Drawing a line in the sea
This week [w/end 3 sept] the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague started hearing a dispute between Australia and Timor Leste. At issue is the little nation’s claim that boundaries marking huge undersea oil and gas reserves worth $40 billion should be redrawn. Duncan Graham reports:
Had Xanana Gusmao (above) ) been a lesser man his vengeance could have kept the havoc alive.
In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor and absorbed the former Portuguese colony into its republic.
Gusmao was a leader in the socialist Fretilin Party and dubbed a communist. A prime target for the army, he was tracked through the mountainside jungles and harassed relentlessly.
He was captured in 1992 and convicted in a Jakarta court of attempting to split Indonesia’s ‘Unitary State’. The sentence was life imprisonment, later commuted to 20 years.
He was released after the 1999 UN-supervised referendum when his compatriots voted four-to-one to sever ties with their overlords. He became founding president, and later the fourth prime minister of the re-named Republic of Timor Leste, population now 1.2 million – just half of one per cent of Indonesia’s citizenry.
When Gusmao took over what he calls his “fragile and underdeveloped country” he inherited a landscape of mass destruction caused by the retreating Indonesian army; the TNI and its militias killed an estimated 1,200 Timorese and trashed homes, farms and infrastructure with their scorched-earth policy.
According to Timor Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation there were102, 800 ‘conflict-related deaths’ during the 25-year Indonesian rule, with most caused by starvation.
Had Gusmao initiated retaliatory guerrilla action against Indonesia’s West Timor, where many anti-independence supporters had fled, the condemnation would have been widespread, though maybe a mite muted. Headshaking in public, but nods in private.
Instead Southeast Asia’s Nelson Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – a stand unpopular with some of his former colleagues. In 2008 Gusmao and his family survived an assassination attempt. Now 70, he resigned as PM last year and is exercising his elder-statesman status to follow British PM Winston Churchill’s advice that ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’.
This month [sep] Gusmao will be in the Central African Republic to help “consolidate peace in that rich but spoiled country.” He’s twice taken part in the Seoul-based World Summit on Peace, Security and Human Development.
His conciliation work includes speaking (in Indonesian) with his giant neighbour which treated Gusmao and his countryfolk with utmost brutality. He talks about “an excellent relationship of friendship and cooperation”.
Strangely his discontent is now with Australia, the lead peace-keeping force during the post-referendum fighting and major aid donor since.
According to Gusmao, Timor Leste does not have an established maritime boundary between Indonesia and Australia.
He told the annual Malang International Peace Conference last month [aug] at the Raden Rahmat Islamic University in East Java that while Indonesia has agreed to start talking about the issue, Australia is “refusing to negotiate.”
“The Australian government has taken this course of action knowing it is acting contrary to international law,” he said. “But at the same time Australia urges other countries to settle their territorial disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”
The dispute is now being aired at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Its genesis came when independence was but a glint in the eyes of Gusmao and his rebel fighters. For Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans and his Indonesian counterpart the late Ali Alatas, the idea was a fantasy.
In 1989 they signed the 120-page Timor Gap Treaty while flying above the sea clinking glasses of bubbly. The agreement gave Australia prime access to the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, and the Soeharto dictatorship more aid.
Years later the freshly independent Timor Leste complained the boundaries were unfair and should be renegotiated.
The tiny state argued that the border should be halfway between itself and its big southern neighbour; this would provide access to around 90 per cent of the undersea wealth, estimated at US$40 billion.
Timor Leste is addicted to oil and gas revenues. It exports high quality coffee, but has few other earners.
In 2006 a new treaty was signed. This didn’t set a border, but equally divided revenue from Greater Sunrise. The Timorese reckon this is just a temporary arrangement, and earlier this year asked the UN to start a formal conciliation process run by an independent panel of experts.
Australia was not about to toast this idea. A statement attributed to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the existing treaty was “fair and consistent with international law,
“These treaties have benefited both our countries and enabled Timor-Leste to accumulate a Petroleum Fund worth more than $16 billion,” she said.
“Timor-Leste’s decision to initiate compulsory conciliation contravenes prior agreements between our countries not to pursue proceedings relating to maritime boundaries.”
The low tide in relations between neighbours once the best of friends has retreated further. Allegations surfaced that Australian agents had bugged East Timorese negotiators talking tactics in their private government office.
Unsurprisingly citizens saw betrayal. Last century’s cries of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ have been replaced by the equally emotive ‘sovereign rights’. A protest in the capital Dili this year drew thousands demanding Australia negotiate.
In East Java Gusmao said his people had fought for their land and now had to fight for their sea. He denied his comments were “inciting people to be even more resentful against the powerful of the world … that is not and never will be my intent.
“Australia knows the current resource sharing arrangements in the Timor Sea deprive Timor Leste of its sovereign rights. Still it prefers to bully us.
“(We) do not expect special treatment, only equal treatment… we hope to engage in open, transparent and friendly dialogues in search of a joint solution.”
Australia’s unspoken concern is that revisiting the treaty might encourage Indonesia to follow Timor Leste’s example. Further redrawing of the borders could create even higher waves in the seldom calm relationship.
(Disclosure. The author was the Malang Peace Conference reviewer.)
First published in Strategic Review - 1 September 2016)