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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 June 2006, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
No happy ending for East Timor

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, East Timor

After a dramatic breakdown in law and order in the tiny Pacific state, the government of East Timor asked for assistance from foreign troops.

Australian soldiers pull a man away as they attempt to check a rival gang member for weapons in Dili
An international military force arrived in East Timor last week

But will the world's youngest country ever conquer its internal unrest and build upon the independence it gained just four years ago?

I am surrounded by sights and sounds from the past: the high-pitched shouts of frenzied young men brandishing their clumsy, homemade weapons, dogs howling.

Plumes of smoke rise into the impossibly blue sky over Dili and I hear the occasional crackle of gunfire.

I can feel the same rush of adrenalin - the shaky urge to run - and I can feel something else, a heavy weariness I do not remember from before.

Journalists are supposed to stay detached from their stories but, of course, that is a myth.

Happy endings?

East Timor was unusual for a "country in crisis" story because of the extraordinary levels of sympathy it aroused.

Indonesian mobile brigade police officers with riot shields in Dili in 1999
Indonesia's 25-year occupation of East Timor ended in 1999

Back in 1999 every journalist was gunning for it during its heroic bid for independence.

The astonishing 98% turnout for the referendum by terrorised, illiterate people seemed to confirm what we already sensed, that this was one story where it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad.

And it was a story which had a happy ending.

The harrowing destruction of the country and the enforced uprooting of the population by Indonesian soldiers was followed within weeks by deliverance in the hands of an international intervention force, and eventually by independence under a popular and charismatic leader.

But maybe we should stop believing in happy endings.

This past week I have watched East Timor's capital being destroyed all over again, this time by the Timorese people themselves.

UN 'poster child'

Australian troops have rushed back to prevent a full scale civil war and Ian Martin, the same UN official who organised the 1999 referendum, has returned to see just how much help the UN's one-time poster child is going to need to stand on its own feet again.

President Xanana Gusmao
President Xanana Gusmao made an emotional appeal for reconciliation

It is going to need a lot.

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his dogged belief in his tiny country's capacity to rule itself, tells me he wants to see a far bigger international presence and for much longer.

President Xanana Gusmao is the one man who seems to retain the affection of all Timorese.

I saw him for just five minutes in the lovely garden he has made for his family in the hills overlooking Dili, hours after he declared emergency rule.

He had not lost the appearance of serenity and light-heartedness he always seems to wear but he said: "I don't know how we can solve this."

Own worst enemy

I am standing with my friend Edu in the deserted streets of Dili. The shops are all boarded up and, for the first time, he looks old - his face lined with anxiety.

Map of East Timor
Feb: More than 400 troops strike over pay and conditions
March: Government sacks nearly 600 of 1,400-man army
April: Rioting by sacked troops leaves five people dead
May: Violence intensifies; government appeals for foreign assistance

He sent his children out of town to safety and he spent several nights sleeping in his car with his wife Rosa because he was too scared to sleep at home.

This is Edu who survived several bouts of torture in jail under Indonesia; Edu who took me on the long journey up to the mountains to meet the commander of the Falintil fighters in 1999 (the same commander who has just seen his army disintegrate); Edu, who never lost faith in his country however poor and troubled it was.

He has built his own business and employs several people, some of them from Indonesia, the country he fought for so long.

But he is no longer sure East Timor can recover.

The damage is serious this time, he says, and it is self-inflicted.

Failure of leadership

So did we get it wrong believing East Timor could be a shining example in a world of failed states?

Should it have stayed a part of Indonesia?

Is the yearning for self-governance an overrated one?

If this nation is to survive, it needs to find new leaders

There will doubtless be many who draw that conclusion. I do not think so, though.

An awful lot has gone wrong very quickly.

Splits in the army and police have turned within weeks to full scale gun battles and to ordinary people from different parts of East Timor turning on each other.

There has clearly been a catastrophic failure of leadership by the government and especially by those who spent the 24 years of Indonesian occupation in exile.

They have the weakest roots here but have been behind the most reckless manoeuvring, like the decision to create new heavily armed police units.

If this nation is to survive, it needs to find new leaders.

There are worries too over what impact the temptation of the country's first oil revenues will have.

But the international community must also carry some blame. A great deal was spent on East Timor but often unwisely.

'Seduced' by courage

The UN proclaimed it a rare nation-building success story but too quickly, and the mission was scaled down to a symbolic level after independence was declared four years ago.

The UN placed too much faith in leaders who had shown great skill opposing Indonesia but had no experience of governing.

It was seduced by the astonishing courage and unity of the people in wanting their independence but it underestimated what years of terror, isolation and grinding poverty had done to them.

They now need to understand, as we all do, that nation building is not quick or glorious but a very slow, messy and often humdrum process.

But that longing for independence is the one thing that East Timorese can take pride in.

They kept it and nurtured it against impossible odds during the long years when the rest of the world preferred to forget about them.

And in all the times I have been back here recently and seen their lofty expectations of independence disappointed, they never lost their pride in having won it seven years ago.

What they need right now is to start believing in their future as a nation again.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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