Timor: Making Up for the Timidity of the Past
ASIA-EAST TIMOR: Making Up for the Timidity of the Past
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia, Feb 10 (IPS) - East Timor's independence leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta have wrapped up their Asian tour with fresh promises of help from South-east Asian governments, keen to make up for their decades-long coolness to backing the territory's cause.
In fact, in just about every stop in the region there has been discussion about East Timor being linked in some way to the Association of South-east Asian Nations.
Some want East Timor to observe this July's meeting of ASEAN ministers and eventually become a member of South-east Asia's main diplomatic grouping of 10 countries.
Gusmao and Ramos-Horta's 40-minute encounter with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday was closely watched in particular, to see if the once frosty relations with ASEAN had thawed.
Mahathir had accused the West of inciting the East Timorese and had said the territory would have been better off if it had remained a part of Indonesia.
He also said Indonesia had done a lot to develop East Timor, which Indonesia had annexed as a province in 1976 and whose occupation bred a simmering rebellion until a UN-supervised vote in August 1999 led to an end to Jakarta's rule.
''We look at the matter as over with,'' said Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar of Kuala Lumpur's lack of sympathy for East Timor's cause, owing to a desire not to offend Indonesia.
''We want to forge ahead to regional and bilateral relations and we believe the East Timor government will be in place within two or three years,'' he added.
Gusmao, president of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, also requested Malaysia's support for it to be granted full observer status at ASEAN meetings.
''They are keen to get first-hand knowledge of ASEAN's workings, since it has been a successful regional grouping,'' said Syed Hamid.
But Syed Hamid said it did not mean that East Timor would automatically join ASEAN later. The issue, he added, would only be raised when the new nation's transitional period under United Nations administration was over. ''Maybe, after two or three years under the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor, the idea can be raised formally,'' he said.
The East Timor independence leaders' visit to the region should be an occasion for ASEAN governments to work out a ''coordinated programme'' to help rebuild East Timor, said veteran Malaysian opposition politician Lim Kit Siang.
''Malaysia should propose at the fourth ASEAN Finance Ministers' (AFMM) meeting in Brunei on March 25-26 the setting up of an ASEAN special commission to assist in the rebuilding of East Timor,'' Lim said. Each ASEAN government, added Lim, should be committed to a budgetary allocation for the commission.
''ASEAN nations should play a more active part to assist the East Timorese in their critical transition toward nationhood as well as development,'' said Lim, who also called for them to play a more prominent role in the United Nations peacekeeping force in East Timor.
The force comes under the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), which is responsible for preparing the territory for full independence and nationhood.
Lim said the first ASEAN-UN Summit in Bangkok on Feb 12 would be the ideal occasion for the announcement of an ASEAN peace-building initiative in East Timor to promote peace, development and justice.
Gusmao and Ramos-Horta's visit to Kuala Lumpur was the last leg of an 18-day six-nation Asian tour, which began on Jan 23.
During the tour aimed at promoting cooperation and improving diplomatic ties with ASEAN nations, the two leaders also set about to explore the possibility of East Timor becoming a member or at least an observer of ASEAN.
This newfound warmth is far removed from the bitter days when ASEAN governments vehemently refused to offend Indonesia by raising reports of human rights violations in East Timor or discussing independence in East Timor, and displayed little tolerance for regional pro- independence activists.
Four years ago, the Asia-Pacific Coalition for East Timor II (APCET II) conference in Kuala Lumpur was broken up by an unruly mob linked to Malaysia's ruling coalition. Authorities detained 59 participants and journalists covering the international conference for up to six days, while another 40 foreign delegates were deported.
But, on the fringes of this week's visit to Malaysia by Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, the process of soul-searching about attitudes toward East Timor has begun.
At a public forum Tuesday night attended by Gusmao and Ramos- Horta, a former leader of the youth wing of the dominant United Malays National Organisation, Saifuddin Nasution, admitted he organised the mob at the APCET conference after allegedly being instructed by a government deputy minister with the blessing of the national leadership.
The angry mob had broken the doors to the conference hall at a local hotel, and then verbally and physically abused the delegates.
'''With deep regret, I am here to offer my apology to all of you,'' Saifuddin, who is now an opposition politician, told the crowd of 500 present.
The Philippine government previously also clamped down on a similar meeting and had subsequently denied an entry visa to Ramos-Horta when he was invited to speak at a local university.
''The Asian tour has been a great success in terms of the reception from the governments and the people of the region,'' says Elizabeth Wong, a steering committee member of APCET, an umbrella group for East Timor solidarity groups in the region.
''There are other countries in ASEAN which support East Timor's entry into ASEAN judging from the very warm reception they received during their tour,'' observes Wong. ''We felt that the trip also further strengthened people-to-people solidarity.''
''From what we gather, it appears that ASEAN is very keen to have East Timor as part of the ASEAN family,'' says Wong. ''East Timor leaders have had some reservations because of the past. But ASEAN itself is changing and they (the East Timor leadership) are keeping their options open.'' (END/IPS/ap-ip-hd/an/js/00)
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