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How Australia Cheated Timor-Leste

July 21, 2020

The Timor Sea between north-west Australia and Timor-Leste is rich in oil and gas. How has Australia been able to claim the lion’s share of these riches?

Oil Under Troubled Water is a readable history stretching from the Second World War to the present. The author is lawyer Bernard Collaery. He and his client, Witness K, face a secret trial, charged with breaches of Australia’s intelligence act. They are accused of revealing that Australia spied on Timor-Leste officials’ private discussions during maritime boundary negotiations.

Collaery is not allowed to talk about the case, so the spying allegations are not included in his book. But everything else is – the many crimes that Australia has committed against Timor-Leste over the past 80 years.

In international law, the maritime boundary between two countries is the median line, equidistant between the two coasts, unless there are “special circumstances”. For sixty years, Australia has claimed special circumstances to argue for a boundary much closer to Timor than Australia. This argument is based on an illegal claim to the whole of its continental shelf, and a geologically incorrect claim that two shelves face each other over the Timor Trough, which is close the Timor coast.

Map of the Timor Sea (Public Domain, USA CIA)

This fraud was devised when Garfield Barwick was Foreign Minister in the Coalition government in the sixties. Barwick was well connected to mineral and petroleum prospecting boardrooms. Collaery writes: “Barwick knew the potential of the Timor Sea. The prospect of Australia solving its reliance on petroleum imports was a far more strategically important issue than self-determination for the peoples of Portuguese Timor. No foreign policy was developed other than to secure for Australian and foreign companies the riches of the Timorese sea-bed.” Barwick rejected an American offer to support a 10-year staged self-determination development program for Portuguese Timor.

Both Coalition and Labor governments ignored the Timorese people’s wishes for self-determination, and argued that East Timor should be incorporated into Indonesia because it was unviable. This ignored oil revenue, if Australia didn’t steal it.

In1972, Australia negotiated a boundary line with Indonesia that was well north of the median line. Indonesia was unaware of the petroleum potential. Perhaps the main reason for wanting Indonesia to take over Timor was to negotiate another favourable deal for the Timor Gap, the sea south of the East Timor coast.

In 1974, Gough Whitlam met with President Suharto and expressed “deliberately ambiguous views” which allowed Suharto to believe he had Australian approval for a takeover of Timor. Whitlam had turned his back on Timor’s social democrats and collaborated with unprovoked aggression and war crimes, including the murder of five Australian journalists at Balibo

In 1989, Indonesia and Australia signed the Timor Gap Treaty, establishing a zone of cooperation in the Timor Gap. The Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, and his counterpart, Ali Alatas, were photographed sipping champagne in an aircraft circling over the Timor Sea.

Collaery covers in detail the subsequent history: the Santa Cruz Massacre, the UN-supervised ballot, in which 78% voted for independence from Indonesia, and the massacres by militias which had been armed by the Indonesian military. Australia finally agreed to lead an international peace-keeping intervention, after prompting from Bill Clinton. Amidst the burnt-out remains of Timor-Leste, Australia began manipulating the situation to put FRETILIN in control of the first Timorese government, sidelining the party of Timor’s resistance hero Xanana Gusmao. Why did a conservative Australian government put the undemocratic Marxist-Leninist FRETILIN in power? Because they were more likely to agree to favourable terms for Australia when renegotiating the maritime boundary.

And on top of that, it is alleged that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service was directed to install devices to enable Australian officials to listen to the private conversations of the Timorese negotiators.

And that’s not all. Australia concealed from FRETILIN the presence of billions of dollars’ worth of helium that would be produced as a by-product of processing the gas. Helium is an inert gas increasingly required in the defence, nuclear, electronic and hi-tech medical industries. Two words, ‘and inerts’, were removed from the Production Sharing Contracts.

This deception and impoverishment of Timor-Leste benefitted not Australia but private corporations, especially Woodside Petroleum. Australia gave the gas away. The lead negotiator was Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who accepted a consultant’s retainer for Woodside shortly after his retirement from parliament.

How can Australia expect any respect if this is how we treat one of the world’s poorest nations?

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