May 20, 2009

Seventh Anniversary of East Timorese Independence

The 20th of May is the anniversary of East Timor’s recognition as an independent state, and its ascension to the UN as a member state. 

Today is the seventh anniversary of the Restoration of Independence, which celebrates the handover of government from the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) to the Timorese in 2002. It also marks the day when East Timor became a member of the UN, the first new independent state of the 21st century.
East Timor is a former UNPO member, and now holds the status of supporting member. The UNPO is proud to have worked with East Timor towards the goal of independence, and would like to express its congratulations on reaching this landmark.

Below is an interview conducted on the eve of achievement of independence, with Michael van Walt van Praag, legal advisor to the UNPO who had worked in East Timor for six months prior to the declaration of independence.
Q: What did your work involve?

A: I worked as legal advisor of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Jose Ramos-Horta in facilitating the transition to independence of East Timor. That involved prioritisation and preparing East Timor’s accession to a number of international treaties, which would make it possible for East Timor to operate as a fully independent state after independence on the 20th of May. I also provided advice on a number of issues, legal and political, relating to East Timor’s future international position. So we looked at two broad areas of treaties which are important to East Timor because of its moral standing and position as a small state in that part of the world. One of the areas is disarmament, nuclear non-proliferaton and humanitarian law, all treaties that have to do with reducing the use internationally of weapons of mass destruction and weapons that cause unnecessary harm and damage to civilians.
The other area being the mulilateral human rights treaties. During the time I was there we started preparing for both of these groups of treaties which include the International Criminal Court Statute and the Convention of the Status of Refugees. In addition treaties that relate to diplomatic and consular relations had to be prepared. And of course preparing for the application and membership of East Timor to the United Nations which should formally take place in the third week of September.

Q: In terms of economic treaties was there much work to be done?
A: In that area its primarily a question of East Timor participating in regional treaties and groupings, one of them being ASEAN. It certainly seems at this point East Timor will see that as a high priority. There’s a number of treaties within the ASEAN group that relate to economic relationships, but also security: increasing regional security. There’s one treaty that relates also to the nuclear free zone of ASEAN countries. The other regional grouping is called Pacific Islands Forum, which is similar to ASEAN in a way. It’s a cooperation between different countries in primarily the South Pacific and also includes security and nuclear free zone treaties. So East Timor at the moment has not yet become a party to either grouping but is striving to become observer in both and slowly move towards one or the other or if possible participating to some extent in both. Its almost at the crossroads of these two groupings. Its both a Pacific island, but its also part of South East Asia, so its important to be part of both.

Q: As a new state, with small economic means, how will East Timor approach representing itself internationally?
A: Its difficult. East Timor at the moment is one of the poorest countries in the world, if not the poorest. It does have resources, it has oil, gas, natural resources in terms of agriculture that can all be developed. Economically over the next three to five years its going to be very difficult. After that, once oil and gas is exploited, this will help the national budget and East Timor will become a mid-range country. There’s one hitch in relation to oil and gas and that is, that on independence day on the 20th of May a treaty was signed between East Timor and Australia concer-ning the joint exploitation of some of these oil reserves, because they are in the Timor straight, a piece of sea between East Timor and Australia. As part of it the maritime boundary was demarcated for purposes of oil exploitation and it seems clear that Australia has put East Timor under pressure to agree to a boundary demarcation which favours Australia in terms of the oil reserves. So for East Timor this can mean a major difference in terms of its income. For Australia it does not mean a great difference in terms of its GNP, but for East Timor it could mean the double income.
That is a problem which many East Timor are aware of, that they’ve not been treated entirely fairly in terms of this treaty and hopefullty some day there will be some chance of revising it. But even under the current agreement East Timor will get sufficient revenue to become largely self-sufficient. In the meantime its going to be very difficult, so the East Timorese have decided to open only five embassies abroad, and that’s probably the limit of the budget they are going to have. Even those are being opened to some extent with the assistance of the host countries. Portugal will be assisting the establishment of the embassy in Portugal, Malaysia will be assisting in establishing one in Kualur Lumpur, and there will be one in the United States, most likely in New York, to serve both the United Nations and also as the Embassy to the US. There will be one at the European Union in Brussels and a very important embassy in Jakarta Indonesia - the largest embassy and perhaps the most difficult one to manage.

