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A decade after independence, East Timor's surprising best friend? Indonesia.

Ten years ago, East Timor was reeling from Indonesia's scorched-earth withdrawal after two-plus decades of occupation. Today it sees its huge neighbor as a crucial partner.

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But there are concerns that Dili’s oil bubble is dangerously unsustainable, with much of the money stolen or wasted.  The economy is now 95 percent oil-reliant, yet the petrodollars may dry up as early as 2022. Time is short, and the list of needs is long.  

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The road network is crumbling, reliable electricity supply remains elusive, and the majority of the population remains subsistence farmers who earn less than a dollar a day and survive on what they grow.  

Indonesia at the center

President Ruak will be guiding a National Development Plan that projects that East Timor will become a middle-income country in the next generation. That ambitious goal has Indonesia at its center.

The occupation, generations of intermarriage, and geographical proximity are the foundations for the expanding relationship. Some 6,000 Timorese are studying everything from human rights to chemical engineering at Indonesian universities.
Believing that integration into the region is critical, the Timorese have made a bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Singapore blocked the move last year, but the Timorese have Indonesia in their corner on the bid. As the largest member of the group, Indonesia carries a lot of weight.  

And ties to the once-hated Indonesian security establishment have been expanding. Last year, Indonesia's Gen. Tri Sutrisno (ret.) attended a ceremony with senior military officials to commemorate the founding of FALINTIL, the independence army that fought Indonesia for almost 20 years. Sutrisno presided over the 1992 capture of Timorese independence hero Xanana Gusmao, who became East Timor's first president and is the current prime minister.

The youthful Julio Pinto, currently secretary of State for defense, arranged that visit ,and he represents one vision for the future. Mr. Pinto has warm relations with the Indonesian defense and security establishment and was educated in Indonesia, where he converted to Islam. He’s also the nephew of Ruak.

The military ties have left many Timorese uncomfortable. Many complain that no Indonesian military officers have ever been tried for the crimes against humanity for which the UN indicted them in 2003. While the lack of justice remains a sore point, the official stance in Dili is that Timorese must allow Indonesia to reform at its own pace, and that they are in no position to press the issue.  Washington, London, Canberra, and Tokyo are also mute on the matter.

Since Sutrisno’s visit, a wide array of joint defense and security initiatives has been under discussion. At the independence commemoration, and with Yudhoyono looking on, Ruak appeared to call for a formal military alliance to “safeguard the security ... and well being of our peoples.”  

With general elections planned for July 7, Prime Minister Gusmao seeks to continue his program of rapid and dramatic reconstruction of East Timor. He is counting on Indonesia’s help. In a recent fundraiser for his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction Party, more than $2.5 million was raised to support his reelection campaign, of which 25 percent came from Indonesian companies heavily involved in rebuilding East Timor’s infrastructure.


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