Burma-Timor Leste Forge Closer Ties – The Irrawaddy



Burma Foreign Minister Nyan Win concluded a three-day goodwill visit to Timor Leste on Sunday, after being met by protestors at Dili’s international airport on Friday.

According to a Timorese journalist who requested that his name not be used, a small group of mainly university students clashed with police at Presidente Nicolau Lobato Airport.

Juvinal Diaz, who attended the demonstration, said that although the rally was peaceful, police seized banners and placards protesting the visit. According to eyewitnesses, Nyan Win was unable to leave the airport for more than an hour while the demonstration took place.

The visit comes as Timor Leste, the official name for the country also known as East Timor, continues its quest for membership in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Dili needs agreement from all current Asean member-states before it can join.

Speaking on Friday, Timor Leste President Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta said, “We want to increase our relations,” adding that “this is in accordance with Timor-Leste policy, which aims to improve relations with neighboring countries.”

Timorese Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa will visit Burma soon, according to Ramos-Horta, to foster commercial ties between the two countries.

Oil and gas aside, Timor-Leste is highly import-dependent, with a mainly subsistence economy. Timor’s energy revenues are paid into a national petroleum fund, aimed at ensuring responsible and sustainable spending and retaining sufficient cash after offshore oil and gas reserves are depleted. While the current government has been criticized for over-spending from the reserves, the system is in marked contrast to the opaque natural resource economics in Burma, which exports most its oil and gas.

As seen by the airport demonstration, not everybody is happy with Dili’s attempts to form a closer relationship with the military government in Naypyidaw.

Zoya Phan,the international coordinator at Burma Campaign UK, told The Irrawaddy that she believes Nyan Win’s visit to Burma is part of the junta’s campaign to gain recognition for the upcoming Nov. 7 elections, which have been dismissed for their restrictive campaign measures.

She said, “East Timor should reject this fake election and pressure him [Nyan Win] to enter into genuine negotiations with democracy forces and ethnic groups.”

Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony which was invaded by Indonesia shortly after the fall of the military dictatorship in Lisbon in 1974, which brought about Portugal’s rapid withdrawal from its colonies. An estimated 200,000 Timorese, out of a population of around 700,000, died during the occupation, which lasted until 1999. The country’s post-independence Constitution says that Timor-Leste should show solidarity with other oppressed people’s around the world.

In the past, Ramos-Horta has vociferously condemned the policies of the Burmese junta. Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace prize with Bishop Carlos Belo in 1996, five years after Burma’s jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the same award.

During Nyan Win’s weekend visit, Ramos-Horta said that a national dialogue toward reconciliation in Burma should be implemented, and that Aung San Suu Kyi should be freed to participate. The statements echo remarks he made in February, when welcoming the new Burmese ambassador.

Asked whether Dili is softening its stance on Burma, Ramos-Horta’s spokesman said that this was not the case, stating that “Timor-Leste keeps supporting the sanctions against Myanmar at the United Nations.”

Asean membership would require Timor-Leste to accede to various economic and free trade agreements, though not necessarily immediately. However, some membership provisions could adversely affect Dili’s scope to develop its non-oil economy, according to Shona Hawkes of La’o Hamutuk of the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis.

Nyan Win’s Dili trip came directly after an official visit by Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, who encouraged Singaporean businessmen to visit Timor-Leste. He was reported in Singaporean media as saying, “We want Timor Leste to do well, to show that other small countries facing difficult circumstances can also succeed.”

However, Yeo reportedly poured cold water on Dili’s Asean membership bid, which may mean ambitions to join the bloc by 2012 will not be realized. Shona Hawkes told The Irrawaddy that although Timor-Leste has made a start on its Asean membership, apparently some member-states have concerns that Dili lacks the resources to attend and contribute to the bloc’s 800-plus meetings per year. President Ramos-Horta’s spokesman confirmed in an email that Timor-Leste has postponed its prospective accession to Asean, “due to delays in the process at the national level”, and the need for further training for Government staff.

Nonetheless, Dili will host Asean Regional Forum gatherings in November and December, with Thailand supporting the staging of the 5th ARF Experts and Eminent Persons Meeting.

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