Subject: BG: East Timor needs help in rebuilding

This story ran on page H11 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2003.

East Timor needs help in rebuilding

By Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, 6/8/2003

MY NATIVE East Timor became independent a year ago on May 20, the first new nation of the 21st century. Four years after our land was turned into an inferno when militias created by the Indonesian army went on a rampage, the people are still trying to overcome the devastation that was visited on us. Much of the territory remains in ruins, with 80 percent of our citizens unemployed. The problems we face are vast. This clearly is no time for international assistance to diminish.

Yet that is precisely what will take place if the amount of American aid to East Timor is reduced. I was saddened to learn that the Bush administration recently proposed a reduction from $25 million in annual economic assistance to $13.5 million. This is difficult for me to understand, for President Bush himself has been most gracious to our people, granting a White House meeting to East Timorese leaders on the occasion of our country's entry into the United Nations last September. I fear that the action would send a bad message to international donors. I hope this decision can be reversed.

The past must not be forgotten. International intervention in 1999 saved the people of East Timor from annihilation, but the entry of foreign peace keepers came only after most of our country, a mountainous area the size of Connecticut, had been destroyed by Indonesian troops and their militia cohorts. Indeed, East Timor endured nearly a quarter century of armed conflict and the tragic loss of one third of our 700,000 people from war-related causes, followed by the terrible killing and destruction of 1999, which left few families unaffected.

The people of East Timor are grateful for the generous assistance provided by the United States, the UN, and many individual countries and organizations to protect and rebuild our homeland. But reducing support now would jeopardize the hard-won progress that has been made.

We are at a critical point. With the right help, East Timor can ultimately become self-sufficient. Like any nation, East Timor must depend first and foremost on its own resources and initiative. Of particular importance in the coming period are efforts in matters of democratic accountability, civic governance, and legal training in areas related to the administration of expected revenues from offshore natural gas, which will become available within the next few years. Some related training has already been done with US help, but more is needed.

The future of our long-suffering people depends on the outcome of these endeavors, and as a consequence the question of the expected natural gas revenues has become a major issue in East Timor. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri recently stated that there should be appropriate checks and balances when these funds become available.

This point has been emphasized by Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, my fellow Nobel Peace laureate, who has also expressed concern over the lack of accountable structures in East Timor to deal with this new influx of money. The creation of a trust fund to properly manage these revenues must be rigorously formulated, with all interested parties participating. The outcome of these deliberations should be made public and available to everyone. This should become official government policy in East Timor.

But we need technical help from the United States to help us succeed. If all is done correctly, East Timor can become a model for the developing world in sound management of our natural gas resources. Moreover, to avoid overdependence on these resources, projects leading to the production of spices and other profitable agricultural products should be energetically pursued. These projects and other reconstruction efforts can provide badly needed jobs, especially for youth.

American backing for these positive efforts is crucial. It was not long ago that the Indonesian army swept through East Timor unimpeded, while the United States and other nations provided nearly unquestioned backing for Indonesian forces. What the United States does now will be watched closely. Having come to East Timor's assistance too late to prevent the devastation of 1999 and earlier years, the United States and other nations must not reduce their support too soon.

Monsignor Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is apostolic administrator emeritus of East Timor.


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