Subject: Asia Times: E. Timor: Between a rock and a hard place [+SMH, Age]

Asia Times March 12, 2003

East Timor: Between a rock and a hard place

By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY - East Timor is preparing for next year's withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping troops with a diplomatic offensive aimed at confronting worsening security and social tensions.

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta is pursuing closer ties with the United States and a clutch of Asian states, most of which watched from the sidelines as the republic gained independence from Indonesia in 1999. But he may have miscalculated the depth of hostility in his war-ravaged community toward Washington's belligerent stance on Iraq, and appears equally unlikely to attract much sympathy from Timor's wary neighbors.

In his most divisive initiative since taking office, the former guerrilla leader offered Timor's support to the anti-Iraqi alliance in a column carried by the New York Times and some Asian newspapers in late February.

Horta wrote emotionally of the two decades of tyranny under Indonesian rule that cost the lives of thousands of Timorese, including nine of his own immediate family.

"Yet I also remember the desperation and anger I felt when the rest of the world chose to ignore the tragedy that was drowning my people. We begged a foreign power to free us from oppression, by force if necessary," he wrote, in a plea for collective intervention in Iraq. "I know that differences of opinion and public debate over issues like war and peace are vital. But if the anti-war movement dissuades the United States and its allies from going to war with Iraq, it will have contributed to the peace of the dead."

The column caused consternation among peace activists in Timor, with several hundred marching through the capital, Dili, and picketing the US, Australian and British embassies. Similar rallies against the war were held in Western European capitals. At issue was Horta's moral mandate to barter the much-cherished neutrality of Timor for cheap diplomatic points. And disturbing questions were also raised over the veracity of some of his claims.

East Timor Action Network, a US-based group of Timor sympathizers, quickly disputed the historic parallels that Horta had drawn between Iraq and his own country's torturous journey.

"Historical records and statements available to us indicate the East Timorese did not ask for violent intervention to end the brutal ... Indonesian military occupation of their country," the network noted. "Far from calling for other countries to bomb Jakarta, the people of East Timor asked for United Nations peacekeepers. East Timor is free today because its people were courageous and far-sighted enough to emphasize non-violent means of struggle."

Timor has no troops to offer Washington, and negligible diplomatic influence. Horta would have been well aware of the depth of anti-war feeling on an island that is surrounded by secessionist and religious stresses. But he also knew that Dili would need friends badly when the time came for the republic to stand alone and meet its own security challenges from infiltrating militias and mounting social tensions.

United Nations peacekeepers are scheduled to pull out in June next year, ending a four-year transitional period during which Timor's small defense force has been trained to safeguard its own borders.

Militias operating from Indonesia's western half of the island are already making a comeback, raising fears of a recurrence of the vicious attacks on civilians that accompanied a nationwide vote on independence in 1999.

Seven people were killed in January when armed gangs raided the border district of Atsabe. Last month, gunmen attacked a bus and truck in nearby Bononaro, killing a further two people. It is not yet clear whether the militias are backed by Indonesia. However, Fijian troops found 1,000 rounds of ammunition and weapons of a type in use with Indonesia's military when they raided a jungle camp after the Bononaro raids.

In response, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the Security Council to consider delaying the final phased withdrawal of the 4,000 international troops and their support team of 2,300. However, some diplomats doubt that enough cash will be found to keep the operation going, as commitments are already down to about $200 million a year, only a third of the budget awarded to the UN transitory authority that administered Timor in 1999-2000.

While there are concerns over the security implications of a UN pullout, it will also have a substantial economic and social impact in a nation with 70 percent unemployment and few viable industries. Aid handouts, from the UN and private agencies that feed off its work, account for more than 80 percent of economic activity in a nation that has a per capita annual income of about US$480, making it Asia's poorest country.

The government expects to record a budget deficit of $60 million this year, double the 2002 shortfall, and will have few income sources until 2006, when it should receive the first royalties from oil and gas production in the Timor Sea.

Under an agreement ratified with Australia last week, Timor will share the anticipated $60 billion to $70 billion windfall from oilfields in the contested marine boundary between the two countries. However, it will take some time for the benefits to flow through. Because of tough bargaining by Australia, Timor will initially get only about $15 billion spread over 20 years from the Bayu-Undan field.

Prospects are brighter for the neighboring Greater Sunrise field, which is expected to reap at least $40 billion. But most of the field lies in Australian waters, and Canberra refuses to negotiate on its sovereignty; Timor's share will be a meager $8 billion.

"The key issue here is not a legal one, but a moral one. Will a wealthy power like Australia do the right thing and allow East Timor sufficient oil and natural-gas revenues for development to be stable and self-sufficient?" asked David Pargeter, a prominent Australian religious leader and persistent critic of Canberra's policy toward Timor. "And, as with Iraq, a deadline is approaching that could throw one small country into chaos, this time in our neighborhood."

Once viewed as the most likely economic savior of Timor, Australia has sharply cut back on aid since it spearheaded the transitional military presence in 1999, arguing that it is time for other nations to do their share. A sparse $20 million has has been allocated in the 2002-03 budget, though Canberra does give substantial indirect assistance through training, policing and welfare packages.

Foreign Minister Horta, who spent more than a decade in Australia as an exile from the Indonesian administration before independence, had already anticipated the Australian rebuff and started looking elsewhere.

"No East Timorese understands the nature of Australian politics better than Horta," said James Dunn, a veteran Australian diplomat with extensive ties in the region. "Horta has apparently concluded that a close link with the United States is necessary to East Timor's survival as a nation. [Dili] has also formed close relations with Malaysia and Singapore, as well as with South Korea and Japan."

Whether these countries will respond, at the risk of upsetting close ally Indonesia and feeding anti-US sentiment, is questionable, especially if the security situation worsens.

Like Australia and the US, most Asian countries privately opposed independence for the 100,000 Timorese, judging the tiny population too small and undeveloped to achieve sustainable growth. They would have preferred an initial 10-year period of autonomous government under Indonesian and UN jurisdiction, and the reintegration of the island's estranged eastern and western populations to remove the security threat.

Even as the UN withdraws, Dili will have to contend with the diplomatic vacuum over the fate of 30,000 East Timorese who are still being detained by Indonesia in its province of West Timor.

Forced to cross the border by Indonesian forces as an unsuccessful negotiating chip against independence, the exiles officially lost their refugee status in December, and now face an uncertain fate.

"The United Nations and Indonesia hope that ending their status as refugees will force East Timorese in Indonesia to choose whether to resettle or go home. But this assumes that all the refugees have the information and freedom to make a choice without coercion," said John M Miller, a spokesman for East Timor Action Network. "The UN and its international donors must not walk away from this problem, nor should the Indonesian government."


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