluding in May 2005.

Dili's failure to resolve its dispute with Canberra put the development of the region's energy resources at risk, and with it, East Timor's access to badly needed revenues. At stake are oil and gas reserves with an estimated value of US$30bn (A$38bn) (3) and it is thus difficult to overstate the critical importance to East Timor of the successful conclusion of these negotiations--a "matter of life and death" for East Timor, according to Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri (Oxfam 2004). Articulating his fledgling country's fears, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao has gone on record to state that his country could not afford another protracted struggle, this time with Australia over oil revenues rather than Indonesia over independence, as there was a real danger that "we will end up being just one more failed state, one more country for whom independence proved to be just a dream" (Harding 2004).

The Challenges Facing East Timor

Following 24 years of Indonesian occupation and resistance that is estimated to have cost up to 250,000 lives, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in August 1999 (Oxfam 2004). (4) During the ensuing turmoil, which included an orchestrated campaign of violence and destruction on the part of pro-Indonesian and anti-independence armed militias, over 75 per cent of the population were displaced and an estimated 70 per cent of East Timor's physical infrastructure was damaged or destroyed (CIA 2005 and World Bank 2004). Indeed, economic production is estimated to have dropped by a staggering 49 per cent in 1999 (World Bank 2004). These events prompted intervention on the part of an Australian-led multinational military force, the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET), deployed under UN auspices from September 1999, which put an end to the conflict and established an interim international administration, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The UN progressively transferred government authority to East Timorese personnel and on 20 May 2002 East Timor gained its independence as the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. …

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