Timor-Leste: Some Good News Amidst The Uncertainties


Christine Mason

East Timor remains deeply troubled by militia both internally and externally from across the border with West Timor. There seems little doubt now that militia groups from West Timor have been making incursions into East Timor to destabilise the current government. Resulting deaths have led to a widespread fear amongst people in border regions, adding to the current climate of uncertainty. The United Nations has yet to set a time for the withdrawal of its forces, though it seems its continuing presence is reassuring. It is hoped that, with UN as well as Indonesian assistance, the militia incursions can soon be controlled.

On another level, dramatic developments have taken place and have achieved in a few days what was thought impossible over a few months - an agreement between Australia and East Timor on the Greater Sunrise project was signed on 6 March 2003. The oil and gas reserves are possibly the difference between a future of aid-reliant poverty for East Timor and one of steady economic development. The oil and gas reserves lie between Australia and East Timor, with disputes over territory part of the history of the reserves. The Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA), formerly known as the Timor Gap, was the subject of the new Timor Sea Treaty that Australia and East Timor signed in May 2002. The new arrangements provide that 90 per cent of the Bayu-Undan gas field goes to East Timor with the remaining 10 per cent to Australia. However, the Greater Sunrise field is only partially inside the JPDA. Under the United Nationís Law of the Sea, the field lay predominantly within East Timorís economic zone. However Australia, by contrast, recognises the boundary defined by Australia and Indonesia in 1972, placing Greater Sunrise largely within Australiaís borders. Australia refused to ratify the Timor Sea Treaty until March this year, jeopardizing outside investments and forcing East Timor to agree to accept 90 per cent of the revenues from just one-fifth of the Greater Sunrise field within the development area. Along with the inequitable division came high levels of disapproval from numerous sources. Various East Timorese non-government organisations and Australian political figures such as Senator Bob Brown were critical of the process. It was felt that Australia had intimidated East Timor at the negotiating table. This aside, it is important to note that with the agreements finally in place it seems that East Timor can now more concretely plan its future.

WATCHPOINT: A continued United Nations' presence; good relations with Indonesia; and assured oil and gas revenues are crucial in helping to solve some of the problems underlying the unrest in East Timor.


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