23 August 2009

Timor: Paradise still lost

August 21, 2009 11:30pm The Advertiser (Australia) Cameron England Paradise still lost - TEN years ago, East Timor voted to become an independent nation after years of colonisation, repression and violence. So what has changed?

THE VIEW FROM the beer garden of Dili's Hotel Turismo is a picture postcard tropical paradise. The courtyard's arches frame a blue ocean with yachts and fishing boats bobbing about. Food hawkers and taxi drivers catch a quick nap by the beach. And around the chipped circle of cement at the centre of the beer garden, adorned with a faded Victoria Bitter emblem, are sandalwood, coca and aloe plants. It is easy believe you're in just another laid-back, slightly faded South East-Asian paradise. But watch a little longer, perhaps long enough for the first Bintang or Tiger beer to put a dent in your tropical thirst, and the true nature of Dili will start to emerge.

A low-flying military chopper clatters overhead, travelling somewhere at pace. A good number of the thousand or so United Nations vehicles, predominantly gleaming white Toyota Landcruisers - some with smash-proof wire covering their windows - rumble by to break up the idyllic view. If you're lucky the convoy of feted former freedom fighter and now Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao will barrel past, heading for his heavily fortified residence adjacent to the hotel, where UN soldiers stand guard with machine guns ready.

You might, even allowing for the soothing effect of the beer, come up with a few questions you'd like to ask the Prime Minister about his fledgling nation. Maybe you wonder what all the troops are still doing here, and what sort of progress has been made in kick-starting this economy to boost the Third World conditions many of the people live in. You might even want to raise the topic everyone seems to talk about, corruption, and what he's doing to stamp it out.

But, if you're like me, you won't get the chance. The message delivered to our East Timorese fixer was that the PM was too busy, or maybe not interested, in meeting the group of eight visiting Australian journalists in Dili recently. It's disappointing, because 10 years after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia, the questions won't go away. Is the world's newest nation already sinking into the mire of corruption? Are the people benefiting from better health and education? Australia has invested a lot of money and effort to help East Timor and failure of such a close northern neighbour would be a real concern.

Ten years ago, on August 30, 1999, Gusmao was still under house arrest in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. On the streets of Dili, and across the tiny soon-to-be nation, his countrymen and women were casting their votes in a UN-backed independence referendum, giddy with the prospect of ruling themselves for the first time in centuries.

That elation was soon to fade. Almost 80 per cent of East Timor's tiny population - now just more than one million - voted in favour of independence. Instead of celebration, the vote spurred an outbreak of violence across the then Indonesian province as pro-Jakarta militias went on a week-long terror campaign, killing about 1400 people and forcing an estimated 300,000 over the border into West Timor as refugees.

The killings produced a foreign policy crisis for Australia, which led the push for an international force to impose security. On September 20, the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), led by Australian General Peter Cosgrove, started deploying to East Timor to put an end to the violence. That also put paid to Australia's cosy relationship with Indonesia. Australian forces have remained there, with 650 currently deployed to maintain security.

On May 20, 2002, Timor Leste was officially recognised as a nation. Gusmao, the Guevara-like figure who had inspired his people for the 24 years of the Indonesian occupation, during which 100,000-250,0000 people lost their lives, was its first president. Full source story here.

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