Monday, February 18, 2008

The East Timor Conundrum

Within days after Timorese rebels attempted to overthrow the government of East Timor, Australia’s new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, flew to Dili, the capital. President Jose Ramos Horta, shot in the coup attempt, was flown to a hospital in Darwin, Australia.

Rudd dispatched a naval vessel to Dili and beefed up the Australian army contingent in the country. Little by little, Australia is being sucked deeper into the East Timor morass. Little by little, East Timor is becoming a dependency of its large neighbor.

East Timor is the Haiti of Southeast Asia, miserably poor, badly governed, unfriendly to business, internally divided, chronically unstable. Jakarta must be happy to have pawned the territory off from itself and onto Australia.

I never believed that East Timor was a viable state. The historical accident of being a colony of Portugal rather than Holland did not seem a strong argument for separation from Indonesia. How different are the Timorese from other of Indonesia’s many peoples. For that matter, how different are they from the people of West Timor, which seems to be content to remain Indonesian?

It is true that Indonesia lost the mandate of heaven to administer East Timor through its repression of the East Timorese independence movement. The irony is that East Timor broke off just as Indonesia was emerging from the years of dictatorship to become a viable democracy.

The late president Suharto’s successor, B.J. Habbibie, panicked and pushed an independence referendum onto the island in 1999, which he probably believed he could win. In fact, the vote went against continued association, and East Timor formally declared independence in 2002.
A better statesman might have assuaged East Timor grievances with more sensible autonomy such as was extended to Aceh. (Although, as the current administrators have discovered, the East Timorese are not easy to rule.)

But that’s sort of like arguing that the invasion of Iraq should never have taken place. The issue now is how to foster a more stable East Timor that can stand on its own feet, not forever dependent on Australia and other United Nations peacekeepers.

Obviously, for the near future, Australia is going to have to garrison the country and fight a low key insurgency of the remnants of the rebels. It now has about 1,000 troops in East Timor and roughly equal numbers of troops in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has other commitments, from time to time, throughout the Melanesian “arc of instability” to its north. Some might think that Canberra is becoming overextended, although columnist Greg Sheridan has argued that if Australia can’t keep about 3,500 troops overseas on a defense budget of A$22 billion, it isn’t getting value for its money.

It could help if Australia were to offer East Timor a generous guest worker program to help relieve unemployment that hits 60% or so among youth in the cities. Such liberality was anathema to the previous Howard coalition government, which adopted a very hard line on immigration and refuges.

This might be an easier program for the new labor government to sell, especially as unemployment is very low in Australia and several sectors of the economy are having labor shortages.

It is also time for Indonesia to begin taking a more active interest. Since independence, Jakarta has stayed carefully aloof, and is not implicated in the recent crisis or the one in2006 that bought international peacekeepers back. Canberra should also encourage a closer relationship.

That would include promoting Bahasa, the common lingua franca of the Malay world, and English, the international business language, rather than Portuguese, which few in East Timor use and opens few of any vistas in the region. It could also consider restoring the rupiah as the country’s main currency rather than the US dollar.


Post a Comment

<< Home