Facing the future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 May, 2002, 12:00am

In just over two weeks, East Timor's rebirth will be complete. On May 20, with its own government under Xanana Gusmao's presidency, Asia's newest nation will embark on a future far removed from its sorrowful past.

East Timorese are optimistic that oil and gas revenues will lift them from poverty and create a self-supporting economy. There is apprehension about stability after the United Nations begins relaxing its control, but most see a bright future.

Few in neighbouring Indonesia will be celebrating the loss of the territory Jakarta seized by military force 27 years ago. Political debate is raging whether nationalist President Megawati Sukarnoputri should attend the independence ceremony.

It is lamentable that such reluctance exists. After East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence in 1999, Jakarta-backed militias killed hundreds of people, forced 250,000 to flee and destroyed 80 per cent of the infrastructure. Rather than turning its back on its neighbour, Indonesia should be helping rebuild what it helped wreck.

So far, Jakarta's only show of remorse has been to allow trials to take place of officials and soldiers suspected of involvement in atrocities. Given the military's considerable political influence, and the questionable impartiality of the judicial system, few observers are expecting convictions.

Mr Gusmao, after meeting Ms Megawati in Jakarta yesterday, wanted social justice, not retribution. His country's most pressing needs are food, hospitals and schools.

Ms Megawati has taken a major step by meeting Mr Gusmao and acknowledging East Timor's new status. But she can go much further. Indonesia has to get used to the idea of being next to a new country. Instead of forcing East Timor to look to Australia for help, it must open its borders, provide support and treat East Timorese as neighbours, not enemies.