The
weekend media faithfully reported the foreign minister’s announcement
on Friday that last week’s Timor Sea talks in Sydney with East Timor
had finished successfully. But Alexander Downer’s proclamation might be
premature.

“There will probably be no further need for negotiations,” Downer said in The Age.
“The conclusion that the officials reached will be taken back to
ministers in both East Timor and Australia and be given consideration.”

Downer
made his proclamation on the only Black Friday of the year – and this
omen held. East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri immediately
challenged report of the “conclusion” of talks in the strongest
possible terms: “It’s an absolute lie,” Alkatiri told the Portuguese
news agency Lusa. “There is no accord and, if there is one, in the
terms announced it would be totally against my orientations. And, thus,
void.”

Alkatiri insisted that Dili’s stance on bilateral
negotiations remained unaltered: “Let us negotiate at the table and not
under the pressure of the media,” he told Lusa. A familiar pattern is
emerging, according to activists who’ve followed events. “It’s not the
first time Mr Downer and his posse have claimed that all is well and
settled, only to discover that the East Timorese side still had issues
to resolve,” says Dan Nicholson from Melbourne’s Timor Sea Justice
Campaign.

Rob Wesley-Smith from Darwin’s Timor Sea Justice
Campaign is heartened by Alkatiri’s response. He accuses some members
of East Timor’s negotiating team of wanting any agreement in the short
term, even if it severely disadvantages East Timor in the long term. He
names this camp as negotiators Jose Texeira, Peter Galbraith and, from
the outside, the “Bob Hawke” of East Timor politics, Jose Ramos Horta.

“Were the negotiators aware that should East Timor accept the
agreement East Timor would for the duration of the agreement be denied
the rights to lay claims to any future oil and gas finds just outside
the Joint Petroleum Development Area?” asks Wesley-Smith.

It’s
not the first time East Timor’s negotiating team appeared to get on the
wrong side of Alkatiri. According to sources in East Timor, Alkatiri
might only consider putting the boundary negotiation on hold for a
short time in return for a minimum share of at least 50% of the
lucrative Sunrise gas field with an estimated reserve of 2.05 billion
barrels of oil equivalent. Under the terms of the Timor Sea Treaty,
East Timor is currently entitled to only a 18% share. Alkatiri also
wanted the downstream benefits. This means piping the gas to East
Timor, rather than to Darwin.

What the negotiating team was
bringing home to Alkatiri was still the one-off additional payment of
not more than US$3.5 billion from the revenue of Sunrise; compared with
an agreed fixed percentage share. And as an added inducement, some
vague promises of helping East Timor set up some infrastructure to
manufacture gas for local consumption. In return, East Timor had to
agree to put on hold boundary negotiations for between 50 and 99 years.

According to participants on the online East Timorese
discussion group Forum-loriku, the deal on offer amounts to giving away
East Timor’s sovereignty in exchange for a few seashells. If Alkatiri
accepts this deal he faces defeat at the next election. It looks like
it’s back to the drawing board.