Subject: Newsday: East Timor Courts Its Old Captor


East Timor Courts Its Old Captor To Build A New State

By Nilan K. Fernando

Nilan K. Fernando is The Asia Foundation's assistant representative for Indonesia, Malaysia and East Timor, based in Jakarta

July 14, 2002

On May 20, East Timor became the world's newest independent democracy. After a three-year period of political transition under United Nations supervision, the country has emerged as a stable republic, with a new constitution modeled on Portugal's and approved in March by a democratically elected Constitutent Assembly.

The presidency in the new parliamentary system is mainly ceremonial, but the new President Xanana Gusmao, the former leader of the guerrilla army that fought the Indonesian occupation, enjoys enormous legitimacy at home and universal respect abroad, including in Indonesia. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, leader of the ruling Fretelin Party, is austere in comparison and shuns the limelight, but gets grudging respect from many Timorese as an able technocrat.

While the UN peacekeeping mission has restored peace and internal security, troops will remain for the next two years as insurance, most stationed on the border with Indonesia, which had occupied East Timor for over two decades.

For East Timor, a onetime Portuguese colony, to remain stable and attract foreign investment, Indonesia must be committed to its neighbor's peace and security. Many in the Indonesian army and a cross section of the political elite are still bitter about "losing" East Timor, but that has not prevented a gradual thaw in relations.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri took the courageous step of attending the independence celebrations in East Timor on May 20 against the wishes of the Indonesian military and opposition political parties who urged a boycott. Her actions, motivated by a mixture of pragmatism, national interest and decency, provided a significant boost to bilateral relations. Most Indonesians supported her. Although it remains to be seen whether she can convince the army not to meddle in East Timor, the gradual withdrawal of the Indonesian military's support for militia groups in West Timor is a hopeful sign.

A prerequisite for further normalization is the safe return of many of the estimated 50,000 Timorese refugees still stranded in West Timor and several thousand more who have been relocated to other islands. The majority of those who remain are caught between intimidation from former Indonesia-backed militia to stay, and threats by the Indonesian government, which now wants to wash its hands of the problem, to close the camps at the earliest opportunity.

Refugees have been trickling back and that trickle became a stream in April, when 6,000 East Timorese returned. The Indonesian government will also need to provide assistance to those East Timorese (former civil servants or spouses of Indonesian citizens) who wish to resettle in Indonesia.

Relations were given a further boost last week, when President Gusmao made his first visit to Jakarta as head of state and was given the full red carpet treatment by Megawati and civilian and military leaders. What Gusmao termed "residual problems" - refugees, prosecution of militia leaders, the dispensation of assets and land and sea borders - remain, but both sides agreed last week to establish a joint forum to resolve these issues peacefully.Stephen Cornell of The University of Arizona and Joseph P. Kalt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University founded and co-direct the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

etanetanetanetanetanetanetanetanetanetanetanetan John M. Miller Internet:

Media & Outreach Coordinator East Timor Action Network: 10 Years for Self-Determination & Justice

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