Subject: NZHerald: Observers face regional alignment dilemma

NZ Herald Monday August 18, 2003

Observers face regional alignment dilemma

18.08.2003 - By EUGENE BINGHAM

Its bloody history is with Indonesia, it has Australia as a giant neighbour, and it shares ethnic and cultural roots with the Pacific. In regional politics, just where does East Timor fit?

A delegation from the 16-month-old nation was in Auckland at the weekend as a special observer to the Pacific Forum. But the leader of the delegation, Prime Minister Dr Mari Alkatiri, said it faced a dilemma of whether its future was with the forum or the Asean grouping of Asian nations.

"We would like to be members of both," he said. "But because you cannot, we are observers of both."

In the future, it will decide whether to push for membership of the Pacific Forum or Asean, but Dr Alkatiri said Timor preferred to see itself as a bridge between the two regions.

Having endured 24 years of occupation by Indonesia, the Timorese finally voted for independence in 1999, leading to widespread bloodshed as soldiers and pro-Indonesian militia groups lashed out. The violence was only when the international community intervened.

Dr Alkatiri said although his people owed a lot to the world, East Timor's relationships with its neighbours were as equals.

"Without [international] assistance in the last weeks of our struggle there would have been a disaster for our country but still Timor Leste is independent now because its people fought for independence for 24 years."

That fierce pride in its independence comes despite a continuing reliance on foreign aid, including a $10 million four-year aid package from New Zealand.

Dr Alkatiri said that while it hoped one day to be self-sufficient, cuts now would have a terrible impact.

People desperately needed education and health services.

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