Subject: Toronto Star: East Timor goes from despair to hope

Toronto Star [Canada] April 29, 2002

East Timor goes from despair to hope

Two years after the madness, tiny nation heads for democracy

Rosie DiManno

IN AN INCREASINGLY deranged world, one has to scour the farthest reaches of the Earth to find a bit of sanity, a small dollop of hopefulness.

East Timor, 2 1/2 years removed from its own blood-drenched madness, is now such a place. And that's the wonder of it -- that democracy and sovereignty should get a foothold in a tiny corner of the map that had for decades been ignored and forsaken.

Within a few weeks the partitioned island -- for 24 years forcibly stitched into the tapestry of the Indonesian archipelago -- will finally and officially become the newest nation on Earth. On May 20, the transitional United Nations administration that has been in charge of East Timor since the fall of 1999 will pull out, a duly elected national government taking over with a freshly minted constitution in place. Earlier this month, poet-turned-guerrilla-turned-reluctant-politician Xanana Gusmao won more than 82 per cent of the popular vote in a presidential election. The landslide victory was testament to Gusmao's personal popularity, although the presidency is largely a symbolic position under the drafted constitution. The real power rests in the hands of the embryonic country's prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, who has already expressed opposition to a proposed government of national unity built on a coalition of six parliamentary parties.

Gusmao and Alkatiri were childhood friends who grew up among East Timor's colonial elite, fighting together in the Fretilin, a Portuguese acronym for the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor. In 1975, after Indonesia invaded and forcibly annexed East Timor, this following Portugal's withdrawal from its centuries-old colony, Gusmao stayed put, continuing to wage a war of independence against the hated Indonesian occupiers. He had risen to command the Fretilin's guerrilla army when captured by Indonesian troops in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison, although he was released seven years later in a futile attempt by Indonesian authorities to quell the roiling dissent among Timorese. Meanwhile, Alkatiri had left the country, living in exile in Mozambique, where he taught law and propelled the drive for international support of East Timor's independence movement.

While Alkatiri, who captured the parliamentary election last year, was the first to congratulate Gusmao on his presidential triumph, the two men have been ideologically estranged for years. And perhaps that doesn't augur well for the baby-nation, but whatever battles arise will be waged in a political arena -- transparent, no different from political clashes and accommodations that characterize democracies elsewhere. It's inconceivable that more blood will be shed in tiny East Timor, not freedom fighter against freedom fighter.

East Timor now symbolizes all that is possible when an affronted international community does the morally right thing. It took years and years, with upwards of 200,000 Timorese -- or a quarter of the population -- losing their lives, from the fighting and the famine that followed, in the long, dreadful process. But from the ruins of a brutalized, captive province has emerged this nascent nation.

The U.N. did right by East Timor, but only after doing much wrong. Which speaks to the political bind and equivalency of an organization at the mercy of its own veto-empowered Security Council.

In '99, with dictator Suharto removed, and following extensive negotiations with Indonesia, the U.N. arranged for a referendum on autonomy versus independence from Jakarta, which had promised to abide by the result. Yet despite the escalating threat of violence, the U.N. put only monitors on the ground, not armed peacekeepers. In the wake of a vote wherein 78.5 per cent of Timorese rejected autonomy, choosing to split with the world's fourth most populous nation instead, all hell broke loose.

Professionally armed militias, with the clandestine and even overt support of Indonesia's military, went on a rampage, unleashing a scorched-earth punishment on the helpless Timorese, sweeping across the eastern half of the island, massacring defenceless civilians -- including priests and nuns, women and children who'd sought refuge in church -- raping untold numbers of women and young girls, and destroying 70 per cent of the buildings in the capital, Dili.

There had been omens that such carnage was in the offing, including the murder of two U.N. employees just before the referendum was held. And yet the U.N. was hopelessly unprepared, having essentially left the Timorese to suffer their fate. For a week following the Aug. 30 referendum, the marauding militias had their way with the Timorese, who'd bravely gone to the polls in defiant anticipation of political emancipation. The U.N. merely wrung its hands, just as it had done nothing to stop the even worse genocide in Rwanda a few years before.

It took worldwide revulsion and a stern warning to Jakarta from the United States -- which had long opposed even economic sanctions against Indonesia, more concerned about maintaining a valuable ally astride the Southeast Asian corridor and a bulwark against Communist encroachment -- before the U.N. acted, authorizing the deployment of a multinational U.N. force. It was Australia -- ironically, among the handful of countries that had ever recognized Indonesia's annexation of East Timor -- which took the lead role in military intervention, but 26 nations in all participated, including Canada.

It didn't take all that long to impose security, as the U.N. force chased the militia troops across the border into West Timor, but by then the damage had been done. Upward of 1,000 Timorese had been slain, 250,000 more displaced and driven like cattle into refugee camps on the West Timor side of the border. East Timor had been laid to waste.

I went to Dili late in '99, arriving on an Australian troop ship that had been transporting Kenyan soldiers. (And would leave, two weeks later, on an Italian medical plane, in the company of New Zealand paratroopers.) At that time, it seemed inconceivable that East Timor would ever get back on its feet, much less do so within a mere two years. The island was in ruins, still smouldering, people hiding in the hills, fearful of returning to what was left of their homes because pockets of militia continued to wreak havoc on rural communities. Only Dili felt even nominally safe. There was no electricity, no infrastructure, little food and constant punitive incursions from the militia units that scuttled back and forth across the border, although the Australians -- with full authority to use force -- had been shooting back. Yet the hardiness of the Timorese was evident in how quickly they set about putting things to order again, setting up roadside food stalls where once there had been stores, rebuilding their homes and public buildings and churches -- East Timor is overwhelmingly Catholic, which was yet another profound issue of division with predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

Yet here we are, two years later, and East Timor is functioning admirably. Perhaps even more startling is that Indonesia also, with a newly elected government, is tiptoeing into the unknown regions of fledgling democracy. Former president Abdurrahaman Wahid had even visited East Timor and solemnly apologized for human rights abuses his country had inflicted on what had been an unwilling 27th province. A historic communiqué was signed, pledging to open representative offices in Jakarta and Dili, and talks were begun on everything from trade and investment to postal links.

In the interim, East Timor had been governed by the U.N. Transitional Administration, as the military deployment began to pull out. The Canadians withdrew last spring.

Then, this past Aug. 30 -- two years to the day after the original referendum ballot -- the East Timorese kept their "date with democracy," as it was called by the U.N., holding the first democratic election in their turbulent and bloody history.

Ninety-three per cent of 425,000 eligible voters elected 88 members to a new constituent assembly, which in turn paved the way for last month's presidential election. In December, an East Timor court sentenced 10 pro-Jakarta militiamen, members of the Alfa militia, to jail for crimes against humanity, the first convictions for the violence that had been unleashed. Among the crimes: a dozen murders, including the killings of two nuns and three priests.

It's not all roses and a bright horizon. Still no trials have been held for militia and their Indonesian military accomplices in West Timor.

And many, including Australia's prime minister, have appealed to the United Nations to finance a continuing U.N. military presence in East Timor. The Security Council has been asked to approve and pay for 5,000 troops, civilian police and administrative personnel to remain after independence.

That independence formally arrives in 21 days.

It's not often the global community of nations can feel proud of itself. And grievous errors of omission, of political paralysis, were committed in East Timor. Too many innocents died while the U.N. wrung its hands.

But this is one great success story in one tiny corner of the world.


Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. 
E-mail: dimanno@hotstar.net.


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