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Serambi»Opini»I Thought Australia Wanted to Help East Timor, Not Take Its Oil

I Thought Australia Wanted to Help East Timor, Not Take Its Oil
By Chip Henriss
Senin, 21 September 2015 22:56 WIB

Exactly 16 years after I joined the Australian mission in East Timor, I wonder whether our government's motive was pure, or if they were just eyeing off oil and gas fields. It's time for Malcolm Turnbull to right some wrongs, writes Chip Henriss.

Sixteen years ago on September 20, I was with the Australian Army's 3rd Brigade, the Townsville-based ready Deployment Force. We were some of the first soldiers to land in Dili, East Timor as part of the INTERFET mission.

We were sent in to restore peace in the wake of the Indonesian-led violence that engulfed the country following the historic ballot for independence.

Like the beginning of any mission, it was tense. There was a lot of apprehension about how things might unfold. But it was also an optimistic mission and my conviction that it was a just mission was rock solid. The Australian government had finally reversed a decades-long policy of callous disregard to the plight of the Timorese. This was Australia standing up and doing the right thing to help out our friends in the region.

It's not an overstatement to say I was profoundly proud of Australia's role at the time. It seemed to capture the notion of "a fair go" that my country so embraces.

In the years that followed however, I began to ask myself, was our government's motivation as pure as it would have us believe?

Were we in East Timor to selflessly end the bloodshed? Could it be that we were also eying off East Timor's vast oil and gas reserves?

East Timor's oil had long been Australia's weakness when it came to its unprincipled policies towards its small neighbour during the 1970s and '80s, but I had hoped the intervention was the beginning of a new chapter.

My doubts started growing in March 2002 - just two month's before East Timor would finally become an independent nation - when Australia withdrew its recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Why is Australia walking away from the independent umpire that helps settle disputes arising about maritime boundaries, I thought to myself. Unfortunately the answer became clear.

Through some very lopsided negotiations, in which the Australian government took a hard-nosed - some would call belligerent - approach, Australia managed to short-change East Timor out of billions of dollars of government revenue. It refused to set maritime boundaries with East Timor and instead cornered Timor into a series of dodgy "temporary resource sharing agreements".

I felt betrayed. It was as if we had stepped in to chase off a schoolyard bully, but were now stealing the victim's lunch money.

I didn't like it. I joined with other concerned Australians in a grassroots campaign calling for our government to give East Timor a fair go.

During the "Timor Sea Justice Campaign" in 2006, I had the honour of meeting a number of World War II veterans. They had fought the Japanese in East Timor and explained to me that none of their mates would have lived had it not been for the help they received from the local Timorese.

They too were angry by our government's betrayal and in television ads funded by businessman, Ian Melrose, the Diggers said they'd prefer if prime minister John Howard didn't attend their ANZAC day parade.

Even though permanent maritime boundaries still have not been established, I believe the campaign contributed to the fact that East Timor was eventually offered a larger share of the $40 billion Greater Sunrise gas field.

But even this has now been tarnished.

Two years back, an Australian whistleblower spy came forward alleging that Australia had bugged East Timor's cabinet room during the negotiations. As such, East Timor took steps to have that particular treaty nullified arguing that it was not signed in good faith. In response, ASIO raided the offices of the lawyers representing East Timor and seized the whistleblower's passport.

Sixteen years ago I thought INTERFET would have a great and lasting legacy in East Timor, but today I'm concerned the greed of successive Australian governments and big oil companies is slowly but surely eroding the goodwill that the Australian Defence Force soldiers I served with helped to create.

If the Australian government wants me to believe Australia went into East Timor to help them transition to independence - it needs to prove it.

It needs to finish the job that John Howard supposedly began. It needs to draw the line and set permanent maritime boundaries with East Timor so our neighbours can benefit from the natural resources that they are entitled to.

In situations such as this one, international law calls for a "median line" solution. This simply means drawing a line half way between the two coastlines. It's fair and simple.

If an oil or gas field is located closer to East Timor then it should belong to East Timor. The Timorese fought for 25 years for their independence. They don't want or need our charity, they simply want what is theirs by law.

I urge our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to resubmit Australia to the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and sit down with his Timorese counterpart and finish the job that we began in 1999 - draw the line.

Chip Henriss served as a commissioned officer in the Australian Regular Army and Army Reserve between 1991 and 2001. He is a member of the Timor Sea Justice Campaign which is on Twitter @TimorSeaJustice.


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