Subject: IPS: Expatriates Enlisted in E. Timor Independence Goal
Date: Thu, 25 Feb 1999 21:32:48 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

Expatriates Enlisted in E. Timor Independence Goal

By Andrew Nette

MELBOURNE, Australia, Feb 22 (IPS) - By day, Abel Guterres drives a bus. His real occupation since fleeing his homeland in 1975, however, has been the struggle for an independent East Timor, a quest which after 23 years is close to becoming a reality.

Abel is president of the East Timor Relief Association, a Timorese aid organisation working in Australia and the former Portuguese colony.

He is also one of the 20,000-strong East Timorese diaspora in Australia, the largest in the world, a group which will play a crucial role in their country's future.

''At the moment there is tremendous excitement in our community, everyone wants to contribute something,'' says Abel. ''Our community in Australia is going to have a very strong influence over what happens in the future state of East Timor, both politically and economically.''

On Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer will arrive in Bali to begin a series of meetings with Indonesian leaders, including President Bacharuddin J Habibie, in which the fate of Indonesia's reluctant 27th province will feature prominently.

But away from the high-level haggling over the future of the former Portuguese colony, Abel Guterres and others like him are engaged in the massive operation of literally building the new East Timorese state from scratch.

Supporting them are Australian NGOs and civil society groups, who argue that after supporting Jakarta's 1975 occupation of East Timor, Australia has a responsibility to help out with aid.

''There needs to be a transition period, mainly for reconciliation among East Timorese groups, and together to sit down for dialogue for reconciliation and together build up this country,'' says East Timor's key religious leader and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Carlos Belo.

''But we also need time to prepare in other areas. At the moment we lack human resources and a government infrastructure. All we have now is an Indonesian structure and if we want to be independent I think we must prepare a minimum administration of our own,'' says Belo, who is now in Australia.

It is a concern shared by the Australian government, which fears a rapid Indonesian pull-out will leave it with a strife- torn, perpetually poor nation only 480 km from its northern coast line.

About 75 percent of East Timor's formal economy is controlled by non-East Timorese, who also dominate all key service sectors, including banks, hospitals, telecommunications and transport.

East Timor's population of 860,000 has an annual income of 60 U.S. dollars each, and even that is heavily augmented by outside aid.

A series of confidential cables between Australian diplomats in Jakarta and Canberra, recently obtained by Australian newspapers, paint a bleak picture of the prospects for an autonomous or independent East Timor.

The cables warn that an Indonesian pull-out could result in an upsurge of fighting between pro and anti-independence factions on the island.

This would lead to a breakdown in security, and spark a mass exodus of non- East Timorese, in turn hurting food production, basic services, and bringing about a ''brain drain'' in the public sector, key utilities and medical services.

The Timorese resistance, the cables say, expects to put ''active guerrillas'' and exiles into administrative, technical and professional positions in the new government, tasks they lack the skill to perform.

In response, East Timorese groups have been engaged in a campaign to recruit skills and resources from the expatriate community in Australia.

''Doctors, nurses, computer people, electricians, any East Timorese person who has skills, we need all these people, all their knowledge to help build East Timor.''

While in Australia, Bishop Belo is also meeting with East Timorese communities in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, before flying to New Zealand.

''He will also address meetings of East Timorese who have established businesses in Australia, who have commercial skills, about how they can help our future country,'' says Abel.

A growing number of Australian civil society groups are mounting their own initiatives to aid the transition in East Timor.

And despite its slow-footed response to the changes in East Timor and its public opposition to independence, Canberra is engaged in frantic preparations for what all agree will by necessity be its crucial role in the new East State.

Downer publicly acknowledged this recently, saying Australia ''has no choice but to be the lead aid donor for East Timor, and has every intention of being so''.

Government sources say there is a possibility that the East Timorese are more than likely to reject Indonesia's autonomy offer, and that a move to independence could happen much more quickly than anyone imagines, possibly in the next 18 months.

Australia is working closely with other foreign governments on an aid response, including a major role in an international peacekeeping mission, and money and advice to key aspects of setting up a new national East Timorese government, legal system, currency, police and banking system.

In addition to coffee, fisheries, agriculture and tourism, East Timorese leaders are relying heavily on a renegotiation of the Timor Gap Treaty.

Signed by Australia and Indonesia in 1989, it covers some 4 billion U.S. dollars in oil and gas reserves in the sea bed of the Timor Gap. A sovereign East Timor potentially is entitled to revenue from the treaty if it can persuade the two signatories to allow it a share.

But observers question whether even this is sufficient basis for the new East Timorese state to function.

''Economically, no one is arguing we face a huge challenge, but it is important to note that our people do not expect luxuries, we are ready for several years' hardship before the situation improves,'' says Abel.

East Timor must also deal with the collective trauma of 24 years of bloody civil conflict, including what observers say is almost an entire generation of angry, disaffected youth.

''In addition to economic development, for me the most important thing is that we must cultivate reconciliation among the different parties, groups and religions in East Timor and Indonesia, in an effort to move from fear and anger to peace and development,'' says Belo.

One solution he advocates is the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission similar to that put up in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, in which the church would play a key role.

''In East Timor we have lived for so long with a regime that has distorted the truth, we need such a process,'' he says. ''Telling the truth through a public process is the first point of reconciliation.'' (END/IPS/ap-hd-ip/awn/js/99)

Back to February Menu
Main Postings Menu

Postings of Human Rights Violations in Timor