Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre Uniya
About Us
- -

It's not over till the pipeline purrs:
The “resource curse” and other challenges for Timor-Leste

Dr Mark Byrne*

24 June 2005

One of the main problems confronting supporters of the new nation of Timor-Leste (East Timor) is that it is no longer a major news story. The Indonesians have left, independence has been won, and now UNTAET (the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor) has also pulled out, leaving the world’s newest nation largely in the hands of its own people. However, it was clear at the two day conference “Cooperating with Timor-Leste,” held in Melbourne on June 16 and 17, that the East Timorese people still have strong support in Australia, not only from community advocates but also from all levels of government as well as universities and aid agencies. Many of these people and organizations have campaigned tirelessly for Timor-Leste since the dark days of Indonesian occupation.

What is needed now is support for Timor-Leste’s nation building — or rebuilding, since seventy percent of infrastructure was destroyed by Indonesian Army-sponsored militias in 1999. This is a nation of nearly a million people with an average annual income of AUS$1.50 per day, where the average life expectancy is in the high fifties and where every second child is malnourished. It has perhaps the highest rate of population growth in the world, but an annual budget roughly equivalent to that of two large municipal councils in Australia.

Other issues receiving significant attention at the conference from both Australian and Timorese speakers included the absence of many basic primary health care facilities; the need for family planning; the urgent need to build transport and communications infrastructure; and the need to tackle domestic violence and safeguard women’s rights. Food security and agricultural development are also crucial for a country where, during the dry season, much of the population eats only one meal a day. Of great importance too are education and the problems of literacy and language learning. (Portuguese, the official language, is spoken by only five percent of the population, and Tetum, the national lingua franca, by roughly half.) Other areas which received significant attention were economic management and governance; eco- and other forms of tourism; and the need to develop a legal system from nothing.

Timor-Leste is a focus of Uniya’s regional relations project, which examines human rights and social justice challenges in our region and Australia’s foreign policy responses to these challenges. Two issues discussed at the conference of particular concern to Uniya are the Timor Sea oil and gas negotiations and transitional justice. [1]

Timor Sea

In one of the first addresses to the conference, the ANU’s Jenny Drysdale talked about Timor-Leste’s Petroleum Development Fund, legislation to enable which is being introduced to Parliament this week. The proper management of this fund, which will be based on investing revenue from the Bayu Undan gas field in the Timor Sea, will ensure that Timor-Leste will have a steady income from this source even after the field is exhausted. Ms Drysdale emphasised the difficulty for developing countries of relying on a single resource to fund its economic prosperity. She identified Nigeria and Nauru as examples of nations which had fallen into the “resource curse,” failing to secure their economies using the income from oil and phosphate, respectively, before the resources ran out.

The Government of Timor-Leste is to be congratulated for the efforts it is making to ensure that it does not go down this path. However, the Bayu Undan field will be exhausted by about 2020, and without revenue from Greater Sunrise, earnings from the Petroleum Fund are unlikely to increase thereafter. The earliest that oil and gas could flow from Greater Sunrise is 2010. With a life expectancy of about thirty years, it may be in Timor-Leste’s best interests for this field not to be developed as soon as possible.

This argument is bolstered by rising gas and oil prices — a trend that is likely to continue as the world’s consumption of fossil fuels increases. The longer Timor-Leste waits, the more it is likely to earn from Greater Sunrise. This long-term view places Timor-Leste in a strong negotiating position. Perhaps this is why it has now apparently secured a 50:50 split of royalties rather than the previously offered 82:18 split in favour of Australia. It may also be the reason why latest reports suggest that the final deal will not involve Timor-Leste shelving for fifty years (as previously demanded by Australia) its claim for a permanent maritime boundary between the two nations. Timor-Leste’s claim would place most of the Greater Sunrise field in its territorial waters. [2]

These issues were also discussed at one of more lively workshops at the conference. It was an unscheduled event on the final afternoon and was addressed by Ian Melrose, the Queensland businessman behind the recent television advertisements calling for a “fair go” for East Timor. As well as discussing the negotiations, Mr Melrose asked for feedback on his idea for the next advertisement. He received a spirited response and some alternative ideas.

Transitional justice

The conference’s Law and Justice panel discussed two main issues. One was the problems besetting the emergence of a competent, independent and properly resourced judiciary in Timor-Leste. The other was the various initiatives that have taken place since 1999 to achieve justice for the crimes committed both during the period of Indonesian occupation, when an estimated 200,000 East Timorese were killed, and before and after the vote on August 30, 1999 that led to independence.

