Subject: Age analysis: East Timor has little time for romance

The Age November 8, 2000

East Timor has little time for romance


I do not know whether Bruce Grant has ever been to East Timor, or Timor Loro Sa'e, as it will soon become. But sitting here in Dili, his words have a quaint air of being out of touch with present-day Timorese reality ("Why I fear for Timor's romantic leaders", on this page on October 30). And his suggestion that Timor's leaders learn from Lee Kuan Yew seems at least a generation too late.

Grant's characterisation of Timor's leaders as "romantic" seems bizarre, when daily one hears criticism from the Timorese young people and students that they have already "sold out" to the great powers and the neo-colonialists. Of course, neither are true, but one is acutely aware in Timor that a generation is a long time in politics and that yesterday's revolutionaries are today negotiating with the World Bank.

None of the founders of Timor's original independence movement, Fretilin, would probably admit to the tag of "romantic", yet all would like to believe the principles for which they fought for over the 24 years are the same ones that will guide their decision-making on the economy.

Grant does have a good point when he alludes to the lack of awareness of Asian and Pacific models for development among the Timorese leadership. But then he tries to suggest that the size of the country and its lack of resources (sic) and political experience should somehow disqualify it for independence. Try telling that to the members of the Pacific Islands Forum - all but two of them (Australia and New Zealand) are smaller and have fewer resources and far less political experience than East Timor.

Large countries do not necessarily have a better economic growth rate, are not necessarily better at managing their economies or redistributing their wealth. Indeed, United Nations figures seem to suggest the opposite.

It is easy to advocate long periods of preparation for independence after the event. But history rarely offers this luxury to a country. There is no evidence to suggest East Timor would have benefited from an extended period of Indonesian occupation, even if it had been called "autonomy".

Bruce Grant should visit East Timor and meet the emerging nation's leaders, including "Xanana" Gusmao. He would be pleasantly surprised.

He would find that the language policy has a very pragmatic edge to it. While Portuguese is the official language and Tetum the national language, Indonesian and English are working languages, and all four are being studied and used.

He will find Jose Ramos Horta has always had a sneaking regard for Lee Kuan Yew, and has on several occasions used Singapore as a country to emulate in some respects. But today Ramos Horta would probably side with the pro-democracy activists and those who are trying to bring some humanity and fun to Singapore, rather than with Lee. For East Timor has a bigger agenda: the promotion of universal values.

Bruce Grant would not, however, find many East Timorese who regard Australia as the "liberator of East Timor". While they are happy to see the Australian peacekeeping forces, the "liberator" title is reserved for the Timorese own forces, the Falintil, who fought for 24 years, many of them sacrificing their careers, if not their lives. Australia is more likely to be seen a delayer of Timor's liberation by the support it gave over the years to Indonesia's arguments at the UN.

Grant is also out of touch with thinking in his own country if he believes that "political pressure in Australia for East Timor's independence was primarily within the Labor Party, especially from the Left and some Catholic groups". As someone who participated in the movement to support East Timorese self-determination from the day of the invasion, with the founding of the Australia-East Timor Association, I observed that it was broadly supported by Protestants, Jews and atheists as much as by Catholics, and by old soldiers and RSL members as much as Labor lefties.

I cannot agree with Grant that Australia's relations with Indonesia have "nose-dived", when the main issue that caused problems between our two nations has been removed. Perhaps the bar has been raised - no one complained when Suharto didn't come to Australia! To be sure there is debate in Indonesia that has prevented President Abdurrahman Wahid being able to visit, but there is no proof this is related to East Timor. Australia's relations with Indonesia have already improved and can only look up. Just give them time.

In the meantime, I'm happy to be spending some time in "romantic" Timor Loro Sa'e. Bruce Grant should visit it, too.

Dr Helen Hill is on study leave in East Timor working on a book on the transition to independence in Timor Loro Sa'e. She wrote a thesis at Monash in 1977 on the emergence of nationalism in East Timor.


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