Asia can help East Timor stand on its own two feet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am

Jose Ramos Horta's first task as the new prime minister of troubled and isolated East Timor is to guide Asia's newest nation towards a fresh start. Political and ethnic turmoil and gang violence have threatened to turn it into a failed state just four years after it won a struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Mr Ramos Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight in exile to free East Timor from Indonesian occupation. Now he faces an even greater battle - to pave the way for national reconciliation ahead of elections due next year and rekindle the hope and optimism with which his people freed themselves from oppressive Indonesian rule.

Accepting the peace prize 10 years ago, Mr Ramos Horta said that when East Timor won independence it would not need an army. He was forced to abandon that dream when Jakarta-backed militias went on the rampage after a vote for independence in a referendum.

Ironically, disgruntled soldiers from the army he did not want sparked the unrest that has split the nation since March, leaving more than 20 people dead and tens of thousands homeless. Mr Ramos Horta has played a leading role in conciliation during the crisis by listening to the grievances of the soldiers and militants, while the hugely popular president, Xanana Gusmao, has tried to restore order with the backing of soldiers and police, mainly from Australia but also from Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal.

After the granting of nationhood in 2002 and the departure of United Nations-mandated peacekeepers, the fledgling government has struggled to alleviate poverty and unemployment and to provide basic infrastructure.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has rightly said that East Timor must eventually solve its own problems. Meanwhile it will continue to need help. After nationhood it slipped off the international radar. Many pledges of aid remain unfulfilled. The country will struggle to meet day-to-day needs until the revenue from oil and gas concessions in the Timor Sea comes on stream early next decade. Much greater assistance is needed and more must come from the region. Malaysia's 200-odd peacekeepers, vehicles and machinery are a token regional contribution. Even after stability is restored a security force must stay in place.

Asians have an abiding interest in seeing that East Timor stands on its own feet. Disintegration would leave it vulnerable to humanitarian crisis, crime and even terrorism.