East Timor: ‘Australia Spied on Us for Oil Secrets’

[The original version of this post in Portuguese was published on December 28, 2013]

Battle began this week in a case at the International Court of Justice at The Hague pitting East Timor against Australia, with the former accusing the latter of spying and interfering with Timorese natural resources and sovereignty.

Graffiti Stencil by Alfe Tutuala shared on Wikimedia (public domain)

Graffiti stencil by Alfe Tutuala shared on Wikimedia (public domain)

At stake is the accusation of Australia's illicit access to confidential information about oil and gas in the Timor Sea, which may have hampered the Timorese during their negotiations of the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) with Australia in 2004.

On December 17, 2013, East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, filed an international lawsuit against Australia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, the highest court of the United Nations. East Timor requested the return of documents seized in a raid earlier in December of the office of an attorney who represents Timor-Leste in the dispute over the treaty and accused Australia of violating the country's sovereignty.

“A luta kontinua”

In the month of December 2013, a wave of protests set the agenda in the streets of capital city Dili and on Timorese social networks.

The Movimentu Kontra Okupasaun Tasi Timor (Movement against the occupation of the Timor Sea) and NGO La’o Hamutuk, a well-known advocate of the rights of East Timor, have mobilized dozens of Timorese, mostly young people, to protest for the sovereignty rights of the country.

The motto “a luta kontinua” (the struggle continues), which was widely used during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation until the independence of the country after the referendum of 1999, was also the closing remark of a press release [PDF] that circulated in early December calling the government of Australia to:

1. Stop stealing and occupying the Timor Sea, but show your good will as a large nation which
follows democratic prniciples to accept a maritime boundary which follows international law
2. Australia should set an example as a sovereign nation which respects and recognizes the
rights of Timor-Leste’s people.
3. Australia should not promote or continue neocolonialism against Timor-Leste’s people, who
have suffered this for centuries. We will no longer be your slaves.
4. The Abbott government should apologize to the Maubere people, who have been hugely
discriminated against by Australia from the past to the present. If not, we will continue to
demonstrate at the Australian Embassy for the indefinite future.

Photo from a demonstration in front of Australia's embassy in Dili, December 20, 2013. By Veronica Fernandes on Facebook (used with permission)

Photo from a demonstration in front of Australia's embassy in Dili on December 20, 2013. By Veronica Fernandes on Facebook (used with permission)

On December 20, 2013, one more demonstration took place in front of the Australian embassy in Dili, in which several members of East Timor's national parliament participated [pt] in solidarity with the Timorese people. 

The first demonstrations in the beginning of December followed news reports from the Australian media claiming that spy agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) raided the office of the lawyer that defends the Timorese government in the international arbitration proceedings in The Hague.

During the raid, documentary and electronic evidence that the lawyer would have presented at the first hearing were seized.

On the same day, ASIO seized the passport of an alleged Australian whistleblower, a former employee of the ASIS (Australian Secret Service) involved in intelligence activities in East Timor, who would be willing to testify in court about the installation of recording devices in the offices of the Timorese prime minister during treaty negotiations. This former spy for the Australian government, whose identity was not revealed, was the key witness for East Timor in court. The Australian action aimed to prevent his travel to the Netherlands in order to be present in court.

Certain maritime arrangements

In April 2013, the Timorese government notified Australia that it would initiate a process of international arbitration, arguing that the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS), signed in 2006, should be made invalid because it was not negotiated in good faith.

According to the Timorese government, the issue at stake is the spying that was carried out by the Australian government with commercial interests, which calls into question the prerogative of good faith of both parties in the negotiation and makes the CMATS treaty invalid under the clauses of the treaty itself as well as the prevailing international law, namely the Vienna Convention.

Ratified in 2007, CMATS regulates the way the exploitation of natural resources in the Timor Sea should be shared between the two countries, namely the “Greater Sunrise” oil and gas field, whose assets are estimated to be worth about 40 billion US dollars. The oil treaty between the two countries requires East Timor to drop its requests for permanent maritime boundaries for 50 years, a stiplulation that works very much in Australia's favor: all of Greater Sunrise would fall within Timorese territory if boundaries were drawn in accordance with international law.

These issues are illustrated in a documentary produced by ABC Australia, Taxing times in Timor, which investigates the dispute between the Timorese government and the giants of the oil and gas industry:

The news from December lead the current Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmão, to react with indignation against Australia's conduct in local media. According to an article [tet, en] published by Tempo Semanal newspaper on December 11, Xanana accused the Australian government of interfering with justice and having a lack of ethics in the relations between neighboring countries. He also stressed that Australia spying on Timor was a matter of national security. 

On the Australian side, Attorney General George Brandis, who authorized ASIO's operation, defended the legality of the raid, invoking reasons of national interest. This, because according to Brandis, the revelation of the identity of former spies who served in the Australian Secret Services may jeopardize national security. 

On the other hand, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, who negotiated CMATS with the government of East Timor in 2004, accused the current Timorese executive of opportunism for putting the treaty at stake. Right after his mandate in parliament came to an end, Alexander Downer became a consultant for Woodside Petroleum, a company that belongs to the consortium that exploits the fields of Greater Sunrise in the Timor Sea. This is one of the reasons why the former collaborator of the Australian Secret Services wanted to testify in favor of East Timor.

Protest in Timor-Leste against the 'return of colonialism'. Facebook page of Mario Amaral

Protest in East Timor against the “return of colonialism”. Facebook page of Mario Amaral

On the Timorese side, the diplomatic incident has been interpreted as an injustice comparable to others from throughout the history of the country. For instance, when Australia opted to illegally explore East Timor's mineral resources in 1989, by recognizing the de facto Indonesian integration of the territory and turning a blind eye towards the atrocities and human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999. 

Demonstrators and politicians have stressed the unequal rights between rich and poor countries that this case represents, arguing that Australia's political and economic power is being used to perpetuate this kind of asymmetric relationship. 

Read also: Australia Spied on Timor Leste to Gain Commercial Advantage (December 13, 2013)

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