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East Timor: World's Newest Country Has Troubled Past - 2002-05-10


In a few days, U.N. administrators will leave East Timor and the territory will officially become the world's newest country. Of key concern will be its relationship with its powerful neighbor, Indonesia, a country that had occupied East Timor for 24-years and left it in shambles. Joao Lito Barros flips through pages of a guestbook at Taman Mini, a theme park in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Taman Mini is Indonesia in miniature, a park made up of cultural displays from almost every Indonesian province. East Timor is no longer held by Indonesia, but most visitors to Taman Mini's East Timor exhibition do not seem to mind.

"Sometimes they say, you can come here to visit a country without a visa, because they consider it as an independent country here. And they come here without visa," Mr. Barros said. Indonesia's history with East Timor is marked by continuing conflict, almost from the day Indonesian military invaded the territory in 1975.

In 1999, after 24-years of guerrilla fighting, Indonesia let East Timor hold a referendum on independence. By an overwhelming majority, the East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia, but that did not end the violence. Pro-Jakarta militia groups virtually destroyed East Timor in the weeks before and after that ballot. Now government officials and Indonesian military officers stand accused of crimes against humanity for their alleged part in the bloodshed. While most Indonesians do not begrudge East Timor its separate existence, many leading politicians, including two top legislators, say the independence vote was a blow to Jakarta's national dignity. They have urged President Megawati Sukarnoputri not to attend the independence festivities in Dili.

Ms. Megawati has not said she will go to Dili, but members of her government have said she wants to start her relationship with East Timor on the right foot. "Indonesia accepts the separation of East Timor from Indonesia. And since then consecutive governments, under Presidents Habibie, President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the current government under President Megawati have been consistent in their policy to develop good, neighborly relations with East Timor, which in essence [consist of] a forward looking approach and [are] reconciliative," Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said. While separate, Indonesia and East Timor will have to settle several outstanding issues, including marking their common border and bringing to justice those who were responsible for the bloodshed that surrounded the 1999 independence vote.

East Timor's President-elect Xanana Gusmao is optimistic those problems will be resolved. "East Timor and Indonesia can give a kind of light to the world that, if there is goodwill to solve problems, we can do," Mr. Gusmao said. Some analysts say Indonesia should go further than simply wish for neighborly relations with East Timor. They say Jakarta should help the new country integrate into the regional structure, especially ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That, they say, would allow Jakarta to continue its engagement with East Timor and also let Indonesia match the influence held in the region by Australia.

Andi Mallarengeng is with the Partnership for Governance Reform. "It is better for Indonesia to bring East Timor to ASEAN and to have some influence on it, rather than East Timor being isolated, and then only Australia has influence to East Timor, like with Papua New Guinea, for example. So I think a policy of engagement is much better than isolation of East Timor," he said.

On May 20, the United Nations will hand over control of East Timor to the country's newly elected leaders. They will have the difficult task of giving a future to a country without a past.

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