Subject: AFP: Four years after independence, East Timor on right track: FM

Four years after independence, East Timor on right track: FM

DILI, April 26 (AFP) -- Four years ago as East Timor became the world's youngest nation, hundreds of cars driven by UN personnel criss-crossed the streets of Dili as the nation's strife-torn people faced an uncertain future.

Today, the man who was the international face of East Timor's fight for independence during Indonesia's 24-year occupation, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, relishes the changes that have occurred.

"Today you see thousands of cars, 99 percent of which are driven by East Timorese," said the Nobel peace laureate, reflecting in his airy office under a map of the tiny oil and gas-rich nation that turns four years old next month.

"And you would have seen that today, in spite of the departure of the UN, we have many more restaurants -- and quality restaurants -- and shops and street vendors than in 2001-2002," he said of the improved economic situation.

Ramos-Horta, sporting his signature five o'clock shadow and elegant spectacles, is keen to tout the achievements of East Timor which, he said, inherited nothing more than the "skeleton" of a nation from the United Nations.

The UN held East Timor in stewardship for more than two years after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999.

The vote by the former Portuguese colony infuriated the Indonesian military and the militias they backed, who murdered at least 1,400 East Timorese and destroyed almost three-quarters of all buildings before leaving.

Even today, some buildings in the scenic seaside capital of Dili remain nothing more than burned-out shells where shiny-coated goats roam and wild pigs forage for scraps of food.

'Statistics not matched by reality'

"We have been able to largely build the foundations of a democratic state by creating a civil administration that is largely quite functional, adopting the laws that were lacking in every area," Ramos-Horta told AFP in an interview.

"And particularly important, in spite of the departure of the UN from Timor... we have been able to stop the downhill trend of the economy," he said.

East Timor clocked modest growth of 2.3 percent last year and the government is shooting for growth of at least seven percent next year.

The nation's economic progress, Ramos-Horta insisted, is far brighter than indicated by a recent UN Development Program report, which painted a bleak picture of life in the half-island nation of one million people.

The report put per capita income at just 370 dollars per year, making East Timor the poorest nation in the region, and said that its economy had eroded as UN personnel and aid workers departed.

"The statistics about the collapse of the economy with the departure of the UN are not matched by reality," the minister insisted, estimating that some 20,000 East Timorese are now regular salary earners, while many small business owners and subsistence farmers are also doing well.

"If you travel from Dili to Los Palos, you see thousands of heads of buffalo, cows, goats, pigs, chickens -- this is wealth," he said.

Another success, Ramos-Horta said, has been the maintenance of peace and stability in the wake of the deadly militia violence stoked by pro-integration East Timorese that scarred the nation.

"This in my view is one of our greatests strengths: our ability to forgive and embrace everybody else," he said.

But consolidating this stability and improving democratic rights, including strengthening the weak judiciary, remained East Timor's challenge, he conceded.

Another is job creation for the fast-expanding population -- the mainly-Catholic nation has a fertility rate of seven births per women -- with the government focusing on spending up big on infrastructure.

Projects are largely to be funded by money flowing from East Timor's oil and gas projects, with about 500 million dollars already in government coffers.

But international assistance is still needed, the minister pointed out, in particular calling for the UN to provide assistance for elections due in May next year.

'The government is rethinking its defence doctrine'

One of the most dramatic incidents in East Timor's young history has been the dismissal last month of nearly 600 soldiers -- about one-third of its armed forces -- who deserted their barracks complaining of discrimination and poor working conditions.

Ramos-Horta played down the significance of the incident -- pointing out that the men "have been reasonably quiet and respectful of law" -- and said the government was setting up a panel to review their complaints.

He said the loss of the men, who may be reinstated on a case-by-case basis, had however hastened along a rethink of East Timor's defence force structure, currently based on the idea that its army should be able to defend an invasion until allies arrive to assist.

"The government is rethinking its defence doctrine and the force structure to deal with the realities, the threats that the country faces," he said, referring to non-conventional threats such as people smuggling and piracy.

The idea being floated is for East Timor to have a two-battalion strength force of around 500 men each, with one battalion trained primarily to serve on UN peace-keeping missions and another trained for civic duty, he explained.

"That way you have two battalions that are always productive, highly educated and trained," he said.

As for the future of Ramos-Horta himself, the minister's name has been whispered as a potential candidate to replace Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general, but he is non-committal for now.

"I remain a non-candidate. I am not excluding this possibility, but it is not something that has preoccupied me too much," he said.

"I have to meditate and reflect before I make a decision."

------------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service 

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