PHNOM PENH — Visiting Dili in late August to mark the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s blood-soaked vote for independence from Indonesia, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the opening of a “new chapter” in bilateral relations. “In a region where some boundary disputes remain unresolved,” Morrison said, in a seeming reference to the disputed South China Sea farther north, “Australia and Timor-Leste have set an example by sitting down, as neighbours, partners, and friends, to finalise a new maritime boundary.” Though Morrison followed up by announcing plans to help upgrade East Timor’s internet connectivity and its navy, his Timorese counterpart Taur Matan Ruak was less gushing. “Today will mark a new beginning, a new phase for both countries,” he said. The implication, of course, was that the previous two decades of the relationship had been less than amicable. While Australia stood by the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who defiantly voted for independence in the face of scorched-earth Indonesian-backed intimidation, sending 5,000 soldiers to the country shortly after the vote, it later stood accused of strong-arming its tiny and impoverished neighbour out of billions of dollars of vital oil and gas revenues – in part by refusing to delineate a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea until 2018.
DILI — When Joshua Kohn and Lea Mietzle set out backpacking around Southeast Asia, East Timor was not on their itinerary. But after visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and then parts of Indonesia, the two young Germans revised their plans to include the region’s newest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. “We became interested [in East Timor], it was really cool” said Kohn. During their 12 days in the country they took in some of the main landmarks: trekking up the highest peak, the near 3,000-meter-high Mount Ramelau, followed by a bone-rattling motorcycle ride eastwards to Jaco, a tiny uninhabited island. With secluded white sand beaches fronting turquoise seas and kaleidoscopic reefs — all offering lush diving — East Timor aims to triple annual visitor numbers to 200,000 by 2030, part of a plan to diversify an economy that depends oil and gas for almost all government revenue.
DILI — Voting took place today in East Timor to choose 65 members of parliament, who Timorese hope will form a stable administration after a year of political uncertainty and the quick collapse of a short-lived minority government. “The winner is already here in front you,” said Mari Alkatiri, leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review after voting shortly after 7 a.m. at a school near Dili’s picturesque waterfront. Alkatiri was prime minister of a short-lived government formed after the last election in July 2017. But his coalition held just 30 of the 65 parliamentary seats and its minority government soon fell, after the Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition coalition declined to support Fretilin’s program for government.
JAKARTA – East Timor will hold parliamentary elections for the second time in a year after President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres today dissolved the hung parliament that ensued after 2017’s inconclusive vote. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s Fretilin party narrowly won the most seats in last year’s elections, but Fretilin’s attempts at passing legislation and a budget have been stymied by the opposition camp. President Guterres’ announcement comes after Alkatiri alleged that the opposition — led by independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction — was trying to foment a coup last year. Guterres had the option of inviting Gusmao, himself a former president and prime minister, to try to form a replacement administration. The chance that Guterres, a Fretlin die-hard, would choose this route was always slim. “There is just no way they were ever going to hand over the government on a plate to Gusmao,” said James Scambary of Australian National University. “Lu Olo is Fretilin through and through and very loyal to Alkatiri, so he was not going to let that happen.”
SINGAPORE – East Timor, also called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, wants to delineate maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea with its neighbors Indonesia and Australia in a way that Dili believes could be worth up to $40 billion in oil and gas revenues. Frustrated at perceived stonewalling by Australia, the Timorese government initiated “compulsory conciliation” on April 11 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — a move that could lead to the establishment of a commission to report on the boundary issue to the U.N. Secretary General. That document could in turn be used as a basis for any future boundary negotiations. The dispute is becoming increasingly heated on both sides. In March, around 1,000 Timorese protested outside the Australian embassy in Dili at Canberra’s perceived intransigence.”The government and the people now consider that the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries is a national priority,” Timorese Prime Minister Rui de Araujo told a conference on the issue in Dili on May 19. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Nikkei Asian Review that “the Australian Government is disappointed that Timor-Leste has decided to initiate compulsory conciliation over maritime boundaries. Australia has repeatedly made clear to Timor-Leste our preference for a full and frank discussion of all issues in the bilateral relationship.” Citing a past agreement between the two countries to shelve the boundary issue, DFAT added that “both countries agreed to a moratorium on boundary negotiations to allow joint development of the resources. We also agreed not to pursue any proceedings relating to maritime boundaries — this includes compulsory conciliation.”
KAITEHU – “Two hours walk, it grows there,” Bendita Ramos said, pointing back over her shoulder and beyond her pink-painted 2 room house toward mist-shrouded hills behind. She was talking about bitter bean, a poisonous legume growing wild in the Timorese countryside. The bean needs arduous and careful preparation before it can be eaten as a supplement to a corn and rice-dominated diet. “We have to boil it 7 or 8 times, and change the water each time,” Ramos said.
DILI – Cornelio Gama, aka “Elle Sette” (L7), a former member of parliament in East Timor and leader of a murky clandestine group called Sagrada Familia, had just come home from a peacemaking mission at the University of Dili in the country’s capital. “There is a dispute between the rector and the students,” he says, “so I went there to try and resolve.” Peacemaker for a morning, Gama and his brother Paulino, better known as “Mauk Moruk,” are in fact at odds with the East Timor government, which they see as illegitimate.
DILI – Bendita Fraga, a 40-year-old housewife living on a farm near Dili, said that electrification had allowed her family access to new sources of clean groundwater. Pooling with neighbours, the farmers in the village bought an electric pump to extract water from a newly drilled 12-metre well. “With the pump, we can drink cleaner water and grow more crops with the extra water,” Fraga said. That would have been impossible before the government’s recent expansion of the power supply, which now covers around 60 per cent of the population.
DILI – Gusmao’s continuing presence in government means that new PM Araujo, who spent recent years as an adviser to various Timorese ministries, could find himself overshadowed. “That could be the impression from outside, but everybody in the government agrees with the concept of teamwork, and so far he [Gusmao] has been a very good team player,” Araujo said when asked if Gusmao’s presence in government might be a distraction.
DILI – East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, faces bleak economic prospects, amid predictions that the oil and gas that account for three-quarters of the country’s gross domestic product could run out in less than a decade. “We are aware of the risks and we working toward managing those risks,” Araujo said, discussing the vital but finite oil and gas reserves. The government has almost $17 billion saved in a petroleum fund, but estimates based on current spending and energy price forecasts suggest the fund will be depleted less than a decade after the last of the oil and gas has been extracted.