Subject: East Timor cuts apron strings by James Dunn

East Timor cuts apron strings

by James Dunn

A decade ago events in East Timor were uppermost in our minds. Australia was playing a leading role in the devastated nation's reconstruction, and in the shaping of its democracy.

As Australians saw it we had just rescued the Timorese from Indonesia's harsh colonial embrace. We were rather paternalistic about our leading role in building up an independent nation, with the kind of democracy that would go towards atoning for the cruel suffering we had shamefully helped inflict on these people, by accommodating Suharto's annexation.

Ten years ago, under a UN mandate, East Timor was big news, and Australians were seen by Timorese as their rescuers, inspired by memories of the much-admired World War II commando force. When I addressed their first congress, several of those present suggested that General Peter Cosgrove be invited to be their first president. Australians, for their part, were proclaiming this country as East Timor's future protector, both from security and economic points of view, often somewhat patronisingly.

Today the scenario is rather different. With independence, and with Indonesia's shift towards democracy, Australia began to lose interest, and the East Timorese began to look elsewhere for aid and inspiration.

Our presence there, economically and diplomatically, is still strong, but there is now a widening gap in the political relationship. Recently we were reminded of this, when we came in for strong criticism from Timorese political leaders, in particular Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

East Timor may still be on our agenda but its place there is inconspicuous. The slide in relations began when the UNTAET mandate ended and tortuous negotiations over the Timor Gap Treaty started, originally a shameful deal between Canberra and Jakarta when Gareth Evans was foreign minister.

Recent attempts by Prime Minister Gusmao to get a better outcome for East Timor in talks with Woodside have been unproductive, leading to outbursts from Gusmao about our past dark role.

Only last week President Jose Ramos Horta took Australia to task for cutting our aid program to the Peace Dividend Trust.

The program stimulates small projects designed to help ordinary Timorese, at a time when the focus of most aid programs is on big projects that improve the facade but do little to improve the lot of the impoverished majority who have gained so little from independence.

Let's listen to critics rather than shunning them, and eroding our influence in the community.

Our security role in East Timor, the International Stabilisation Force, has also come in for some criticism, often unfair, like that from East Timor's defence force chief, who recently declared that it was time for the ISF to be removed. Local military have become increasingly resentful over a foreign military presence, however, the ISF offers a restraint that is still necessary.

East Timor is now branching out in ways that will not always please us. But we should listen to the words of leaders like Jose Ramos Horta. His voice is now being heard far and wide, thanks to his Nobel Prize and his leadership of East Timor's diplomatic independence struggle.

East Timor's diplomatic assertiveness today is based on cruel experience. We should not overrate our capacity to influence it.

James Dunn is an author with four decades of experience as a foreign affairs official and with UN agencies.

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