Subject: DIPLOMATIC DESPATCHES: An island that holds promise for Malaysia

New Straits Times

DIPLOMATIC DESPATCHES: An island that holds promise for Malaysia Balan Moses

Jan 09: After nearly two decades of tumult that saw it getting its independence, Timor Leste is trying to hold its own in the community of Southeast Asian nations. The country is calling on neighbours for help to get it moving.

IN his small office at the embassy of Timor Leste, an unremarkable edifice almost hidden at the far end of Jalan Ampang Hilir, Kuala Lumpur, ambassador Djafar Amude Alkatiri, speaks about the long road to progress for his fledgling nation.

It is a journey that the politician-turned-diplomat is passionate about after a lifetime of involvement in the independence struggle of the island state.

The wrinkles on the face of the 50-something former paramedic betray the rigours of the political and personal battles that he has waged in the last three decades.

It has not been easy for the Muslim leader who looks nothing like the troublemaker that he was made out to be by Indonesian authorities who threw him into jail for three years.

Although he and most of his countrymen lost almost all of what they had cherished as a people, his disposition does not indicate the extent of psychological and physical hurt suffered.

"It is time for us to forget the past and get along with life," says the chain-smoking envoy at the tail-end of an hour-long interview that saw measured answers to searching questions on what life has been like.

What comes through is the face of a pacifist who wants the past to remain where it should and not cloud the future.

"What good can it do for anyone to relive the past? We have a tremendous task ahead of us that requires our total commitment," he says stoically.

An example of his total dedication to peace with Indonesia, which invaded the then East Timor nine days after it declared itself independent from Portugal on Nov 28, 1975, is the fact that his son is studying medicine in Jakarta.

"My Government wants good relations with Indonesia and all of us have a role to play," he says.

Djafar, a reluctant first- time diplomat, had earlier turned down an offer from his Foreign Minister Dr Jose Ramos-Horta to represent the nation in Kuala Lumpur.

He and members of the Timor Leste Cabinet led by President Xanana Gusmao see Malaysia as the nation that can play a leading role in helping his country.

"I cannot sufficiently describe the role that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad played in our independence struggle. We hold him in very high regard," he says in Bahasa Indonesia which an aide at times translates into English.

Djafar, who understands English but is more comfortable in Bahasa Indonesia, is unstoppable as he launches into accounts of how Malaysia has helped his nation.

But he is also pragmatic in realising that the past is only helpful if it can mould a better future for his country.

And this is where he feels Malaysia can lend a helping hand to put Timor Leste back on its feet.

The affable envoy, who has been in Malaysia for a little over two years, wants the record to show that numerous Timor Leste officials and youths have been trained by Malaysia.

"It would not be wrong to say that there are some people from Timor Leste being trained in Malaysia on any given day in the year."

Djafar is very clear on what he wants to achieve in the years to come.

He hopes Malaysia will accept workers from Timor Leste, Malaysians will invest in his country and Malaysian manufacturers will consider using the island as an entreport.

"We have large export quotas for European Union nations and countries like Australia which Malaysians can use," he says

He also understands that Malaysian investors could not obtain a foothold in Timor Leste in the past as the legal and institutional infrastructure was not in place.

"But we have been working hard to get these into place. Now is the time for Malaysian businessmen to head for Timor Leste.

"They will not be disappointed."

And what are the areas ripe for Malaysian investment?

The agricultural sector with emphasis on oil palm; the marble industry ("we have black marble"); and the oil and gas industry, for a start.

Djafar is speaking to as many Malaysians as possible about investing in oil palm cultivation in Timor Leste besides getting contractors interested in infrastructure projects.

Petronas, he says with an air of confidence, is most likely to make good next month (February) on its assurance of exploring for oil and gas off Timor Leste.

"We want to create jobs for our youths. Most of the soldiers are out of jobs," he says.

"Forty per cent of all people in Timor Leste are without jobs."

But Timor Leste is not about to moan about its predicament.

"We are like a baby who has to walk. We are trying to walk and with a little help we will be walking well soon."

Djafar is special for more reason than the fact that he represents a nation that was the focus of the world at one time.

As a Muslim, he is a member of a community that represents only one per cent of the people of Timor Leste.

Has representing a predominantly Roman Catholic country made his job in Malaysia difficult?

"Actually, relations between the various communities in Timor Leste are excellent.

"I represent all the people of my country, regardless of faith."

Much like Malaysia which, he says, is a model of racial and religious tolerance.

With Djafar at the helm in Kuala Lumpur, Timor Leste can be assured that its journey to progress will inevitably pass through Malaysia which will continue to hold out its hand of friendship.

* Note: Timor was colonised in the 16th century by Portugal which ceded the western portion of the island to the Netherlands in the late 1800s.

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