Date: May 21 2012
East Timor celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday. It is a matter of pleasure, tinged with surprise, that it has survived so long, that it has overcome the bitterness of 24 years of invasion by Indonesia, conquest, occupation and a rebellion thought to have caused more than 100,000 deaths, or a 10th of the population. Or later, as Indonesia was retreating, the orgy of destruction and violence by Indonesian troops and anti-independence militia, before some order was restored.
Australia was one of the midwives of independence, is a major contributor to the international intervention which has helped the young nation get to its feet, and is a partner in the oil and gas development which has the potential of delivering economic as well as political independence to a nation that is still desperately poor, underdeveloped and only slowly building its institutions. We are generally good neighbours, at least when we are not too overbearing, but we are also ones with a guilty conscience (given Australia's implicit consent to Indonesia's attempt to ''incorporate'' East Timor, long years of arguing in international forums that one had to be ''realistic'' and ''pragmatic'' about problems of that incorporation, inclined as well to insist that so small a nation could not be ''viable'', could, independent, become ''a Cuba in our front yard'' and, almost certainly, a perpetual and unimproving claimant on our foreign aid).
That 10 years have passed without any of the prophecies of doom coming true is not to say that friends of East Timor - or indeed of Indonesia - can relax. The nation does have deep and fundamental problems, and is by no means out of the woods yet. Given some of the global economic instability, of course, it could suffer badly, at almost any notice, without having done anything much wrong. For all that, East Timor has done very well in the circumstances. It is still very much a democracy, with a recent transition of power to prove it. That is in spite of any number of bad omens, minor mutinies and rebellions and assassination attempts upon its leaders. And all of the difficulties of maintaining order and meeting expectations of a traumatised and battered population. Jose Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao, two of the fathers of independence, have been particularly successful in leading the country out of a culture of blame and recrimination, directed particularly towards Indonesia. They have instead preached reconciliation, including between some of those many local groupings who have had murder and expropriation on their consciences. If they have struggled, not entirely successfully, to bring economic and political development to their people, they must get great credit for resisting the temptation to use for short-term, or political, purposes, a vast sovereign wealth fund containing the $20 billion plus of oil and gas revenues expected in future years. The abstention has been the more sensible, given that many of the moment are not about under-utilised capacity or needless unemployment but deficiencies of skills, basic infrastructure and institutions. The leadership, in short, is investing in the nation's future, rather than squandering its present good fortune on parties or instant consumption of a sort that will lead more to hangovers. One might remark that were European and American politicians so patient, so sensible and self-denying, the world would not be in such economic crisis.
But that is not to say that absolutely all is well. There are worrying signs of increasing corruption, whether as a means of winning tenders, securing contracts or getting favours. Some of the corruption involves internationals, including Australians, and efforts to influence local politics. The level of poverty is high (and, correspondingly, the temptation facing a poor public servant); and general development for the nation is considerably distorted by the needs and demands of what some call the Toyota economy - the hordes of aid workers still centred (and working hard) around Dili. The benevolence of some foreign aid - including Chinese assistance with communications and electrification projects, as well as in the purchase of ostentatious president palaces - is not wholly disinterested, or, from East Timor's point of view, necessarily wise. Australia must be grateful that other nations, including China, stand beside it in extending a kindly hand to the new kid on the block. But, our very own experience with ''boomerang'' aid and diversion of aid monies for extraneous and military purposes allows us to recognise such things when we see them. By the same token, however, Australia can hardly be surprised if the leaders of some of our neighbours resent our hectoring, and our overbearing ways, and prefer to deal with some donors and ''friends'' who are more ''understanding'' and seem to have more mutual respect. Relationship is a two-way affair.
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