Message To Australia: 'Hands Off Timor's Oil'

23/03/2016 4:22 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Every day, more people lend their faces to a viral campaign against Australia.

We -- the island nation with a 'she'll be right' mentality -- aren't used to being on the receiving end of international discontent but day after day, Timorese people, mostly young, are using social media to send Australia a message:

'Hands off Timor's oil'.

#handsofftimorsoil #medianlinenow

A photo posted by 👑KingKayden👑 (@cillizzle) on

The protests prompt the questions: When Australia's been drawing oil from Timor since the 90s, why now? And more importantly, is it an unfair deal?

The answer may well be found in the Timor Sea, so far out that land can't be seen, where an imaginary line has been drawn across the deep seabed.

This boundary is called the median line, tracing roughly halfway between Timor and Australia. This line would leave the region's last known untapped oil field squarely in Timor's purview called Greater Sunrise Oil Field.

It's a line that's not recognised by Australia.

Steal our OiL..Steal Our Future!!! Australia!! Stop!! Stealing East Timor's OIL!!! Australia #HandsOfftimorsOil Time for #medialinenow

A photo posted by DMH (@d.m.hidayah) on

Francez Suni, a Timorese student currently studying in Melbourne, told The Huffington Post Australia social media was allowing every day people to speak to the world for the first time.

"Social media's penetration in Timor is getting wider and wider especially among the youth, so a lot of our people have used especially Facebook as a platform to spread information because it is the fastest way for Timorese to get their stories across."

This campaign's not just a social media phenomenon -- more than 1000 people protested at the Australian Embassy in the capital Dili on Tuesday -- one of the largest protests since Timor won independence from Indonesia in 1999.

The protest was led by the man often described as the nation's 'hero of independence' former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao but it was the young people who flooded the streets. In Australia, concurrent protests happened in Sydney and Melbourne.

#australia #HandsOffTimorsOil #medianlinenow ✊✊

A photo posted by Maria Pereira (@pereiraarma) on

Just Give What Is Our! What Doesn't Belong to You Australia #HandsOffTimorsOil Time for #MedianLineNow!

A photo posted by TimorSon's1loveOnlyWthTimor.+¶ (@gabyjuan17) on

Deakin University professor of international politics Damien Kingsbury told The Huffington Post Australia it was a complex issue, but not a new one.

“This issue’s a bit of a slow burn – it’s been going on one way or another for about eight years,” Kingsbury said.

“This issue hasn’t ever gone away for the Timorese and about one year ago, the Timorese Government relaunched the Timor Sea Campaign to publicise what they regard as an unfair arrangement with Australia.”

Timor said it had lost AU$6.6 billion in royalties and tax revenue -- some to private companies and royalties to the Australian Government -- since independence. Kingsbury said money was key in Timor's future stability, but that Australia wasn't necessarily being unfair in its arrangement, which allocated 90 percent of profits to Timor.

"One of the reasons this issue is ramping up comes down to the fact that the oil fields in the Timor Sea are now starting to dry up," Kingsbury said.

#handsofftimorsoil #australia

A photo posted by eddy chung (@edmundomonteiro29) on

"One field is closing this year, another is set to close in the next two or three years and really, other than Greater Sunrise, that’s going to be the end of the known reserves for Timor.

"This is a problem for Timor because at the current rate of expenditure, it would run out of money in 12 years."

The current expenditure is a little more than $1billion per year -- mostly spent on infrastructure projects -- and currently, Timor's president is at odds with its parliament over the annual budget.

"The parliament's trying to have the president impeached becasue he's refusing to pass the budget, saying it's too expensive, wasteful," Kingsbury said.

So would the median line solve Timor's woes by providing it with a viable reserve of oil? Well according to Kingsbury, not exactly.

"The price of LNG has bottomed out completely," Kingsbury said.

"The potential revenue has dropped by about one third since peak oil prices."

As well as that, Kingsbury said he was pessimistic Timor could persuade Australia to change its mind.

"Timor doesn’t really have the capacity to compel Australia to change its position. Labor has made it policy to recognise the median line, so I think their best chance Timor has is if Australia elects a Labor government."

Suni told HuffPost Australia it was about more than access to a single oil field.

"The Timor Sea issue has spoiled the way we think and see Australia," Suni said.

"It is heartbreaking for us, especially students like me, who throughout our period of study have been able to make friends with a lot of great Australians.

"We are extremely grateful for the enormous support we have been receiving from Australia.

"INTERFET, the Australian Army-led peace keeping force is always in our hearts -- No Timorese would ever forget that. That is our sweetest memory about Australia, and I wish we could always think of Australia that way, the best and biggest friend we have."

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