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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Independence
Former colonial buildings
The Portuguese architectural legacy is still throughout the island

On 20th May, East Timor becomes an independent state and the first new nation of the 21st century. Does the half-island have half a chance of forging a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future? Julian Pettifer finds out why the first five years will be tough and the fledgling state will need luck and help in generous helpings. Rarely has a struggle for self-determination been as bitter and destructive.

 Listen to this programme in full

This former Portuguese colony was invaded by its powerful Indonesian neighbour in 1975 . The occupation lasted 24 years and was marked by a savage war of resistance in which 200,000 Timorese died.

Thousands more were displaced, raped, tortured or 'disappeared'.

In 1999, in a referendum organised by the UN, 78% of the population voted for independence from Indonesia. This act of defiance triggered vicious retaliation by the Indonesian armed forces and their locally recruited militias.

Everything that could be carried away, they stole; and anything that remained they destroyed.

UN administration
Sergio Vieira de Melto
Sergio Vieira de Melto has been simply 'running the country' since 1999

The capital city, Dili, after two years of UN administration, is still in ruins.

In the city centre, in the only imposing building left standing, I talked to the head of the UN Transitional Administration, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Since 1999, in a unique UN operation Sergio - as everyone here calls him - has quite simply been running the country. That had to be the case, he told me, because unlike other UN operations - Kosovo or Cambodia for example - they found themselves starting from what they called 'ground zero'.

Not only had the physical infrastructure been destroyed, but also all the public servants, Indonesian and Timorese, had fled.

There were no trained local personnel to do anything: no police, no judiciary, no public health workers, water or electrical engineers. Just a lot of very poor, very frightened and mostly illiterate people.

Roadside building
The beauty of the countryside belies the atrocities committed

In his transitional administration, Sergio had to bring in virtually all the skills from outside; and he admits that there have been difficulties, not least with language.

He also understands why some Timorese are fearful about what will happen on 20th May when many of the UN administrators will be pulled out.

He knows that even some members of the National Assembly are saying openly that the country is not ready to stand alone and wish the UN mandate to be extended for a further twelve months. That will not happen; but a much-reduced UN presence will remain at least for the time being.

A fragile economy
Coffee grower and his daughter in the fields
Coffee production is a key part of the fragile economy

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing East Timor is to rebuild its very fragile economy. The UN presence had produced an artificial mini-boom, a bubble that could so easily burst when the high-earning, free-spending international task force is withdrawn.

If the economy does collapse and unemployment in the towns gets even higher, there are fears of social unrest.

Map - East Timor
Several years down the road, there will be income from offshore oil and gas; but in the meantime there is only subsistence agriculture and a struggling coffee industry to sustain a population of 700,000.

I travelled into the mountains of the interior on atrocious roads to visit a coffee growing area.

As the farmers explained, during the Indonesian occupation, they were not allowed to tend their plantations as it was correctly assumed that they were supporting the resistance fighters in the jungle. It will take years for production to recover and markets to be found.

Since the coffee has been growing virtually wild, they are hoping to attract interest in what they are calling 'organic' coffee. It seems a rather forlorn hope.

All along the road back to Dili, my companions pointed out spots where atrocities took place: thirteen people killed here; hundreds of bodies dumped there. Grim, incredible stories told in the incongruous setting of this very beautiful country.

Jose Ramos Horta
Jose Ramos Horta
Jose is seen as a national hero

After all I had heard of poverty, the faltering economy and fears about the future, I was anxious to meet the man who has demonstrated the most unshakeable faith in East Timor.

Jose Ramos Horta is a national hero.

During the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, there was always the danger that the world would forget East Timor. That it never was forgotten is largely due to Jose Ramos Horta, a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

For half his life he lived in exile, lobbying foreign governments and the UN, urging the world to care about his homeland. Today he is Minister of Foreign Affairs in this fledgling nation and when I met him, I found that his biggest anxiety is that, with independence, the world will now forget.

He points out indignantly that at a time when his country is in deepest need, the European Union has cut its aid programme.

It seems that for the first nation of the new millennium, winning the peace will be as hard as winning the war.

East Timor: Thursday 11 April 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 GMT

Reporter: Julian Pettifer
Producer: Rosie Goldsmith
Editor: Sue Ellis

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Jose and Elisa
Two victims of the conflict in East Timor
Milena Pires, East Timorese M.P.
East Timorese M.P.
Sergio Vieira de Mello
Head of the United Nations in East Timor
Jose Ramos Horta
East Timorese hero and Nobel Peace Prize Winner
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17 Feb 00 | East Timor
09 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.


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