|Subject: UK Coverage - East Timor is
finally a free country
- Independent/R.L. Parry: Amid tears, cheers and prayers, East Timor is
finally a free country
Independent May 20, 2002
Amid tears, cheers and prayers, East Timor is finally a free country
By Richard Lloyd Parry in Dili
Two and a half years ago, in an Australian Air Force Hercules transporter, I flew out of East Timor with tears in my eyes. It was a sunny day and from the cabin of the plane, I looked down on the city of Dili far below. I could make out the Hotel Turismo, where my suitcase remained. I could see the United Nations compound where I had sleeplessly spent the previous two nights. But everywhere else fires burned.
Conflagrations sent black towers of smoke hundreds of feet into the air, and small fires formed a smog above the town. I wept because I was exhausted and hungry, and because I had lacked the courage to remain in the UN compound.
But I wept too because I thought I would never go back, because nothing would be left to go back to. It was September 1999; the 20th century had three months left to run. I had never experienced such a feeling of desolation, of personal and general helplessness in the face of evil.
But at midnight last night, in the presence of Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, and the country's new president, Xanana Gusmao, East Timor became free. In a moving ceremony in a field on the outskirts of Dili, the blue UN flag was lowered to the strains of "We Shall Overcome" and authority formally transferred to the Democratic Republic of East Timor.
Then the new flag, with its white star to symbolise hope for the future, was raised to loud cheering as a choir sang East Timor's national anthem. Mr Gusmao, the poet who served six years in Indonesian jails, was declared the first head of state.
"Today we rejoice as an independent nation governing our own destiny," he told his countrymen and 1,000 foreign dignitaries, including the Indonesian head of state, Megawati Sukarnoputri. In a gesture of reconciliation he spoke in Indonesian, as well as in English and Portuguese. The birth of the nation was marked by fireworks while thousands danced and sang in the streets.
The world's newest country, the first of the millennium, is half the size of Belgium; its population is only slightly larger than that of Glasgow.
It is the poorest nation in Asia. But very few countries a hundred times the size have experienced such extremes of distress and exhilaration in such a short time; few have so many heroes. East Timor in 1999 was one of those places, like Spain during its Civil War, which left a permanent emotional print on those who were there. The satisfaction of last night's independence ceremonies is difficult to describe.
East Timor is not the first country to have fought a painful war of independence against an oppressor, but few such wars have been so morally clearcut. The Indonesian invasion of 1975, after Portugal abandoned the colony, was straightforward international thuggery, colluded in by the United States, Britain and Australia.
Indonesia, under President Suharto, did not want the untidiness of a tiny, independent country in the middle of its archipelago. The West feared communist infiltration and a potential Cuba in the heart of strategic South-east Asia. The Americans gave the wink, the Indonesians invaded, and for the next 23 years the world turned a blind eye to a savage and uncompromising occupation.
But the moral clarity came through, too, in the conduct of the East Timorese resistance, the guerrilla army called Falintil. Predictably, the Indonesian struggle to control East Timor hurt the young and the innocent most; as many as 200,000 people died through war, disease and starvation. But, with the rarest of exceptions, the guerrillas matched the Indonesian brutality with outstanding decency and restraint.
Falintil was overwhelmingly outnumbered. It had no heavy weaponry. But it never resorted to the terrorist tactics of guerrillas elsewhere in the world. The victimisation of civilians, the lynching of informers, the bombing of Indonesian cities - none of these were a feature of the war in East Timor. Even after the violence of September 1999, when the Indonesian army burned the country in retaliation for the vote for independence, no reprisals have followed against those Timorese who supported Jakarta.
The struggle was remarkable, too, for the way in which it was sustained internationally. Without a large population or natural resources, East Timor mattered very little to anyone. As a practical proposition, its freedom had nothing to offer the rest of the world; its only appeal was moral.
Campaigners like John Pilger and the British group Tapol ensured East Timor remained an embarrassment to Suharto throughout his 30 years in power. And when his successor, the eccentric and unpredictable B J Habibie, offered a referendum on independence, the rest of the world could ignore the problem no longer.
The UN came in to organise the poll. The result was a foregone conclusion, but soon it became clear that the Indonesians would do everything in their power to sabotage the vote. A systematic campaign was mounted by the military in collusion with its tame local militias. Its aim was to intimidate the East Timorese into voting for continued association with Indonesia.
The UN mission had no military resources; it soon found itself in the absurd position of depending for security on the same Indonesian soldiers and police intent on undermining the referendum. But despite their best efforts, almost 80 per cent voted for independence.
Then Indonesian soldiers and militiamen burned houses and killed supporters of independence. The UN staff and the few remaining journalists retreated to the compound, while grenades were let off around them. Eventually the headquarters were abandoned and the UN, which had promised that it would not desert East Timor, beat a humiliating retreat to the Australian city of Darwin.
Two wretched weeks followed. At the time it felt like an age, but in retrospect events moved faster than anyone could have expected. A multinational, Australian-led force was assembled. Within a fortnight the Indonesians began to pull out, although not before more than a quarter of the Timorese population had been deported to Indonesia. The territory's cities were devastated and the UN found itself accused, once again, of not doing enough.
