It will be the ironic fate of independent East Timor to have its key international economic and security relationships with three countries responsible for much of its historic suffering: Portugal, Indonesia and Australia.
As a poor country facing long-term international dependency, it is already looking to these countries for the economic and security assurances it needs to establish stable foundations for development and progress after independence.
And of the three countries, Australia is of paramount importance, according to Jose Ramos Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who now holds the title of Cabinet member for Foreign Affairs in the United Nations Transitional Administration.
Horta says he would like Australia’s relationship with East Timor to be as close as Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea. “Almost an Australian protectorate” is how he describes the relationship he would like to see.
Portugal, the former colonial power that abandoned East Timor to civil war and Indonesian invasion in 1974-75, Horta sees as an important bridge into the European Union for East Timor. Portugal, for its part, shows every sign of wanting to restore its standing in East Timor, and to use it as a bridge into South-East Asia.
Horta is more reticent about Indonesia, which allowed militias to destroy and murder after East Timor voted for independence in 1999 to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation. Not so Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN chief now running East Timor.
He says East Timor’s relationship with Indonesia is “vital”. “They share the same island. East Timor is surrounded east, north and west by Indonesia,” he says. De Melo says the two countries have made progress in their relationship, but that it has been difficult for many in Jakarta to reconcile themselves to what had happened in East Timor.
So how do things lie in East Timor’s key relationships?
Australia, one of the few countries to recognise Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor, substantially restored its reputation in the country when its troops led the UN force that entered the country to restore order in late 1999.
The presence and professional conduct of more than 1,000 Australian troops on the sensitive and still unstable border between East and West Timor have further reinforced Australia’s reputation - as has Australia’s decision to fund and build the now almost complete $5 million East Timor Defence Centre about 35 kilometres north-east of Dili at Metinaro.
An Australian Treasury team has drawn up East Timor’s budget. AUSaid is funding urgently needed civil projects, including a training program for paramedics to help ease East Timor’s dental health crisis.
Also, Australian non-government organisations are involved in activities ranging from helping to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, sorting out East Timor’s tangled land-tenure system and other development issues, including political education for women.
That is the upside. One downside is that Australia is perceived as having been slow to resolve East Timor’s concerns over the sharing of gas and oil royalties from the Timor Sea, although the responsible UN official, Mr Peter Galbraith, has seriously exacerbated problems.
Another downside is that mixed with the genuinely committed Australians working in East Timor is an army of fast-buck carpetbaggers - restaurateurs, rough tradesman, and low-life bar operators. They include loud, bearded, tattooed yobs whose boozy behaviour appals the East Timorese and other foreign nationals and diminishes Australia’s reputation.
Most Australians, however, seem friendly, well-intentioned, if sometimes naive people. Not so the Portuguese, with whom Australians often have difficult relationships. The Portuguese have returned with imperious colonial attitudes, setting up banks and a large administration in central Dili. Portuguese troops and police insist on being responsible for law and order in the town.
East Timorese, Australians and others find the Portuguese arrogant and overbearing, although the Portuguese have done a fine job in restoring the university and a teachers’ college, filling both buildings with books in Portuguese, a language with which many young East Timorese struggle if they speak it at all.
Australian military officials complain of vexatious criticism from the Portuguese who made it extremely difficult for the Australian Defence Force to hand over some M-16 machine guns to the East Timor Defence Force for training purposes.
As for Indonesia, it is unlikely to be willing or able to do many favours for independent East Timor despite de Mello’s optimistic claim that, comparing East Timor with the Balkans, it is “a miracle that we have gone as far as we have in the case of East Timor and Indonesia”.
Which may be why Jose Ramos Horta says East Timor wants to join as many regional and international organisations as it can as either observers or active participants, including the so-called G-77 non-aligned UN group, ASEAN, the Pacific Forum, APEC and, more surprisingly for an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Organisation of Islamic Conferences.