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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
East Timor: Your questions on the world's newest nation
BBC correspondent Richard Galpin in the capital Dili took your questions.

Click here to watch the forum.  

East Timor is celebrating becoming the world's newest country.

It has been under United Nations administration since 1999 when it overwhelmingly voted to break away from 24 years of Indonesian rule.

Pro-Indonesian militias went on a bloody rampage following the vote, leaving parts of East Timor in ruins.

Since the UN arrived, much has been rebuilt. But East Timor has a mammoth task ahead to build itself into a stable nation.

What kind of country will East Timor be? How should its problems be addressed?


The UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan, the former American president, Bill Clinton, among other world dignitaries, make their way home. The world's newest nation now has to find its own feet. Well with us to help to chart the course the future of East Timor is a man who's reported a lot from there during the years, our Jakarta correspondent Richard Galpin and he's here on the line to answer your questions.

Well firstly Richard from the United States, F. Doraj says: "How have the people of East Timor reacted to their independence?"

Richard Galpin:
I think right now the sense is very much one of festivity and excitement and I think for many people the almost disbelief that this day has come. If you look back literally just a few years, people really could just not have imagined that they would eventually win their independence. So I think people are revelling in that and enjoying every moment. And as we speak now there's a huge music concert going on with almost the same size crowd as there was last night for the actual independence ceremony for the handover of power.

So people are really enjoying themselves but at the same time, obviously, there is concern for the future. We've been here for the past week and talking to people out in the districts where the situation is very grim indeed, in terms of the economy and the level of destruction which is still there, they know that they face many, many problems. And the government's acutely aware of that as well, that they have a massive task ahead to get this new nation off the ground. This has already been designated officially as Asia's poorest country, so it's going to be a very, very tough first few years of independence.

J. Lewis from Wales, here in the United Kingdom, writes quite an optimistic question. He says: "Considering the small population and newly signed oil and gas export agreement with Australia isn't it possible that East Timor could have quite a well developed economy 10 years down the road providing the newly elected government does manage to keep hold of the reigns of ASEANs newest member?"

Richard Galpin:
Yes - the key phrase there is 10 years down the road and I think it's going to take at least that. I think probably the experts here would say much longer, maybe it's going to be 20 or 25 years. But the revenue from the oil and gas in the Timor Sea doesn't actually come on stream properly, at the earliest, for probably up to about four years and then it'll be gradual.

But certainly the estimates for the amount of oil and gas in the Timor Sea are really quite considerable - it's anything up to about $7 billion. And as the questioner was saying, that the population of East Timor is only about three quarters of a million. So potentially things could develop but it will take a long time.

I'll just come back to this point that East Timor was the poorest province of Indonesia and then we had this horrific destruction in 1999 surrounding the independence vote. So there's a very, very long way to go, something like 80% of the infrastructure here was completely destroyed and of course many of the population forced across the border - 250,000 or so refugees - many of whom have come back now but it's going to be very, very difficult.

But I think the East Timorese Government, certainly from pressure from the United Nations, have been made very aware of the dangers of a windfall from oil and gas. We've seen many countries around the world which have gone down that route and squandered the money in corrupt practices and certainly the UN has really been pushing home that point. And we understand the East Timorese government, if all this revenue does actually come through, they're going to put a lot of it actually into a trust fund, they won't spend it all immediately, take the interest from it to help develop the country but actually push a lot of it aside so it's not spent immediately so that there are reserves of cash for future generations.

They've elected as president as we know, Xanana Gusmao, the great hero of the independence movement but there has been talk of some rivalry between him and the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, Peter writes, also from here in the United Kingdom: "Do you think that this is a problem and how does the new constitution divide their powers? Which is the more powerful and what happens if there's a disagreement between them?"

Richard Galpin:
Well it certainly is potentially a problem and during the time of the presidential election last month this was an issue which was very much raised at the time. There's certainly deep hostility - perhaps a little bit strong - but the two men do not get on at all well and this goes back many, many years to the way in which the independence struggle, the resistance to Indonesian rule, was run and the two men disagreed, particularly because Xanana Gusmao took the resistance away from the main party, Fretilin. It had been just part of Fretilin but Xanana Gusmao said the resistance struggle should not just be about one political party, it must be about the whole East Timorese nation and Mari Alkatiri was extremely angered by that. And that is something which has lived on. So again there was a lot of pressure put on the East Timorese at that time and on the two men from the United Nations to try to get them to work together and certainly there have been many pledges saying that they will now work together. We've heard from both men that they will not allow this to get in the way of this critical time for East Timor.

In terms of the constitution, in fact executive power lies almost exclusively with the cabinet and the prime minister Mari Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmao does not have that much executive power except in the case of some kind of crisis. So he is much more of a symbol, a figurehead, but having said that he enjoys such enormous popular support, in the presidential election he got something like 84 per cent of the vote and that's a very powerful mandate and he knows that he can do a lot with that and he intends doing a lot with that. He's saying that he's going to be the people's president. He will go round the country constantly talking to the people, seeing what their problems are and feeding that back to the government. So he could, in many respects, be something of a thorn in the side of the government if they do not agree on the issues which have been raised.

