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War-weary East Timor knows no boundaries

Mari Alkatiri
Australian Financial Review 16 April 2003

As the world watched events unfold in the Middle East, we heard talk of the territorial integrity of the nation of Iraq. The Secretary-General of the United Nations identified one fundamental principle agreed by all Security Council members: "Iraq's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence." He also noted a second principle, flowing from the first, which included "the right of the Iraqi people to control their own resources".

Listening to the Secretary-General's words, many Australians will recall one recent, and apparently successful, exercise in post-conflict nation-building: East Timor (or, as it is now known, Timor-Leste).

As with the people of Iraq, the hopes of the Timorese people come in large part from petroleum resources. In the case of Timor-Leste, those resources lie in the Timor Sea north-west of Australia. Although those fields are not large by world standards - not nearly as big as those in Iraq - they would be enough to lift the people of Timor-Leste out of poverty.

Any Australians who have come here as soldiers, advisers or aid workers in the past three years can attest to the plight of the people of Timor-Leste: families living in burnt-out shells of houses, with inadequate water and nutrition and with little or no access to schools and hospitals.

For all the poverty, there is a real hope in the hearts of the Timorese people that our hard-won political independence will be matched by economic independence.

Sadly, however, that is not necessarily the case. Only recently independent, Timor-Leste has inherited no national boundaries of any sort, including maritime boundaries. For that reason, Timor-Leste must first agree on boundaries with its neighbours, Australia and Indonesia, before it can know where its resources, including petroleum, lie.

We are in the hands of our rich and powerful neighbours who can, if they wish, decide not to talk to us, and exploit the state of uncertainty.

Timor-Leste has already made great progress with Indonesia in plotting boundaries. But no progress has yet been made with Australia.

Timor-Leste, as an independent nation, is entitled to have boundaries. We are entitled, under international law, to know the extent of our national territory.

In advance of boundary agreements, there are stopgap measures. For instance, we can enter into temporary arrangements for the development of petroleum resources. The Timor Sea Treaty between Timor-Leste and Australia, which came into force two weeks ago, will unlock petroleum revenues in one part of the Timor Sea.

But, one thing is very clear: the treaty is not enough. It may reduce poverty in the short term; but it will not satisfy Timor-Leste's right to self-determination, because it does not identify permanent boundaries.

As members of the Security Council prepare to commit themselves to the territorial integrity of postwar Iraq, Australians may wish to remember that there is unfinished business in Timor-Leste - another poor, war-weary people who, through no fault of their own, have lost control of their resources.

Mari Alkatiri is the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (Lao Hamutuk)
Institutu Timor-Leste ba Analiza no Monitor ba Dezenvolvimentu
Rua D. Alberto Ricardo, Bebora, Dili, Timor-Leste
P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670-3321040 or +670-77234330
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