New Zealand and the Refusal of Fear

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Fundasaun Mahein celebrates with the entire country the safe evacuation of seventeen Timorese students from the coronavirus epicenter of Wuhan, China, to New Zealand, and wishes to extend its warmest thanks to New Zealand: this is an important example of what it looks like to be a good neighbor.

New Zealand’s actions, in agreeing to not only extend its evacuation and quarantine efforts to citizens beyond its own—including not just Timor-Leste, but other resource-poor nations such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga—is also a striking example of humanity over fear. With reports that the Timorese students in Wuhan beginning to run out of food, even as their home country lacked the resources to safely evacuate and quarantine them, this last week has been a marathon of Timorese leaders requesting assistance from various governments, all of which were flatly refused: from Beijing to Shanghai, and several times to Bali, which declined under pressure from the tourism sector. All of which highlights that New Zealand’s government has shown compassion when it did not have to—and in so doing, taken a great step forward in bilateral cooperation between our two nations.

What FM is calling for is not total veneration of New Zealand—for all that New Zealand certainly deserves a great deal of commendation for its current actions, the history between our two countries is too complicated for that—but for this gesture to serve as a reminder to our people and our leaders that it is humanity, not fear, that has always kept Timor-Leste safe. During Timor’s struggle for independence, a key turn came when the individuals and nations began to support our nation’s right to freedom and choose humanity over fear of reprisals from Indonesia; this week, Timor-Leste operated with the same spirit when it sent four PNTL (the National Police of Timor-Leste) officers on a United Nations peacekeeping mission to South Sudan.

And yet, even as our government was requesting compassion and aid in the safe removal of our citizens from Wuhan, Timor-Leste had a one-day debacle of barring holders of Chinese passports—regardless of where they were coming from—rather than travelers who had recently been to China: an ineffectual and fear-driven policy that FM had specifically warned against. Fortunately, this was swiftly rectified. However, with the coronavirus unlikely to be contained in the near future, and with the unique threats that it poses to Timor-Leste’s fragile healthcare system, this is unlikely to be our last test. In the days ahead, FM asks that we remember the kindness shown by New Zealand in evacuating seventeen students from Wuhan, and to refuse to let fear dictate our decisions. Fear has never made us strong.

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