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Inter Press Service

December  28, 2000


By Kalinga Seneviratne


    The realities of rebuilding a shattered economy are prompting East Timor's leaders to turn to pragmatism in dealing with the territory's neighbors, as the countdown to full independence begins.

    "We are starting from absolute ground zero," Jose Ramos Horta, cabinet minister for foreign affairs of the East Timor Transitional Authority, told a seminar at the Institute of South East Asian Studies here this month.

    "For the next two or three years, we will have to rely on generous assistance from the rest of the world," added the Nobel Peace Prize awardee.

    Ramos Horta said that he attaches special importance to repairing the relationship with East Timor's former ruler,  Indonesia,  whose president has recently made some conciliatory remarks.

    He added that an independent East Timor would like to become a full member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the main diplomatic club in the region, with deep economic ties and regular meetings with countries in Asia, Europe and North America.

    He indicated that East Timor would make a formal application for ASEAN membership after full independence, expected by December 2001.

    "Joining ASEAN is of strategic importance," he told his Singapore audience, adding "it would also provide a security umbrella, far more reliable and credible than having an army."

    This is a far cry from comments he made during a similar address in Sydney, Australia last year, where he argued that East Timor was part of the South Pacific group of nations and not part of ASEAN.

    At that time, he indicated a preference for East Timor to join the South Pacific Forum, whose members include Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and 13 small island nations of the South Pacific.

    In contrast, ASEAN's 10 members are Singapore, Thailand,  Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia.

    The change in attitude indicates to many a realization that East Timor will need not just the political support of the countries around it and its inclusion in their dialogues with other regions, but their economic help as well.

    Ramos Horta took up the issue of East Timor joining ASEAN with Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew during his visit here.

    He said the two Singaporean leaders advised him to delay joining the regional grouping because if East Timor joins ASEAN too quickly, the European Union and the United Nations would say that ASEAN should support East Timor and withhold some aid. They have pointed out that ASEAN too has limited resources and could not help much.

    "It is very pragmatic advice and we take it seriously," said Ramos Horta, who had attended this year's annual ASEAN meetings in Thailand as an observer.

    The East Timorese leader also added that he will be using the period before formal independence to gain friends and build up trust and sympathy from neighboring countries. East Timor will open its first diplomatic mission in Jakarta soon.

    Ramos Horta was also in a conciliatory mood when asked about  Indonesia's hesitance to bring to justice those accused of war crimes in East Timor before and immediately after the independence vote.

    "We will wait. We don't want to make life difficult for them, but if they fail to deliver, then there can be no other option (to a U.N. tribunal trying them)," said Ramos Horta.

    After attending Ramos Horta's address this month, Shefali Rekhi of Singapore's English-language daily Straits Times observed that the absence of euphoria over East Timor's newfound freedom was striking.

    "Displaying pragmatism, the leader campaigned for support, assistance and recognition from nations of this region. There was no rancor against Indonesia.  Instead there was talk of mending fences," said Rekhi.

     Indonesia  has also been making conciliatory gestures toward East Timor in recent months.

    After the ASEAN informal summit here last month, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid accused Singapore of acting selfishly in rejecting his proposal to admit East Timor and Papua New Guinea -- which is an observer -- into the regional grouping.

    He threatened to form a West Pacific Forum (WPF) which would include Indonesia,  East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines -- but not Singapore.

    Since then, Australia and New Zealand have responded positively to the idea. The two countries's foreign ministers said after a meeting in Auckland this month that they would start drawing up a framework for the new body.

    Ramos Horta said that East Timor would be interested in joining such a forum "as long as that does not mean exclusion from ASEAN," which he called "irreplaceable."

    While Australia in particular seems to be very keen on Wahid's West Pacific Forum idea -- probably seeing a chance for Canberra to link up formally with Asia and make progress on what has been a long-time aim of the government -- the proposal has gotten flak in both  Indonesia  and Singapore.

    The Indonesian daily Kompas reported last week that a seminar in Jakarta of academics, government officials and legislators rejected the West Pacific Forum proposal as a "wrong time to propose a new forum." They criticised Wahid for proposing it without prior consultation with Parliament.

    Quoting an unnamed senior Indonesian foreign ministry official, the Straits Times said that Wahid's main aim in proposing the West Pacific Forum was to manage and contain an independent East Timor, and have it clearly within the Southeast Asian circle and not in Australia's shadow.

    "The President's view is that East Timor should not be left out in the cold. He does not want Australia to be the only country deciding development there," the official said.

    "His preference was for ASEAN to rope in East Timor, so that  Indonesia, as one of the member states, could watch over it. Having failed to secure this, he had to come up with this West Pacific Forum idea," the same official added.

    Jakarta is worried about Australia pumping so much money into East Timor. In addition to economic projects, Canberra has offered $ 8.5 million to develop East Timor's defense capability.

    "Australia therefore figures prominently in Mr. Abdurrahman's foreign policy calculus," observed Straits Times analyst Derwin Pereira. "The pact (WPF) would allow him not just to watch over East Timor, but also to keep tabs on Australian initiatives in the area." 

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