• SHARE

The long-thwarted hopes and dreams of the East Timorese people were realized when their country was born at midnight Sunday night. The celebrations were spectacular, but they were also tinged with fear: The world’s newest nation faces daunting challenges. Fortunately, East Timor enjoys widespread support in the international community. That support must not flag in the years ahead; there is considerable work to be done and while the chief burden must be born by the East Timorese themselves, they will only succeed with patience and help from the rest of the world.

The people of East Timor are accustomed to hardship. The country was a colony of Portugal for more than 400 years. More than 200,000 people — one-quarter of the population — were killed by fighting, famine and disease after Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed it as a province the following year. Jakarta was largely indifferent to the lives of the East Timorese; the fact that the residents are largely Roman Catholic distanced the province from the central government. The East Timorese people’s determined commitment to independence yielded a guerrilla movement that the Indonesian government fought with little concern for the costs to the civilian population.

That repression created martyrs and heroes. One of them, Mr. Xanana Gusmao, a former seminary student and poet, has been the rallying point of East Timorese aspirations. He was released from jail in 1999, after seven years’ imprisonment, and was elected president of the country-to-be in elections held earlier this spring. Mr. Gusmao led the independence celebrations, but now he and the rest of the Timorese government turn to the formidable challenges that lie ahead.

East Timor enters the world as Asia’s poorest country. It has few natural resources; its only export is coffee. There are substantial oil and natural gas reserves, but it will be years before the country can exploit them. Its infrastructure was largely destroyed when pro-Jakarta militias and their Indonesian military backers embarked on an orgy of violence after the 1999 referendum on independence. Thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands were deported or forced to flee, an estimated 80 percent of the territory’s buildings were destroyed, and the economy collapsed.

Since the referendum, the United Nations has shouldered the burdens of nation-building. This year, the government’s $60 million budget was paid for in its entirety by the United Nations and other donors. While the U.N. will continue to work in East Timor to assist the new government, that presence will be scaled down. That will be a considerable blow to the country, which relies heavily on U.N. salaries to bolster the economy in addition to the financial assistance that has been provided directly to East Timor. Experts worry that the U.N. withdrawal will force the country to rely on high-priced foreign experts, exacerbating the financial pressures on the country.

There are also very real concerns about East Timor’s stability. Some fear that the militias and their backers are merely biding their time before they resume attacks on the new authority. Nevertheless, the U.N. Security Council voted to cut the current peacekeeping force from nearly 9,000 to 5,000, the international police force will be trimmed by a third, to 1,130 from a maximum of 1,640, and the number of civilian administrators will be cut from 1,300 to about 100.

Equally worrisome is the prospect of political differences within the new country. Mr. Gusmao is a charismatic leader who enjoys overwhelming support within East Timor and the world. He does not, however, hold the reins of power. They belong to Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, and his views toward government are said to differ significantly from those of the president. At a time when national reconciliation should be a top priority, the prime minister and his party would rather consolidate power to facilitate decision making. The failure to accommodate divergent views within East Timor could frustrate progress, and ultimately unravel all the good work that has been done.

Bleak as these prospects are, East Timor begins life with real advantages. It has demonstrated its commitment to democracy and the rule of law, it enjoys strong support from the international community, and has a much-respected president. After decades of suffering as a result of widespread indifference to their fate, the East Timorese people deserve continuing support and assistance. Japan, along with the rest of the world, should be unstinting when giving it. The $360 million that has been pledged to aid East Timor over the next three years is only a start; indeed, money may be the least important part of the assistance that country gets.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW