Subject: Bangkok Post: Let tribunal draw boundary marker

Bangkok Post..

Let tribunal draw boundary marker

May 22, 2004 10:40pm Asia Intelligence Wire

East Timor celebrated its second anniversary as a nation on Thursday. The people voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 and the territory was under the administration of the United Nations until its independence in May of 2002. The UN still provides a peacekeeping force and otherwise plays a very active role in the affairs of the young nation.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the UN mandate to be extended for another year because of continuing instability, although the head of the peacekeeping effort said East Timor was advancing rapidly on the road toward self-sufficiency. Yet the newest nation in Asia is still the poorest and it is likely to remain so.

President Xanana Gusmao said two years ago at the official independence ceremony, to a gathering which included former US President Bill Clinton and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri: ``Our independence will have no value if all the peoples of East Timor continue to live in poverty and continue to suffer all kinds of difficulties.' One in three people dies before the age of 40 and more than half of all adults are illiterate.

At this year's ceremony, President Gusmao called for the international community to help in providing educational and vocational opportunities. In the long run this is the best path to self-sufficiency, but East Timor does have one resource which could help break the poverty cycle in the near term: There are vast oil and natural gas fields off the coast in the Timor Sea, between East Timor and Australia. The fields are mostly much closer to East Timor than Australia, and some say that a fair division of the fields according to international law would give the oil rights almost exclusively to East Timor.

President Gusmao said recently that Australia had snatched oil reserves which belong to his country. Australian High Commissioner Michael L'Estrange countered the charge, saying: ``The assertion that international law would lead to all of the petroleum resources within the relevant area going to East Timor is simply wrong. International law does not require maritime boundaries to be drawn along a median line.' He also pointed out that a recent settlement between the two countries gave 90 percent of the resource production of one large field to East Timor. There are, however, several other large fields which are still in dispute, and Australia is likely to earn much more than East Timor from the total reserves, the worth of which is now estimated at more than $30 billion.

Negotiations are underway between the two countries to establish a mutually agreeable permanent maritime boundary. But in the present atmosphere it seems unlikely that either side will be willing to yield much. Little progress has been made in the latest rounds of talks.

Australia was a staunch supporter in the struggle for independence in East Timor, has been a major contributor to the peacekeeping force, and has also contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in developmental aid to the new nation. Australia is a friend that East Timor does not want to lose. But it is to be expected that East Timoreans would do everything they can to secure the resources they feel are rightfully theirs, and which may be their only means to escape the crushing poverty on the island.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer recently advised East Timor to calm down and ``think about the bilateral relationship and make sure they negotiate with an eye to international law.' If international law is the issue, why not take the next logical step and avoid possibly acrimonious bilateral negotiations? Let the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea decide on where the proper boundary should be drawn.

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