The Irish Times - January 31, 2005
All to play for in East Timor's modest aid gesture - Douglas Keatinge
Letter from Dili: Last week the President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao,
flew to Jakarta, the city in which he was held prisoner by the Indonesian
government for seven years.
The reason for his trip, though, was one of reconciliation, not revenge,
for he presented the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with
the monies raised by the East Timorese to help tsunami victims in
disaster-hit Aceh province, which lies at the other end of the Indonesian
Among the fundraising events held in Timor was a football match in the
capital Dili. An army team played against the police, with President Gusmao
clad in a bright yellow referee jersey keeping order on the pitch. The
ticket prices were low; no surprise given that this is the poorest county
in Asia: 50 US cents to stand, $2.50 for a seat. For some even this was too
high and there were plenty who attended the match by jumping over the fence
or climbing up well-positioned trees around the ground.
Whether they had paid or not, all gave Mr Gusmao a hero's welcome on his
arrival - although political power in the country now rests with Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri, President Gusmao remains a Mandela-like figurehead
for this, the world's youngest democracy.
After the game (won 3-2 by the police team, against the run of play) a
barely perspiring Mr Gusmao explained that the match was a "gesture of
solidarity by the East Timorese people with the victims of the tsunami".
The gesture is impressive not just because it is directed at the old enemy
of Indonesia, but also because of East Timor's poverty: the price of a
ticket to the match is the average daily income for many of the country's
population of 920,000.
In 1999 the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from
24 years of Indonesia rule. It wasn't that simple, though, and the vote was
followed by bloody fighting as Indonesian-backed anti-independence militias
destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and killed an estimated
Full independence under the protection of the UN came on May 20th, 2002,
with former resistance leader Mr Gusmao winning the position of president,
backed by 83 per cent of the popular vote.
The tsunami relief donation to Indonesia can be seen as part of a wider
policy of reconciliation with the former coloniser. As trials of former
militia members continue in Dili, and international human rights groups
press for prosecutions of senior figures in the Indonesian army, the new
government of East Timor has made a tactical decision that good relations
with its much bigger neighbour are in the long term more important than an
aggressive campaign for justice for the victims of 1999.
East Timor was untouched by the impact of the tsunami, apart from a false
alarm on January 2nd when unusually high waters on the Dili waterfront
sparked panic that a second tsunami was approaching. Police appealed for
calm, calling through loudhailers for people to return to their homes as
hundreds fled for the safety of Dili's surrounding hills.
Avoiding the tsunami was all the more fortunate given that the country is
still struggling to develop its infrastructure and economy, despite massive
international aid assistance.
One big hope for the future is the possibility of multibillion dollar
revenues from oil and gas fields discovered in the sea between East Timor
and Australia. However, development of the most promising site - the
Greater Sunrise - has stalled as Timor resists an agreement that would see
Australia receive the lion's share of the money despite its shoreline being
five times further away from the gas find.
The difference between the two countries' economic situations is starkly
illustrated by the amounts their governments have been able to afford to
contribute to the tsunami relief effort. Australia has pledged more than
US$750 million, while East Timor's government can afford to pledge just
It's not much, but most will agree with the sentiments expressed by
President Gusmao after last weekend's football match. "Our appeal is: you
give what you can."