Alexander Roberts writes asking for a historical comparison. He says: "Do you feel that the Indonesian occupation has left East Timor better prepared for independence now, as opposed to the state it was in immediately after the Portuguese left?"

Richard Galpin:
Well it's certainly true that during the Indonesian occupation large amounts of money were pumped into East Timor and we certainly, for example, saw a lot of health facilities built, a lot of schools built, there was a big emphasis in particular on enrolling children into primary school. But the key point here is the destruction which we saw in 1999 for all that work which was done then it was almost all completely destroyed by the Indonesian troops and militias when they were retreated after the independence vote at the end of August in 1999, there was literally almost nothing left. So no I don't think it is right to say that. East Timor has really - well was pretty much pushed back to the Middle Ages by what happened in 1999.

But also I should say that under the Portuguese they did very little to develop this nation. I think, if I remember correctly, that the figure was something like 5% of the country was literate at the time the Portuguese pulled out in 1975 and that was after more than four centuries of rule. So they did absolutely nothing to help the East Timorese population.

Rahul Laxman Iyer writes from the United States about the world full of examples of developing countries, as we know, who have achieved independence and then become irredeemably corrupt. He fears this might happen in East Timor - do you see any signs of it?

Richard Galpin:
Well I think that obviously is a genuine concern and East Timor was of course a part of Indonesia for almost a quarter of a century and Indonesia is renowned for its corruption - it's endemic right now in Indonesia and obviously was during the time of the occupation. So clearly there is that potential and there's a lot of concern about that. Of course we don't know yet, we will have to wait and see how this government performs.

There are concerns, particularly given the fact that the main political party, Fretilin, dominates the government so much, it took around about 60-70% of the seats in parliament, it holds most of the ministries. Certainly people we've talked to in the districts are very concerned that Fretilin now will use that position for patronage to get all their supporters positioned in a bureaucracy and people perhaps who are better qualified who've been involved in the UN administration, East Timorese that is, will be pushed out and there will be jobs for the boys. There's a lot of concern about that but once again I think that the eyes of the international community are very much watching East Timor and watching how it develops.

The international community has a lot of leverage, certainly for the next few years given the fact that it's effectively keeping East Timor afloat economically. We've just had a donor's conference last week at which foreign donors pledged another almost $400 million for East Timor for the next three years and that is essential money. East Timor could not keep afloat economically, it cannot even finance its own very small national budget. The national budget for this financial year is something in the region of $100 million which is peanuts for most countries but in terms of the revenue which the East Timor government can actually obtain it's only about $30 million. So the international community is actually financing the basic national budget, as well as development for East Timor, so there's a lot of leverage and they can exert a lot of control on that.

A couple of factual questions to finish on Richard. Francisco in Venezuela asks about language: "Has a decision been made on an official language because there was a bit of an argument about this?" And Artur P. from Russia asks about the flag, this red flag with a couple of triangles and a star in it - where does that come from?

Richard Galpin:
Well the flag is actually based on the original flag which was raised very briefly in 1975 when the Portuguese withdrew. There was a declaration of independence but of course it didn't last very long, in fact just nine days. So it is based on that original flag. And it symbolises - the white star symbolises peace, the red symbolises the resistance, the yellow, apparently, the years of colonial rule.

And on the language Richard - what's the official language going to be?

Richard Galpin:
In terms of the language, a decision, yes, has been taken. It's written into the constitution that East Timor will have two working languages which are Portuguese and Teturn. And then also two other languages - sorry those are the official languages and then two working languages which are English and Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language. So it's really quite a hotch potch and actually it is very controversial.

Many people were quite dismayed that in particular that Portuguese has been made an official language, Portuguese is very much the language of the elite, the people who are in power right now, but only a tiny proportion of the rest of the population actually speak it. But the political elite, have insisted that this should be the main official language and in fact have imported something like 150 Portuguese teachers to come and help and of course this is going to cause real problems. As I was saying earlier, the country has virtually no infrastructure, education in terms of schools and teachers is absolutely minimal, so finding people who can actually teach Portuguese, getting hold of the textbooks that you need is going to cost an awful lot of money which East Timor doesn't have.

Then on top of that it could, according to some people we've been speaking to, cause problems within families, that you have the children of a family learning Portuguese but the parents don't understand a word they're talking about, so it's going to be very difficult. It's a difficult transition and could slow that critical process of actually educating the population, which is obviously going to be so important for the development of this nation. According to the UN DP reports - the United Nations Development Programme report - released just about a week ago they estimate that something like 41 per cent of the population of East Timor is illiterate, so actually getting a fast-track education system underway is very important. So imposing these kinds of linguistic problems really isn't going to help.

Well for now Richard thank you very much. I guess the party will go on in whatever language for a day or two. That's Richard Galpin our Jakarta correspondent, reporting from East Timor, the world's newest nation and that's all from the BBC News Interactive Forum.

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