Australia’s relationship with that area of land now known as the sovereign nation of East Timor (or Timor Leste) is one of the darkest episodes in our foreign affairs history.

Complicitness or acquiescence in the invasion and occupation by Indonesia made for intense ethical concerns from some. Then there was the question of who made the money from lucrative undersea resources in the ocean between East Timor and Australia — with long-running claims Australia was greedily taking more than a fair share from an island where many live in poverty.

The independence of East Timor in 2002 has seen this relationship calm, after some turbulent post-independence years. But there is a major issue outstanding: money.

As Damien Kingsbury writes in Crikey today, a deal between Woodside and the East Timorese government over a large LNG project may fail to meet a key deadline — which could see the sea boundary between East Timor and Australia redrawn. This is a contentious issue.

The World Bank estimates almost half the East Timorese population lives in poverty, while gross national income is at US$2730 per capita. Life expectancy is just 62 years.

Australia has a record of pushing pretty hard to make a buck from these undersea resources. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that approach. With more than 30 years of sometimes deeply troubled history behind us, shouldn’t we now give back?

Peter Fray

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