Subject: SMH/E.Timor: Free at last, the work has only just begun

Sydney Morning Herald 29/10/99

Free at last, the work has only just begun


This week a new chapter has opened in East Timor's long and determined struggle for independence. The United Nations Security Council formally accepted a mandate to guide the Timorese to nationhood, including the establishment of their economy, the setting up of institutions of government, and law and order and justice institutions.

After the massive material devastation and social disruption inflicted on Timor in September, the UN has taken up the challenge of rehabilitating a devastated community. Although East Timor's national wellbeing, to use the words of Xanana Gusmao, has been forced to a point below zero, there are grounds for optimism that its people will be able to attain full nationhood in about two years.

A key challenge is to normalise relations with Indonesia in the immediate future. The Timorese leaders were initially understandably cautious in their response to the newly elected Wahid-Megawati presidency. Both had been strong critics of Habibie for letting East Timor go, and both were apparently angered at the intrusion of Interfet under Australian leadership.

However, within a week of assuming office President Wahid has extended a warm invitation to Mr Gusmao (whom he once visited in prison) to fly to Jakarta, where he seems likely to be well received, in a style more befitting a head of state than the leader of an interim administration.

The encounter is likely to pose a test for Mr Wahid's new administration, in relation to immediate problems confronting the relationship. It will be difficult to make progress with reconciliation unless Jakarta can end once and for all TNI support for militia activity in West Timor, and also expedite the repatriation of about 200,000 East Timorese from over the border, many of them trained officials and technicians whose services are urgently needed for Timor's reconstruction.

A key factor is the security situation, which has improved remarkably since Interfet began its operations. Thanks to Major-General Peter Cosgrove and his forces, in the first week of freedom from Indonesian rule most Timorese in the territory have been able to enjoy a remarkably peaceful environment.

The militia leaders have clearly been unable to carry out any of their bellicose threats. In the few skirmishes near the border they have come off badly. While fears persist that guerilla operations are still on the cards, that will prove difficult for the militia because they now have few sympathisers anywhere in East Timor.

The mission of the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor is an elaborate and comprehensive one. There are grounds for optimism, for the Timorese people have been united by their ordeal and they are endowed with impressive leaders.

But the size of the UNTAET mission could create problems, since it will take time to establish funding and to get the more than 15,000 personnel on the ground in East Timor. Its leader, Sergio Vieira de Mello, is an astute and experienced UN official, and though he will arrive in Timor in November it may be well into the new year before UNTAET is fully established on the ground.

This gap may well test the capacity of the Wahid Government to bring the TNI under control. It might also serve to block moves for Australia to lead the security component of the UN transitional authority. However, Australians have made a strong impression on the Timorese and their leaders seem to be insisting that Australia should continue to provide UNTAET's military commander.

The Security Council resolution gives UNTAET sweeping powers. But at the outset it is essential that its leaders work closely with the Timorese interim leadership. The Timorese may be short on technological and other skills, but their leaders are impressive in terms of calibre and experience, and it is their co-operation and commitment that ultimately will determine UNTAET's success.

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in Portuguese East Timor. He is the author of Timor: A People Betrayed.

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