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South China Morning Post - 28 January, 2005.

EAST TIMOR - Ads over Timor oil row aim to shame Canberra

Australian millionaire says his country is stealing billions from the poorest nation


An Australian businessman has pledged A$6 million ($36.2 million) for an aggressive media campaign aimed at shaming Canberra over its controversial claim to East Timor's oil and gas reserves.
Ian Melrose is funding a series of newspaper and television advertisements highlighting what he believes is Australia's bullying of East Timor and its disregard for international law.

One of the ads was aired by two television channels this week during the Australian Open tennis tournament. The 30-second message accused the government of stealing A$2 billion in oil and gas revenue from East Timor, Asia's poorest country.

Australia and East Timor have been embroiled in a row over how to share the lucrative oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea, which separates the two countries.

Invoking the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, East Timor argues that the maritime boundary should be drawn midway between the two countries.

Australia claims a sea boundary based on its continental shelf, an area that reaches far into East Timor's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Mr Melrose, 52, who made his fortune from a chain of optometry stores, became interested in the issue after reading a newspaper article about a 12-year-old East Timorese girl who died a slow and painful death from worm infestation.

Better living conditions and funding for health care could have saved the child's life.

"She hadn't eaten for two days. The worms travelled up her oesophagus to her trachea, and she choked to death. After that I realised I couldn't just sit on the fence. I had to do something," he said.

Since then, he has visited East Timor to see for himself the dire poverty in which many people live.

Mr Melrose said he supported Prime Minister John Howard on many issues, but believed the treatment of East Timor was a stain on the government's record.

"If they got back the money that Australia is stealing from them they would be able to afford a proper health system," he said.

"What Australia is doing to East Timor is illegal, immoral and wrong. Every time John Howard goes to a big event, we'll be raising the Timor issue."

The next major event to be marked by Mr Melrose's campaign is the anniversary of Australia's decision to no longer submit to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on maritime boundaries.

That decision was made two months before East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in May 2002.

Mr Melrose will also enlist the help of his 81-year-old father, a veteran of the second world war, for a campaign message that will air on Anzac Day, April 25, when Australia commemorates its war dead.

"We risked our lives for a free and fair Australia," Mr Melrose's father will tell the camera.

"What we are doing to Timor is not fair."

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer dismissed the campaign as misinformed and a waste of money.

"Mr Melrose should be spending his money on aid projects if he wants to help East Timor, not wasting it on TV advertisements. His accusations are wide of the mark," he said.

Mr Downer's spokesman declined to outline the government's rationale for Australia's claim, but confirmed the International Court of Justice would have no part in determining where the maritime boundary lies.

In one small area of the Timor Sea in which an agreement had been reached, the split in oil and gas revenues was 90:10 in East Timor's favour, he said.

But Australian lobby group Timor Sea Justice Campaign accuses the government of continuing to exploit disputed oil and gas reserves while deliberately stalling talks on a permanent maritime boundary.

"The Australian government is receiving A$1 million a day in royalties from these areas," said Tom Clarke, the group's spokesman.

"It's sheer greed.

"East Timor is very fragile and the money is desperately needed. It's at a crossroads: either it's allowed to stand on its own two feet, or it becomes a failed state."