Subject: SCMP: E. Timor's Winds of Change

South China Morning Post April 23, 2004


Undersea Resources

Winds of Change for East Timor


Barely two years after achieving independence, East Timor is learning to navigate the stormy seas of new nationhood in more ways than one. Its population, the most destitute in Asia, continues to suffer the typical scourges of the desperately poor: widespread unemployment, illiteracy, high infant mortality and short life expectancy.

Compounding East Timor's plight is its make-or-break struggle with Australia for control of the vast oil and gas resources of the Timor Sea - a struggle which, at least until recently, seemed to favour the powerful neighbour. But as the two sat down this week for their first formal round of maritime boundary negotiations, the tide may be turning.

East Timor is eagerly anticipating revenues from Bayu-Undan, the large gas field in the Timor Sea that begins production this year. If managed properly, the funds will not only improve the lives of the East Timorese but also decrease the country's reliance on foreign - including Australian - aid, thus giving a small but significant boost to East Timor's bargaining leverage for the remaining riches of the Timor Sea. More importantly, East Timor's important friends around the world have, of late, been lending their voices in support of the new nation's push for permanent maritime boundaries - in a public, though polite, expression of outrage at a blatant moral injustice.

In March 2002, as the international community prepared to celebrate East Timor's formal independence two months later, Australia quietly withdrew from all mandatory dispute resolution procedures used to settle maritime boundaries. In the months that followed, Australia's lack of interest in settling a permanent boundary through negotiation also became evident. East Timor seemed doomed to endless rounds of fruitless talks.

But East Timor is gaining ground, if not yet sea. Early last month, 54 members of the US Congress wrote to Australian Prime Minister John Howard to urge his government to engage in good faith maritime boundary negotiations with East Timor. In light of close ties between Australia and the United States, the letter is sure to have made an impression in Canberra.

A few weeks later, The Age, a leading Australian newspaper, published an editorial that advocated "a fair deal for East Timor". It stated in no uncertain terms that Australia has a "moral obligation" to deal fairly with East Timor on the maritime boundary issue. And at its national conference in January, the opposition Australian Labor Party pledged that, if elected, it would negotiate in good faith with East Timor in full accordance with international law.

Clearly, this issue - as critical as it is for the entire nation of East Timor - cannot hope to resonate with anything more than a very narrow segment of the American and Australian electorates. However, the strength of the East Timorese and their supporters around the globe should not be underestimated. After all, there were few among us who, as late as the mid-1990s, could have predicted that this small, but resilient population would prevail in an even fiercer contest over an even larger neighbour.

Alisa Newman Hood served as a legal adviser to the prime minister of East Timor from 2002 until recently. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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