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The BBC's Richard Galpin reports
"There is a sense of optimism on the streets of Dili"
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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
East Timor - the task ahead
Men gamble in the market in East Timor
The challenge is to make Timor an economically viable state
By Regional Analyst Nicholas Nugent

Xanana Gusmao, the guerrilla leader expected to become East Timor's first president, is fond of proclaiming that East Timor will be the world's first new nation of the 21st century.

A high priority for Mr Gusmao and colleagues is to agree a system for governing themselves and to draw up a constitution.

Xanana Gusmao
Mr Gusmao's priority is to define a system of government
Even this is more difficult than it may seem given that the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the government-in-waiting, is a loose coalition of groups opposed to Indonesian rule which have not always seen eye-to-eye.

Its two dominant components - Mr Gusmao's Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union of Joao Carascalao - were bitter rivals before Indonesia's 1975 invasion united them.

Generation gap

One key question to be addressed concerns the nature of a national assembly and how the people's wishes can be heard, as they were in last year's referendum.

Ultimately, too, the new state can be expected to transform Fretilin's guerrilla fighting force, Falintil, into a 5000-strong national army so that it no longer need depend on the United Nations to secure its borders.

Then there are generation differences.

The guerrilla fighting force Falintil will be transformed into a national army
While the old guard favour restoring Portuguese as the lingua franca, as a way of asserting East Timor's independence, younger East Timorese consider that to be a retrograde move - even though Portugal has made the adoption of Portuguese a condition for meeting the costs of government for the first five years.

They argue that East Timor will be better served in international commerce and diplomacy by adopting English as its main language.

While they accept that Tetum, East Timor's main spoken language, will be the national tongue, they also see a role for bahasa Indonesia, which those schooled under Indonesian rule speak.

Source of skills

No more than 20% of East Timorese speak Portuguese while at least 80% are thought to understand Indonesian.

Those young people - the post 1975 generation - will be important to the new nation.

Refugees returning to East Timor
Young refugees happy to be home, but what jobs will they do?
Many have come back from, or are still studying in, Indonesia with degrees or other qualifications. It is likely that all doctors and lawyers in the new state will have Indonesian qualifications, as will engineers and technicians. Indonesia will be a key source of skills.

While the UN is helping to restore schools, it will be a long time before East Timor will have its own technical colleges and other institutions of higher education.

Economic challenge

It is a moot point in Dili as to whether Indonesian law should be adopted as the basis for East Timor's legal system. International legal opinion maintains that since it was the prevailing legal system for nearly 25 years, it should be the basis for whatever follows.

The UN transitional government is already sharing power with East Timorese in an effort to make the transfer to full independence smooth.

Notable among Timorese on the transitional council is foreign-trained Mari Alkatiri.

Building a shop in Dili
Another priority is rebuilding the nation's infrastructure
As minister for economic affairs, he has the key challenge of making East Timor an economically viable state, something neither Indonesia over 25 years nor Portugal over more than 400 years achieved.

While top priority is restoring roads, serious thought is being given to upgrading ports to facilitate trade.

To be self-sufficient, East Timor is going to need something to export.

Community of nations

Coffee has been its mainstay since Portuguese times, but reserves of timber, heavily exploited under Indonesian rule, are said to have dried up.

At the moment, East Timor remains heavily dependent on imports, even for rice to feed its 800,000 people.

The best hope for the future is that Dili will take a share of the revenue from proven oil and gas reserves in the Timor Gap, the sea which separates East Timor from Australia.

Australia is close to bringing gas ashore near Darwin. Economy Minister Alkatiri intends to renegotiate the treaty between Australia and East Timor that he believes gives Australia an unfair share of these hydrocarbon reserves.

This negotiation will need the diplomatic skills of its foreign minister - likely to be Jose Ramos-Horta. Building a diplomatic service and entering into international alliances is another crucial matter for the new leadership.

A key decision will be whether it settles differences with Indonesia and applies to join the South-East Asian grouping, Asean, or prefers to deal mainly with Australia and perhaps join the South Pacific Forum of island states.

East Timor has limited time to make these key decisions before emerging as a full member of the community of nations.

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See also:

11 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
East Timor peacekeeper killed
04 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Timor's day of reckoning
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