Subject: Timor tears of joy as world weeps

The Age

February 5, 2009

Timor tears of joy as world weeps

JILL JOLLIFFE, DILI

WITH the rest of the world bathed in gloom, East Timor's economy is surging. The International Monetary Fund registered its growth rate as 10.5 per cent in 2008 and predicts around 7.8 per cent this year.

Dili, the once-sleepy capital, is barely recognisable to returning visitors. Old and new cars dodge shoppers that fill the streets, more than 20 freighters are waiting to unload, and shops are stacked with rice and other imports. It is now a boom town.

Finance Minister Emilia Pires said that in the global economic crisis, everybody else's misfortune had been "a good opportunity" for East Timor.

Parliament has just approved her $1.05 billion budget for 2009, designed to exploit oil revenues and competitive import prices to accelerate major projects.

East Timor is still among the world's 10 poorest countries, but, as Ms Pires sees it, it is being offered a big chance. "I believe that the world is not going to stay in this recession for long - some economists believe it may be six or nine months. But whatever period it is, we should be strategic enough and visionary enough, to take advantage of it," she said.

As a country that imports almost everything and lacks basic infrastructure, slumping global prices are a godsend.

In presenting the budget to parliament, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao listed development of ports, airports, roads, schools and health centres as priorities, offering around 26,000 jobs.

It hasn't all been plain sailing. Ms Pires is seething over uncorroborated Australian media claims of corruption in her ministry, coming from a single opposition source.

In the middle of last year, the Supreme Court had declared as illegal the Government's use of extra funds from the national petroleum fund, designed as a nest egg for the next generation.

In defence of using the money, Prime Minister Gusmao pointed out that 2008 oil revenues were a billion dollars over estimates, with the fund's assets almost trebling.

The World Bank's Antonio Franco said East Timor's fortune came from being a small economy with oil. He predicted a rise in imports in 2009 but a lower bill than in 2008.

Full bellies have created contentment. By the first anniversary of the shooting of President Jose Ramos Horta on February11, the country will have known its first 12 months of non-violence since 1999, but few would feel confident to yet pronounce it stable.


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