The most successful of the transitional justice processes to date has been the recently completed Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (known as CAVR, its Portuguese acronym.) It was intended to help reconcile perpetrators of minor crimes with their local communities. It was a success because it had widespread public involvement, and “more than 1400 cases involving ‘less serious crimes’ committed in the context of past political conflicts between 1974 and 1999” [3] were resolved through the community reconciliation process. The success was qualified because it favoured the need for community reconciliation (often involving community service, and sometimes involving customary law) over the need of individual victims for retributive justice — that is, for perpetrators to pay for their crimes. [4]

The Serious Crimes process was intended to deal with crimes such as rape and murder. 391 people were charged with murder and 327 warrants were issued (including one for former Indonesian presidential candidate and armed forces chief General Wiranto). However, this process failed to achieve justice because “Indonesia refused to accept the jurisdiction of the SCU, and no Indonesian suspects were ever handed over to face justice.” [5] Just as importantly, many East Timorese were unaware of the process, which was not regarded as having community ownership or legitimacy. The UN recently disbanded the Serious Crimes Unit.

Speakers on the conference’s law and justice panel agreed that achieving real justice will depend on the creation of an international war crimes tribunal. The government of Timor-Leste, however, recently announced the formation of a Commission of Truth and Friendship with Indonesia. As the name suggests, instead of achieving justice, the TFC will recommend the granting of a full amnesty to those who "cooperate fully in revealing the truth." [6]

The Timor-Leste government can hardly be blamed for its pragmatic approach, given its geographic and historical relationship with Indonesia. Cynicism about the chances of achieving justice is also well founded given the dubious integrity and achievements of the ad hoc human rights court set up by Jakarta. The court acquitted all but one official implicated in the violence with Indonesia and failed “to act on arrest warrants against more than 300 others who sought sanctuary in Indonesia.” [7]

However, there are signs of hope. For instance, the Australian aid agency AUSTCARE has initiated a community peace-building program in two districts. At the other end of the justice spectrum, this week the UN Security Council will debate the report of a Commission of Experts appointed by the Secretary-General which recently visited Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The report will recommend what future action needs to be taken to ensure justice for East Timorese victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to one source, the report is scathing about the Jakarta trials, and recommends that “Indonesia be given six months to prepare credible trials. If it does not comply, the experts argue, the UN should invoke its charter to set up an international war crimes court for East Timor.” [8]


The strongest impression I gained over three days of conference talks (the first day was a research symposium to mark the establishment of the East Timor Studies Association of Australia) was of the resilience of the East Timorese people in the face of past and present challenges, and the depth of the commitment on both sides to work for the betterment of the lives of nearly a million people living in a nation closer to Australia than is New Zealand. Australia’s commitment is partly the result of the debt that many Australians still feel from our occupation of the island — then neutral territory, as a Portuguese colony — during World War Two, and the subsequent killing of some thirty thousand Timorese by Japanese soldiers in retaliation for their support for Australian troops. It also reflects a genuine desire to work for the human rights and social justice of our near neighbours who have never, until now, been in control of their own destiny.

For their part, the people of Timor-Leste have no desire to become an Australian colony, and have good reason to doubt the motives of the Australian government, given our complicity in the Indonesian occupation from 1975 and our apparent hunger for the Timor Sea’s resources. However, the relationship has risen above such impediments and now has a strength rooted not only in common strategic and commercial interests but in the friendship and love of people who are working together for common goals.


1. Transitional justice can be defined as the pursuit of “accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse… in societies emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict.” From the website of the International Center for Transitional Justice (www.ictj.org, accessed June 21 2005).
2. Timor Sea Justice Campaign News Update, 21 June 2005 (www.timorseajustice.org/news.htm, accessed June 22 2005).
3. Lia Kent, “Unfulfilled Expectations: Community Views on CAVR’s Community Reconciliation Process”, Judicial System Monitoring Programme, August 2004, 4 (www.jsmp.minihub.org/new/otherreports.htm , accessed June 24 2005).
4. See the Justice System Monitoring Program (www.jsmp.minihub.org) and CAVR (www.easttimor-reconciliation.org) websites for more details.
5. Mark Dodd, “East Timorese Still at Risk, UN Warned”, The Australian, May 30 2005 (www.jsmp.minihub.org/News/0505_Dnews/30may05_TA_ET%20still_eng.htm, accessed June 21 2005)
6. Australian Associated Press, “E Timor to exonerate war suspects” (www.etan.org/et2005/march/06/09et2exon.htm, accessed June 21 2005).
7. Australian Associated Press, “E Timor to exonerate war suspects” (www.etan.org/et2005/march/06/09et2exon.htm, accessed June 21 2005).
8. Jil Joliffe, “Jakarta’s Timor trials a ‘sham’, Sunday Age, June 19 2005 (http://theage.com.au/articles/2005/06/18/1119034101665.html ).

Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney. Thanks to Suganthi Singarayar, Nina Reimer, Minh Nguyen and Sr Libby Rogerson, who edited earlier versions of this article.

 print this page