The economic recovery has been almost unbearably slow. Fifty thousand of the 260,000 Timorese forced into Indonesia in 1999 have not yet returned. The other task - bringing to justice those responsible for the violence - has scarcely begun. Despite the indictments of a few low-ranking thugs, many Timorese doubt that those who directed the rampage will ever be punished for their crimes.
And yet East Timor is free - wretchedly poor, incompletely rebuilt, but free. It is a happy ending that one could never have imagined on that day in September. For entirely different reasons, it brings a tear to the eye.
Liberated islanders prepare for bumpy ride ahead
John Aglionby in Dili
Francisco da Silva could barely contain his excitement as the two fighting cocks, armed with razor-sharp blades strapped to their legs, slashed and pecked at each other in a mad frenzy cheered on by dozens of spectators.
It was all over in less than a minute and at the end Mr da Silva's grin exposed a craggy set of teeth, stained red by years of chewing betel nut to suppress his hunger while fighting for the Falintil resistance against the Indonesian army.
"I won three dollars, I won three dollars," he kept saying, as if he had scooped the lottery.
To many of the other gamblers in the sweltering palm-fringed pit in the capital, Dili, he had, because as East Timor prepares to celebrate its independence today after three centuries of Portuguese colonialism, 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation and 30 months of United Nations reconstruction, Mr da Silva's winnings represent well over a week's earnings to many people.
This half-island nation joins the world community at the very bottom of the pile. Its annual per capita domestic product of £230 puts it in last place of the 162 countries measured by the UN, while its human development index, which assesses life expectancy, knowledge and standard of living, ranks it alongside Rwanda in 152nd place.
Mr da Silva is one of the lucky ones, and not only because he has a knack for picking winning fowl. His family has one and a half acres of land, on which he, his wife and three children grow maize, cabbages, cassava and chillis.
"If we did not have our land we would have nothing," he said. "I wasn't accepted into the defence force [the new 1,500-strong army] because of my injured leg and I have no other skills."
Tens of thousands of the 800,000 East Timorese have even less as they lost everything three years ago. After the nation voted overwhelmingly for independence from Jakarta in August 1999 in a UN-sponsored ballot, the Indonesian army and its local militias killed about 1,000 people, forced 260,000 others into Indonesian West Timor and destroyed almost all the infrastructure.
With few natural resources - the vast majority of people rely on subsistence agriculture - the government that was elected last year in a very successful election has little money to play with. Its total annual budget is less than the price of a fighter aircraft and foreign donors are pumping in £60m over the next three years in budget support. An additional £250m is going into development projects.
Poverty eradication and job creation are clearly among the main priorities. "We have to be frank to the people," said Arsenio Bano, the junior minister for labour and social services. "For the first two years things are going to be very diffi cult. In the third year, when programmes are really up and running, we hope to be able to reduce some of the problems."
With adult literacy at only 43%, many people, particularly young men (small groups of whom sitting around doing nothing are visible in every village), will have few opportunities to make a living in the short term.
And with about 20,000 people joining the job market every year, the situation is going to deteriorate before it improves.
Exacerbating this is the language debate. The government and legislature made Portuguese the official language, even though only 5% of the population speaks it. In its Human Development Report issued this week, the UN said the decision to make Portuguese the language of instruction at primary schools will retard children's ability to become literate in both their mother tongue, Tetum, and Portuguese. There are already signs that patience is wearing thin. Hundreds of young men are joining paramilitary groups such as the Association of Members of the Ex-Falintil 75 (the year Indonesia invaded).
"We are fighting for the interests of the veterans," said one branch secretary, Osario Leque. But the majority of the members, who spend Mondays and Tuesdays practising drill, never went near the front line, let alone fired a gun.
Mr Leque says the association is still loyal to the government, and particularly East Timor's charismatic new president, Xanana Gusmao. But if the government, to which the president does not belong, fails to deliver, "they will not be given a second chance", he said. "We will act," he added, though he declined to specify exactly how.
Such threats are probably bluster but the incoming prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, will have to address their concerns if he does not want civil strife, even though his Fretilin party controls 55 of the 88 seats in parliament.
East Timor has two trump cards. The first is that there is no sign of international donor fatigue, although continued aid is dependent on certain measures being taken.
Of much greater significance are the oil and gas reserves sitting in the Timor Gap south of the island. East Timor's 90% share of the proceeds - Australia takes the rest - should amount to about £5bn over 20 years, with the money starting to flow in earnest in about four years.
Emilia Pires, the secretary of the national planning commission, says the government plans to put at least half of the windfall in a trust fund and spend only the interest "so future generations can enjoy the benefits of the country's good fortune".
But although the World Bank is optimistic that East Timor has "all the conditions in place for strong sustainable development", experience elsewhere shows that countries dependent on oil and gas can find life extremely difficult when the money runs out if the economy is not diversified.
Despite the uncertainty and major challenges ahead, an air of optimism pervades the nation. Typical is Joaquim Fonseca, of the Foundation for Law, Human Rights and Justice. After spending an hour lambasting the UN and warning about the weaknesses of the new government, he suddenly grinned and said he was extremely optimistic about the future.
"Yes, the road will be bumpy, but don't forget we are now tasting freedom for the first time," he said. "The value of that can never be overestimated."
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