Q: What’s the mood of the population now generally that they have achieved independence and are faced with the economic and political challenges that entails?
A: Its mixed. The East Timorese have been struggling for independence for a long long time and have made tremendous sacrifices for it. The population has really been looking forward to the date of independence. I think everybody is really very happy that finally they are independent and are no longer being oppressed by the Indonesians, which they really were and I think everybody experienced in a very concrete way. That, I think, is all positive. And suddenly the independence celebrations and immediately afterwards the mood was extremely happy and relieved that this had all gone without major incidents in the independence day (although of course very big sacrifices were made at the time of the referendum two years earlier, when many people were killed and everything was destroyed). At the same time many people are apprehensive about how East Timor is going to manage its affairs, given very limited capacity, also within the government, limited resources, and big dependency on bilateral assistance, on possible World bank loans, on Australian assistance Portuguese assistance, EU assistance, which of course always means that there’s something you must do in return. So the independence has then to be managed very well, and there’s apprehension about how the economy is going to go.
For the last two years East Timor was under United Nations administration which again was a mixed blessing. I don’t know if any other organisation could have managed this transition as well as the UN did. I think they did a good job. At the same time their presence was an overwhelming one, a huge bureaucracy and a very expensive one. It created a kind of artificial economy, particularly in Dili but also elsewhere, whereby all the prices went up tremendously to cater to the international expats who were there, making a lot of things no longer accessible to the East Timorese, but at the same time pumping a little bit of money into the economy. Now with the end of that administration and the withdrawal of a lerge number of UN personnel that artificial economy is collapsing, and that’s creating a new difficulty to cope with. So its mixed feelings. Politically, I think clearly everybody is happy.
Some fear possible return of violence from some of the pro-integration militia who may still be upset about the outcome. They’ve been supported and organised by Indonesian military and although the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor now are very good, and both sides have been working hard to make them good, there are still elements in the military that are not reliable and are not being controlled. The same elements that are causing trouble in the South Mollucas, Papua and Acheh could also always cause some trouble for East Timor. Not inside East Timor, because they are not there, but in relation to East Timor, they could still cause trouble. There’s some anxiety among the population. The government seems to be quite confident that nothing major will go wrong. There are still thousands of UN troops, especially along the border area, and still a multinational civilian police force, so there is a kind of buffer guarantee for security. But much of the population still has an uneasy feeling of what might happen when East Timor is left alone.

Q: What was your impression of the country?
A: It’s a beautiful country. Really a paradise on earth in terms of natural beauty and resources. Enough fish of the most beautiful kinds. Beautiful birds and trees, and everything grows. The people are very nice, very friendly, intelligent, engaging people. The difficulty is really the poverty which you see all over, and the consequences of some 450 years of colonialism, first the Portuguese and then the Indonesians, which have sucked much of the economic potential out ot East Timor. Especially two years ago when the Indonesians left, they really destroyed everything entirely. They made very clear before leaving, and they fulfilled their promise that they would not leave anything behind for the East Timorese. They destroyed all the buildings, all the villages, all the property, plus of course a lot of people. That’s a very difficult situation to start building a country with, because everything has to be rebuilt from scratch.

Q: Does Suharto’s family and some of the military still have economic interests in East Timor?
A: I don’t think many have any economic interests any more. They clearly do in all parts of Indonesia, but in East Timor they’ve really cut everything off, so I don’t see where they could really have any economic interest. They might reestablish them, but at the moment - They destroyed everything there was so there wasn’t any functioning business or activity anymore.