Subject: East Timor's policy of appeasement towards Indonesia 

East Timor's policy of appeasement towards Indonesia

By Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira - posted Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Nearly ten years after the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia, East Timor's foreign policy towards Indonesian has been characterised by a policy of appeasement.

Since assuming power in 2002, the first constitutional government led by Fretilin, as well as the current coalition government, have been trying to avoid any action that will directly or indirectly upset East Timor's giant neighbour, Indonesia.

The repeated calls by prominent human rights groups to bring the perpetrators of human rights violations in 1999 to trial before an international tribunal has so far met an unenthusiastic response among leaders in East Timor.

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2006, the current president of East Timor, Ramos Horta said "we have consciously rejected the notion of pushing for an international tribunal for East Timor because, A, it is not practical, B, it would wreck our relationship with Indonesia, and, C, we are serious about supporting Indonesia's own transition towards democracy".

The East Timor government fears that any attempt to prosecute those responsible for atrocities, including the powerful Indonesian generals, could undermine the fragile democratic process underway in both East Timor and Indonesia.

This relationship is often put to the test. Last year, the East Timor president, Ramos Horta, while recovering from his gun-shot wound operation in a Darwin hospital, criticised the involvement of some Indonesian elements in his shooting. Among them he included the Indonesian private TV Network (Metro TV) whom he censured for conducting an interview with the late deserted army leader Alfredo Reinaldo in an unknown location in Indonesia.

The allegation drew strong criticism from the Indonesian public. In an interactive live debate carried by Metro TV many Indonesians expressed outrage over the allegation and called on the Indonesian government to suspend bilateral relations with East Timor.

The tension remained and was only eased after the East Timor Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, went to Indonesian to both clarify and formally apologise for the president's remarks.

The report produced by the Timorese-Indonesian Commission Truth and Friendship (CTF) into crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 is an example of where the East Timorese government tried to appease and avoid upsetting the Indonesian government. It focuses exclusively on events in 1999, ignoring even worse crimes against humanity in the previous 23 years of Indonesian occupation.

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) (2009) in their 42-page analysis of the CTF's report concluded that they avoided a number of important questions relating to institutional responsibility. Did senior officials instigate the violence or simply fail to prevent it? What was the role of discrete units, such as the Special Forces? Notably, the CTF report further fails to recommend the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Although the CTF report did suggest that Indonesia's military was responsible for "supporting" and equipping the militia units responsible for the massacres in 1999 and the many cases of torture and intimidation, some Timorese and Indonesian leaders now comfortably claim that the report implies that the two countries should put the past behind, bringing closure to the matter.

Balanced against the above, it can be argued that there are three main reasons why the policy of appeasement is necessary - security, economic trade and regional co-operation.

First, security has been one of the main reasons why pursuing appeasement with Indonesia is necessary. Security is central for the survival of East Timor as a nation and the only way to maintain peace and stability in East Timor is to strengthen friendly relations with its neighbouring countries, notably Australia and Indonesia.

Since gaining its independence in 2002, East Timor has constantly faced security risks posed by the large presence of militia groups along the border. Though threats from the militia have now reduced, other security problems remain.

Transnational crimes such as human trafficking, drugs, money laundering, terrorism and prostitution are also among the major concerns for East Timor. Then there is disease. AloLa Foundation, a prominent women's organisation recently claimed that human trafficking is a growing problem in East Timor. Combined factors such as high unemployment and the desire to work abroad have given easy access to traffickers to lure their victims near the border. AloLa claims that traffickers have recruited women to work in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia.

So far there has beena low incidence of HIV-AIDS in East Timor with the East Timor Ministry of Health reporting only 43 cases. However, given the country's lack of proper surveillance facilities to monitor the spread of the disease, more people could have been infected.

Furthermore, social factors such as massive social dislocation, cross-border migration, high unemployment, and a weak and limited health system could dramatically increase the spread of HIV infection.

Knowing the magnitude of the security threats, in addition to the inability of the East Timor government to overcome those problems, means that establishing friendly relations between East Timor and Indonesia is sine qua non. Only through bilateral co-operation can such problems be minimised.

Second, economic trade with Indonesia is another contributing factor to be considered. Assessing the causes of the rise of the consumer price index in East Timor after separation from Indonesia in 2000, the World Bank advised that East Timor needs to engage in trade with Indonesia. Restarting the flow of goods and services, including an agreement on border trade with Indonesian-controlled West Timor, is necessary to revive the country's economy.

The pursuit of economic trade with Indonesia helps East Timor to jump-start its dormant economy. Currently, East Timor is relying heavily on Indonesia for the import of cheap commodities such as food, textiles, agricultural machinery, fertilisers, building materials and other goods which would be expensive if bought from Australia

Under the current government led by Xanana Gusmao, many initiatives have been taken to encourage Indonesian investors to invest in East Timor. Last year, a group of delegates led by the East Timor Prime Minister, Xanana, headed to Jakarta to hold talks with Indonesian business communities to find ways to encourage future investment in East Timor.

Apart from economic trade, friendly relations with Indonesia have helped the East Timorese to gain access to an affordable educational system, especially for low income families. It is estimated that more than 1,000 East Timorese are studying on family support at various universities in Indonesia. Many of them have completed their studies and have returned to East Timor and are now working in various government institutions.

In a country where poverty and unemployment are widespread, it is understandable that the government is pursuing economic development and treats this as more important than addressing justice.

Third, regional co-operation with the rest of Asia is another equally important consideration. There are two reasons for East Timor to join ASEAN. First, it allows East Timor access to regional free trade. The full engagement of East Timor in trade with ASEAN will boost the East Timor economy, which, in turn, contributes to the reduction of poverty and unemployment. Second, membership will give East Timor leverage in dealing with its largest, and closest neighbour, Australia.

Some East Timorese leaders express fear that its future economic and political dependence on Australia will increase the country's vulnerability to Australia's influence.

The pursuit of trade with members of ASEAN will not only bring economic benefit to East Timor but also create a zone of peace which will, in turn, contribute to peace and stability in the region.

Currently, East Timor is in the process of seeking Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) membership. Since being granted an observer status in ASEAN, the government has taken a number of steps to ensure that the accession of East Timor to the Association of South East Asian Nations is progressing well.

In 2005 East Timor joined the ASEAN regional forum, and subsequently in 2007, East Timor also signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia, committing itself to non-interference in member states' internal affairs. In addition, the establishment of diplomatic missions in a number of Asian countries - Malaysia, Bangkok, and Manila - has been pursued rigorously.

Despite all these efforts, admission into ASEAN also poses political challenges for East Timor. When East Timor expressed interest in joining ASEAN in 2002, some member countries expressed reservations. Burma was one of the countries that refused East Timor entry to ASEAN due to East Timor's close links with the Burmese political opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is, therefore, important for East Timor to rely on member states, notably Indonesia, the Philippines and others, to fully support it. Since the inception of the organisation, Indonesia has been a leading player in ASEAN.

At present, Indonesia is at the forefront of moves to renew ASEAN. Without full support from Indonesia, the admission of East Timor to ASEAN will be proven difficult. The East Timor's leaders are fully aware that reversing the policy of appeasement towards Indonesia will cause harm to East Timor both politically and economically.

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