Green Left Weekly: Stop Stealing East Timor's oil
By Jon Lamb
A 30-second television advertisement screened on January 26 during the Australian Open tennis tournament has returned to the limelight the theft of East Timor's oil and gas resources by PM John Howard's Coalition government. At prime time and to a record number of viewers, the message was very clear: stop stealing East Timor's oil and gas wealth.
Businessman Ian Melrose's TV advertisement notes that "The Howard government has stolen $2 billion dollars in tax revenue from gas and oil royalties, which East Timor needs to create a working health system". In an advertisement printed in major newspapers on the same day, Melrose stated that this stolen revenue "is contaminating the Australian economy".
The newspaper ad accurately highlights the Australian government's refusal to abide by international law to settle the disputed maritime boundary: "By withdrawing from the relevant jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice two months before East Timor became a nation, John Howard's government prevented East Timor from taking the dispute over gas and oil to an independent arbitrator. Howard's government is denying the East Timorese their legal entitlements."
In an interview on ABC Radio on January 27, Melrose made his intention clear to keep this advertisement campaign, which he initiated prior to the federal election, running for some time. He said that during "'all those sorts of events where the government tries to gain glory, we will be advertising the poor conduct of the Australian government in relation to East Timor".
Predictably, the Howard government responded to the advertisements with misinformation and half-truths. According to an unnamed "senior Australian official close to the boundary negotiations", quoted in the January 28 Australian , only $15 million in royalties has been received by the Australian government, not $2 billion as stated by the ad. This, however, is the revenue only from within the area in the Timor Sea covered by the Joint Petroleum Development Authority. It does not include the revenue stolen from fields outside the JPDA that rightfully belong to East Timor.
Tomas Freitas, an activist and campaigner with the East Timorese non-government organisation La'o Hamutuk, told Green Left Weekly : "The problem here is that the Australian government won't even acknowledge that East Timor claims areas outside the JPDA, like Laminaria and Corallina. Australia pretends the whole dispute is about 10% of Bayu-Undan. It's not Australia's decision what fields are contested -- if East Timor claims them, and Australia also claims them, they're contested. This is a Goebbels-type big lie from Australia -- they keep saying it over and over again as if that makes it true."
La'o Hamutuk is part of the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea (MKOTT), an alliance of East Timorese organisations campaigning for East Timor's sovereign rights in the Timor Sea. Freitas said: "Our plan for this year is to focus our campaign in Australia; our target is the people of Australia. They have to know that their government is stealing our oil and gas from the Timor Sea.
"The issue is fundamentally the Australian people getting their own government to follow international law. In a sense, it's the East Timorese activists like MKOTT who are in solidarity with the Australians, not the other way around. The Australian people should take the primary responsibility for this effort, as it's their government that's wrong."
The Howard government is taking steps to re-start the negotiations on the Greater Sunrise gas field that broke down late last year. Australian negotiators tried to induce the Timorese government to accept a once-off payment of $3 to $4 billion, about half of what East Timor is rightfully entitled to.
According to Freitas, "The negotiations broke down because Australia wants to pay East Timor a little money and have East Timor give up its claims to the resources. But East Timor wants not only money (and more than the most recent Australian offer) but also control over how the oil and gas is developed. Australia refused to even discuss that."
Along with the diplomatic bullying and intimidating tactics applied in 2004, we can also expect that the government will attempt to keep the public's attention away from the plight of the mass of impoverished East Timorese who are trying to survive on less than US$1 a day.
The dire economic and social conditions that most East Timorese people face are no better reflected than in the area of health care, as Melrose's advertising campaign highlights. The majority of the population live in rural villages, often isolated and far from medical facilities or hospitals. There are impassable roads during the wet season, electricity is scant and telecommunications are next to non-existent. Curable and preventable diseases are life threatening for most in these circumstances.
Despite the best efforts of local medical staff, international volunteers and aid workers, there are simply insufficient resources to provide adequate health care to meet the needs of most East Timorese. The most recent World Bank and United Nations Development Program health statistics for children are a sobering reminder of the situation at present in East Timor:
* Around one in 10 babies die before the age of one.
* 12 in every 100 children die before reaching the age of five.
* The probability at birth of not reaching the age of 40 is 33%.
* Only 24% of births are attended by a skilled health professional.
* 42% of children under five are malnourished.
East Timor is currently suffering an outbreak of a deadly strain of dengue fever. At least 10 people died in Dili during January and a further 84 were hospitalised, many of them suffering painful symptoms including internal haemorrhaging. Such an occurrence is unimaginable in Australia today. The city of Darwin (around 700 kilometres away from Dili) has not reported any cases of dengue since the 1950s.
These horrendous conditions could be alleviated if East Timor is allowed to gain full sovereignty over its resources in the Timor Sea and direct the income from this towards developing its infrastructure.
"We have been discussing these issues with our government. The new regime laws were passed by the council of ministers in December, and during this week the draft law will be going to the parliament to debate. La'o Hamutuk wrote a submission about that, and another about the plans for managing the petroleum revenues", said Freitas.
Freitas and other human-rights and solidarity campaigners in East Timor are wary about the impact of dependence on these resources. "The pattern of every oil-producing country around the world that wasn't rich before they started producing oil is that the oil does not benefit the people of the country -- but only helps international oil companies, people in rich, oil-consuming nations, and sometimes a few corrupt leaders", Freitas explained.
"If East Timor is to avoid this 'resource curse', strong measures need to be taken, especially since our government and civil servants are inexperienced and our people have experienced much corruption during the Indonesian occupation. East Timor needs laws that protect the interests of future generations against oil companies and others who don't put our people's and communities' interests first."
From Green Left Weekly, February 9, 2005.