Subject: SCMP Focus: East Timor: Impossible Dream, Daunting Reality

South China Morning Post Monday, May 13, 2002


Impossible dream, daunting reality


A man scavenges a metal sheet in front of the only remaining wall of a Dili market. Jose Ramos Horta calls the 1999 devastation East Timor's ground zero. Agence France-Presse photo

When Jose Ramos Horta arrived back in East Timor after almost a quarter of a century in exile, he was forced to recall the black-and-white images he had seen of war-damaged Hiroshima, Dresden and London.

All around the Nobel laureate and interim foreign minister lay ample evidence of the devastation wrought by the Indonesian-backed militias. The fighters, stunned by the result of a United Nations-sponsored referendum that endorsed an end to Jakarta's brutal 24-year rule, had laid waste to everything about them.

It was, in the foreign minister's words, Asia's ground zero.

''The devastation that East Timor suffered in '99 was not experienced by any former colonial territory. I do not wish to dwell on the recent part of our history, we try to put it behind [us] and repair our relations with our neighbours,'' Mr Ramos Horta said. ''But the facts are that East Timor was thoroughly destroyed.''

Now, almost three years later, the half-island territory is on the cusp of full independence. Next Monday, the former Portuguese colony that was first subjugated by Indonesia and then terrorised by its militia proxies will become the world's newest state.

''We will see the Timorese flag going up and the United Nations' flag going down, marking the birth of the newest nation of this century. It was an impossible dream that became a reality, an impossible dream to many of us, an impossible dream to many in the world,'' Mr Ramos Horta said on a visit to Singapore.

''But after a lot of sacrifice by so many - tens of thousands of people gave their lives throughout a quarter of a century - finally a country of only 800,000 squeezed into 90,000 square km will join the community of nations.''

Independence day promises to be quite an event. Fireworks and dancing are assured as an impressive line-up of the world's leaders congregates in one of the region's poorest countries to wish it well.

Among others, Bill Clinton will attend on behalf of US President George W. Bush. All those present will, with the support of the Timorese, want to cheer the formal restoration of sovereignty and sanity to a country that has seen precious little of either.

Much has already been achieved. The United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) has repaired some of the militia-inflicted damage and set the country on the road to nationhood. After two unprecedented and peaceful elections, an 88-member constituency assembly was voted in last August to draw up a new constitution and, later, veteran independence leader Xanana Gusmao was chosen as president by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, thousands of UN troops on the ground have guaranteed security; many of the refugees who were forced in 1999 across the border into West Timor have returned; and relations with Jakarta have improved.

But mixed in with the rhetoric, emotion and self-congratulation next Monday, there is likely also to be a sobering realisation that extraordinary challenges remain. East Timor is dirt poor (apart from oil and gas revenues expected from 2004 onwards); its social and material infrastructure are rudimentary at best; and continued peace remains far from certain. ''The challenges ahead are really more complex and dangerous than the challenges we faced in the past. Myself and many others thought that the most difficult part was the struggle for independence itself. Yes, certainly it was horribly costly in terms of civilian life, but it was a very straightforward matter, and that was the attainment of self-determination and independence,'' Mr Ramos Horta said.

Now the new administration must master the art of governing, persuade the international donor community to go on propping up the budget until the hoped-for oil revenues arrive, and forge a network of international ties to buttress the new state's existence.

A critical donor's conference kicks off tomorrow in the capital, Dili. Since 1999, East Timor has ranked as one of the most generously supported territories in per capita terms, but international interest is showing signs of flagging. To underwrite planned expenditure will take about US$70 million (HK$544.6 million) a year.

Mr Ramos Horta said the new leadership must also ensure the Timorese start to see some tangible benefits from their hard-won status.

Expectations were certainly running high in the capital, but in the rural areas where most people eke out a living, demands were more basic, he said.

''I have travelled extensively over East Timor, I have been to areas where even the parties that need to compete for votes have not been to, areas where even today, you cannot travel by car. What amazed me - and it is really heart-breaking - is when you hear the modest requests from the people,'' he said. ''What do they ask [for] when I meet with them? They ask for malaria tablets; they ask for some antibiotics; they ask for a truck, not for themselves, they ask that a truck at least can pass through their village to get their goods to the market. Sometimes they ask for a chapel, as if there are not enough chapels and churches in East Timor.''

But Mr Ramos Horta said although far from excessive, meeting even these requests would likely prove to be an uphill task: ''What is frustrating is that very little that they ask [for] we are able to deliver yet.''

Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been invited to the celebrations, and seems almost certain to attend. Mr Ramos Horta said whether she came or not, a meaningful reconciliation with the former foe is already under way.

He singled out the constructive role played by Major-General Willem da Costa, head of the Bali-based Udayana military command, which used to cover East Timor. He also praised regional initiatives pushed by Jakarta, including an occasional three-way dialogue between Australia, East Timor and Indonesia.

''Most important of all is our stability, the East Timorese' ability or not to maintain peace and security in the country. That will be the greatest challenge. So far so good,'' he said. ''But are we going to maintain peace in East Timor? It is still very fragile, we have to handle it with constant care. Our people are understandably afraid after so many years of violence.''

Jake Lloyd-Smith is the Post's Southeast Asia correspondent. (

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