February 2nd 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: TRANSPORT: End of the line for rail freight?

FINANCE: Sub-prime mortgage crisis paralyses credit system

EDITORIAL: East Timor's new beginning

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Economic storm facing new government

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: A stern test for multiculturalism

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Family values overlooked in the market-place

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Reading the signs for the New Year (Through a hedge backwards...) / Hijacking foreign aid / Sub-prime lending crisis / Was Hitler's defeat inevitable?

AFGHANISTAN: Confronting terrorists and the drug trade

WOMEN UNDER ISLAM: Silence of the "sisterhood"

EDUCATION: The threat to our literary heritage

OPINION: Who is the real Kevin Rudd?

Global warming? Stop and think! (letter)

Flaws in our voting system (letter)

Who is running the country? (letter)

Barack Obama on foreign despots (letter)

Alternative to capitalism and communism? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Juvenile crime in Britain / Feminist magazine's anti-Israel bias

GOD AND CAESAR: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society by Cardinal George Pell

BOOKS: CULTURAL AMNESIA: Notes in the Margin of My Time, by Clive James

THE TORCH AND THE SWORD: A History of the Army Cadet Movement in Australia, by Craig A. Stockings

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East Timor's new beginning

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, February 2, 2008
Australia's media have failed to report that East Timor is faring noticeably better under its new government.

For a country which has been plagued by instability since 2006, when a collapse of law and order under the Fretilin-controlled government led to near civil war, East Timor is now showing clear signs of emerging from its troubled past and forging a new beginning.

I spent the New Year in East Timor, and was encouraged by the signs of progress which have emerged over the past six months since elections were held which democratically replaced the Marxist Fretilin government with a stable multi-party coalition government.

The Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, now leads a government which includes three other parties, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and ASDT, which were formerly in opposition.

In a country which is overwhelmingly Christian, it was a historical paradox that the ruling party, Fretilin, was hostile to the Church, which provides much of the country's functioning health and education services, particularly outside the capital, Dili.

Fretilin rejected

The United Nations permitted Fretilin to take power after the country became independent in 2002, without facing elections. However, the people decisively rejected Fretilin in the first parliamentary elections held in June 2007.

The problems in East Timor are most obvious in Dili, the capital, where unemployment rates are probably 50 per cent; and tens of thousands of people still live in tents after being forced from their homes during the violence in 2006.

Most obviously, the streets are now safer. Gang violence, a result of high unemployment and a sense of hopelessness, has substantially diminished, as was recently reported by the head of the UN Police (UNPOL), which has had responsibility for security in Dili since 2006.

He said the reduction in gang activity was partly due to the elections that were held last year.

Having said that, the continued international security presence is vital, as ethnic tensions were fuelled by the trouble in 2006, and have not yet died down.

Also noticeable in the capital is the increased reliability of electricity, which previously was routinely turned off at night, making travel after dark extremely hazardous. Additional street lighting has also helped improve security.

Around Dili itself, the government has engaged people to work in repairing streets and footpaths - a necessary work which was largely ignored in the previous seven and a half years since Indonesia was forced out of the country.

Perhaps most significant of all, the new government has brought down its first budget which includes an old-age pension and a payment to war veterans who were engaged in the military struggle for independence against Indonesia.

These initiatives, uncommon in South-East Asia, are a clear reflection of the new government's commitment to social justice.

Nothing of this has been reported in the Australian or international media.

Paradoxically, the government in East Timor has access to a large financial nest-egg, the government's petroleum fund, into which royalties pour from the natural gas field in the Timor Sea, located between Australia and East Timor.

The petroleum fund currently has almost $2 billion invested in US government securities, and is growing at a rate of almost $1 billion a year. However, under laws enacted by the former Fretilin government, the capital invested in this fund cannot be touched. This contributes to the lack of money in circulation, particularly in rural areas.

The challenge for the new government is to ensure that in the years ahead, the oil and gas revenue is invested in infrastructure, industry, education and agricultural development, to ensure the economic viability of East Timor and improve living standards for the country's one million people.

The country still has other significant difficulties. Basic infrastructure around East Timor is still poor, and it lacks many of the basic functions which governments provide: a postal system, a banking system and a transparent legal system.

Portugal, the former colonial power, has a strong presence in East Timor. Australia, which has played a vital role in protecting the Timorese people twice in the past decade, is almost invisible, despite the presence of around 1,000 military personnel.

Communist China has a far higher profile, particularly with the nearly-completed massive Foreign Ministry building, which it donated to East Timor, and its construction of a new Presidential Palace, being built on the main road into Dili from the airport. China has also offered to construct a new Parliament Building, to replace the inadequate temporary parliament built by Australia in 2002.

The new government in East Timor is favourably disposed towards Australia and Australians, unlike Fretilin. If Australia is to have a true partnership with East Timor, it will have to engage far more effectively over the months and years ahead.

- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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