A "fair go" for East Timor? Sharing the resources of the Timor Sea.

AuthorSchofield, Clive


On 16 November 2004 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the UN Mission in East Timor (UNMISET) for what was set to be a "final" six month period. This action was taken on the recommendation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who argued that East Timor had yet to achieve "a critical threshold of self-sufficiency" as a consequence of "weak and fragile" levels of public administration. (1) Subsequently, in March 2005, the Secretary-General argued that the "premature termination" of the UN mission could have a negative impact on East Timor's security and stability and therefore urged the Security Council to renew its mandate, albeit in a scaled-back form, for up to 12 months to 20 May 2006 (UN 2005, p. 16). Despite initial misgivings by some States, notably Australia and the United States, on 28 April 2005 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to authorize the establishment of a one-year follow-on "special political mission" in East Timor to 20 May 2006. (2)

The Security Council debate on the Secretary-General's report coincided with a fresh round of sensitive maritime boundary negotiations over the resource-rich Timor Sea lying between them in March 2005, following a breakdown in dialogue at the end of 2004. Given Australia's leading role in the 1999 intervention in East Timor, which facilitated independence in 2002, the close personal and political relationships that were forged as a result, and Australia's continuing and substantial development aid to its "new" neighbour, it might be thought that maritime boundary delimitation negotiations would be smooth. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case and the issue became the key point of contention between the two states. A breakthrough does now appear to have been achieved after further negotiations concluding in May 2005.

Dili's failure to resolve its dispute with Canberra put the development of the region's energy resources at risk, and with it, East Timor's access to badly needed revenues. At stake are oil and gas reserves with an estimated value of US$30bn (A$38bn) (3) and it is thus difficult to overstate the critical importance to East Timor of the successful conclusion of these negotiations--a "matter of life and death" for East Timor, according to Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri (Oxfam 2004). Articulating his fledgling country's fears, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao has gone on record to state that his country could not afford another protracted struggle, this time with Australia over oil revenues rather than Indonesia over independence, as there was a real danger that "we will end up being just one more failed state, one more country for whom independence proved to be just a dream" (Harding 2004).

The Challenges Facing East Timor

Following 24 years of Indonesian occupation and resistance that is estimated to have cost up to 250,000 lives, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in August 1999 (Oxfam 2004). (4) During the ensuing turmoil, which included an orchestrated campaign of violence and destruction on the part of pro-Indonesian and anti-independence armed militias, over 75 per cent of the population were displaced and an estimated 70 per cent of East Timor's physical infrastructure was damaged or destroyed (CIA 2005 and World Bank 2004). Indeed, economic production is estimated to have dropped by a staggering 49 per cent in 1999 (World Bank 2004). These events prompted intervention on the part of an Australian-led multinational military force, the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET), deployed under UN auspices from September 1999, which put an end to the conflict and established an interim international administration, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The UN progressively transferred government authority to East Timorese personnel and on 20 May 2002 East Timor gained its independence as the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste.

Despite what Kofi Annan (United Nations 2005, p. 16) has hailed as the "truly remarkable" progress made by the Timorese people in building the world's newest state, coupled with substantial international development aid allied to laudably robust and prudent financial planning and management (for example, the Dili government maintains a "no borrowing" policy), East Timor nevertheless faces daunting challenges and remains heavily dependent on international aid (ADB 2004a; Oxfam 2004). Over 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, over half the population remain illiterate while over one in ten children die before they reach the age of five (Harding 2004; Oxfam 2004). The East Timorese economy contracted by around 3 per cent in 2003 (ADB 2004a) in large part as a consequence of the further scaling down in the international presence from a peak of around 9,000 peacekeeping troops and observers plus 1,600 police personnel in 2001 to UNMISET's contingent of around 600 civilian and military personnel. (5) The UN presence is set to be reduced still further as the emphasis shifts from peacekeeping to peacebuilding activities. As a result, East Timor is facing a major budget deficit of around US$30m over the next four years.

