Subject: SCMP: Small man signing big trade deals for East Timor

South China Morning Post Saturday, October 28, 2000


Small man signing big trade deals for East Timor

East Timor's de facto minister for economic affairs, Mari Alkatiri, was the star of Macau's fifth international trade and investment fair.

Mr Alkatiri, a diminutive figure entrusted with the herculean task of rebuilding his homeland's economy from the ashes of the Indonesian military's scorched-earth policy, attended the fair at the invitation of the government-run Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute.

A member of the nine-strong cabinet of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, Mr Alkatiri's portfolio includes agriculture, fisheries, tourism, industry, trade, forestry and natural resources (such as oil and natural-gas exploration in the Timor Gap).

As a direct result of his four-day visit to Macau, which included a meeting with Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah, Mr Alkatiri signed letters of intent with two local companies to market Timorese coffee in the Pearl River Delta region and set up a network of pharmacies in his country.

The 50-year-old Timorese of Arab extraction is an historical figure in his homeland's struggle against Portuguese colonialism and Indonesian militarism. He is one of the three surviving founders of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, which after a period of leftist radicalism in the 1970s, has converted to social democracy.

Participants in a seminar on East Timor's investment potential were visibly impressed by Mr Alkatiri's down-to-earth common sense and economic pragmatism. He openly acknowledged that his country was still in a process of "economic liberation", following four centuries of colonial neglect by Lisbon and 25 years of exploitative occupation by Jakarta. He described his homeland as "virgin territory" beset by a host of socio-economic and legal problems.

Mr Alkatiri said his 19,000-square-kilometre homeland of some 800,000 residents had moved from a situation of sheer emergency to a long process of launching reconstruction, and so needed foreign investment. He said the draft of a modern investment law was expected to be finalised next month, when East Timor's first central bank was due finally to get off the ground. He pointed out that the United States Congress had recently granted East Timor the right to export to the US 40 products - including manufactured goods - free of duty and that the European Union would possibly follow suit soon.

Mr Alkatiri said foreign investment was especially welcome in a number of priority areas - namely finance and banking, hydro-electric plants, agriculture and export-oriented manufacturing. He said the US dollar would remain East Timor's legal tender for the time being.

In addition, Mr Alkatiri said East Timor planned to develop organic farming - its highland-grown coffee is said by connoisseurs to be the world's best - and eco-tourism but was "very unlikely" to set up a government-franchised, Macau-style gaming industry due to categorical opposition from the Catholic church.

While espousing a pro-business stance, Mr Alkatiri made it clear that East Timor's leaders were in consensus that all land and natural resources should remain public property. He said private investors could instead acquire renewable, long-term leases on land.

The position is understandable, considering the feeling of many East Timorese that their country's resources have been plundered by foreign powers, most recently by Australia and Indonesia under the Timor Gap oil-exploration treaty.

Mr Alkatiri's visit has demonstrated that Macau and East Timor are set to develop close commercial and cultural ties.

Harald Bruning ( is the Post's Macau correspondent.

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