Subject: NPR: Slow rise of East Timor to successful independence

National Public Radio (NPR)

Weekend Edition Sunday (1:00 PM ET) - NPR

October 13, 2002 Sunday Slow rise of East Timor to successful independence


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In late September, the tiny Pacific island nation of East Timor joined the United Nations, four months after the former Portuguese colony had become independent. These steps were mere dreams just a few years ago, following decades of violence and political turmoil. WEEKEND EDITION commentator Ellis Cose visited East Timor to find out how the dream of nationhood turned to reality.


What brought that dream to life? Jose Ramos-Horta, foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, thinks the midwife was the media. Indeed, he calls his country a byproduct of the electronic age. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese died as Indonesia took over. Yet, the world silently stood by. By the 1990s, the Internet and 24-hour news programming had become a reality. As East Timorese fought for their independence, the media broadcast its shocking scenes of destruction from the capital city of Dili and elsewhere on the island. People, united through the Internet, demanded that the world get involved. 'Had it not been for the media revolution, we would still be fighting,' says Ramos-Horta.

Even so, the struggle to build an independent East Timor is far from over. In his 100-day address, President Xanana Gusmao passionately appealed for patience. Three months was not enough time to make a nation work, he said. Gusmao, who spent several years in prison for leading the battle for freedom, is sometimes called the Nelson Mandela of East Timor. A thoughtful man with a forgiving heart, he wrestles with how to help his country heal from violence without going the route of revenge. As they struggle to create a country where there is now neither much physical, political, nor judicial infrastructure, Gusmao and other East Timorese officials speak in upbeat, optimistic terms.

Yet, when I visited several villages outside the capital and talked to normal, poor and struggling East Timorese, the talk largely was about the disappointment that not more had changed. They are relieved that they no longer live in fear for their lives, but they wonder when the fruits of independence will make it to their table.

Since late 1999, the UN, in its successive missions, have poured more than $1.6 billion into East Timor. Individual nations have pumped in hundreds of millions more and the rebirth of East Timor has essentially just begun. It's too early to draw many lessons from the East Timor experience, but one already is very clear: Even for a tiny country with a compliant population and a political elite willing to be guided by the West, nation-building is not a cheap or easy process. As America and its allies increasingly get into that business in Kosovo, in Afghanistan and perhaps in the future in Iraq, we obviously also have to ask whether we are willing to stay the course.

NAYLOR: WEEKEND EDITION commentator Ellis Cose is a contributing editor at Newsweek.

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