The most gratifying and yet most under-reported news of the month was the way East Timor’s second presidential election was held peacefully and how its unexpected outcome was honoured.
For a small nation that has experienced endemic unrest and grotesque violence during its 10-year lifespan, it was a tremendous achievement.
The March 17 poll resulted in the surprise defeat of Jose Ramos-Horta, the incumbent president, who garnered only 18 per cent of the vote and thus failed to make it to next month’s run-off.
The big winners were Fretilin party leader Francisco Guterres with 28 per cent of the vote and former armed forces head Tuar Matan Ruak with 25 per cent.
Ruak is a former member of Fretilin, the movement that led East Timor’s liberation struggle, first against Portugal, then against Indonesia.
He and Guterres will go head to head on April 21 in the second round of voting and the winner will need to do better than Ramos-Horta, who failed to alleviate the chronic impoverishment of his people.
Despite vast oil and gas reserves, East Timor remains one of Asia’s poorest nations. The jobless rate is off the map, transport facilities are woeful and potable water and medical services are unavailable to most people.
Yet, after wining and dining contacts at the United Nations in New York during the campaign for independence, Ramos-Horta remained a favourite of the West.
Something of a dilettante, he has much in common with his fellow Nobel laureate, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, although he lacks her ruthless political savvy and almost prescient sense of destiny.
His replacement will face a heavy workload, first needing to oversee the departure of UN forces based in East Timor at the end of this year, and then aggressively pushing for admission to ASEAN.
Given the remarkable stability witnessed during the election, it will be hard for certain self-centred members of the regional grouping to continue to block Dili’s longstanding bid to join.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have already endorsed its entry, but Singapore, supported by Laos and Cambodia, has stubbornly vetoed the move, claiming East Timor is not yet ready for membership.
It is a stupid and myopic stance, especially since the Asia Development Bank recently forecast that oil-rich East Timor will grow by at least 8.5 per cent this year.
More crucially, as a member of ASEAN, the young nation will find it easier to handle the intense and growing tussle for influence in Dili between the superpowers, China and the United States.
Washington, which has belatedly begun to pivot more towards Asia, has already given $25 million in aid to East Timor and has unequivocally voiced support for its bid to join ASEAN.
In reality, however, American influence has lagged behind that of China and it is likely to lag even further behind when Guterres or Ruak – both left-leaning politicians – takes over the presidency.
China has already won plaudits in Dili by constructing a new presidential palace, as well as a new foreign ministry building, defence headquarters and residences for the military.
Chinese companies are also involved in building power plants and supplying patrol boats and other military equipment.
Meanwhile, many Chinese small and medium businesses have flocked to East Timor, while China’s state-owned Exim Bank has started to negotiate a massive $3 billion soft loan for much-needed infrastructure development.
In contrast to its heavy-handedness elsewhere in the region, Beijing’s quiet charm offensive in East Timor has been immensely effective.
Dili has already displayed its appreciation by backing Beijing on various international issues, such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights.
So it is hardly surprising that Washington has voiced growing concern about the increased cooperation between Beijing and Dili, especially in the military sector.
If that trend is to be balanced, then it is imperative that US allies around the region get their act together and welcome East Timor into ASEAN as soon as possible.
By Roger Mitton
Contact the Post's Regional Correspondent at [email protected]