The economic downturn has also stemmed from crop damage resulting from a delayed rainy season in 2002 and then substantial flood damage in 2003 and the slow execution and winding down of reconstruction projects. The interrelated tasks of rebuilding infrastructure, institutions and meeting the needs of a rapidly growing population--where unemployment is running at least 20 per cent and up to 40 per cent in urban areas and among those aged between 15 and 24--remain intimidating (ADB 2004a).

Internally, dissatisfaction with the pace of economic change and widespread unemployment has led to disenchantment with standards of living. This manifested itself most clearly in the form of civil unrest in Dili in December 2002 when Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's house and two other houses belonging to his family were burnt down (Hordern 2003, pp. 3-4; Oxfam 2004).

The newly formed Timor-Leste Defence Force numbers 1,400 and is being trained with Australian and British assistance. These partners have also helped to establish the 200-strong National Police of Timor Leste, which has taken over all policing functions from the UN Police (ADB 2004a). Additionally, Malaysia is providing training and logistical support in the formation of a rapid-reaction unit (Ramos-Horta 2004). Thus, while the presence of UN forces has generally ensured internal and particularly external security for East Timor, it remains to be seen whether East Timor's untested forces will be able to effectively guarantee security in the face of the looming security vacuum which the scheduled departure of the UN mission represents.

This is of particular concern in light of incursions across the border from Indonesian west Timor on the part of former pro-Indonesian militia members, as experienced in January 2003 and reported in early 2005 (Hordern 2003, p. 3: United Nations 2005, p. 2). Indeed, in his February 2005 report, the UN Secretary-General observed that the current Tactical Coordination Line remains "porous" and subject to cross-border smuggling and reported illegal crossings by alleged ex-militia groups from west Timor (UN 2005, pp. 2-3).

Such incidents may escalate once the last UN troops leave or if the internal security situation in East Timor deteriorates, encouraging opportunistic cross-border attacks and a breakdown in law and order. This threat is exacerbated by the fact that, despite lengthy negotiations, no final agreement on the 125km boundary dividing the island has been reached, although a provisional accord was signed on the margins of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Jakarta on 30 June 2004. (6) Although the two sides signed a preliminary agreement on border demarcation on 8 April 2005 covering 96 per cent of the boundary line by length, the most contentious territorial disputes along the boundary have vet to be addressed. (7) An added complication in this context is the existence of East Timor's Oecnssi enclave on the north coast of west Timor. This physically separate enclave has a 100km boundary with Indonesia that surrounds Oecussi on three sides (Deeley 2001) (see map). (8)


Kofi Annan also highlighted the fact that as yet East Timor's Border Patrol Unit "lacks sufficient capacity to manage border affairs and interact with the Indonesian national army on its own" (UN 2005, p. 15). Similarly, whilst East Timor's Border Police Unit has reached its full strength of 300 personnel and is now responsible for all border crossings, its operations are "severely hampered" by shortages of communications and transport equipment (ibid., p. 9). The importance of border security was re-emphasized on 10 March 2005, when it was reported that the Australian authorities were investigating reports that four alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists may have slipped across the border from Indonesia into East Timor. (9)

The Secretary-General's report also noted the "strained" relationship between East Timor's own armed forces and national police, as shown when a group of 20 armed soldiers attacked a police station in Dill on 16 December 2004, injuring two police officers and damaging the building (UN 2005, p. 2). The police force "still lacks critical skills and proficiency", the Secretary-General's report continued, including in terms of investigation skills, forensics and logistics (ibid., p. 15). The police have, moreover, been subject to multiple reports of serious misconduct including "excessive use of force, assaults, negligent use of firearms and various human rights abuses", coupled with a lack of transparency in its investigations and poor accountability and professionalism (ibid., p. 9). Indeed, of 1,700 police officers put through the first phase of a skills development plan, only half came...

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