Subject: Vulnerable East Timor must take its first steps alone

Source: AlertNet

Date: 7 Mar 2003

Vulnerable East Timor must take its first steps alone

Mónica Rafael Simões, graduate in International Relations from the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and collaborator with the Peace Studies Centre in Madrid, argues that the new nation of East Timor faces huge challenges in creating a sustainable, independent democracy. She says its government will need to find a balance between policies to attract international backing and investment, while meeting the needs of society as a whole.

In May 2002, East Timor became the first new state of the 21st century. Independence is just the start of a complex and difficult phase for the Timorese people.

Destruction and violence perpetrated by the Indonesian military and by militias created by them after the 1999 referendum, combined with a culture of dependence and corruption resulting from the Indonesian occupation and underdevelopment inherited from the colonial era, have left the country in a vulnerable state, totally dependent on outside support for its survival.

The Timorese government has said its main goals are to reduce poverty and to promote rapid, equitable and sustainable economic growth.

Overcoming these challenges is going to depend primarily on the competitiveness and capacity of government services.

One of the most urgent tasks for the immediate future is to guarantee the development of a competent public administration, capable of creating fundamental legal, economic, and social conditions to promote the private sector and attract foreign investment.

Successful government policies will require a balance between creating minimum conditions of health, education and well-being for the real development of the population and implementing accountable measures to attract direct foreign investment in strategic sectors such as agriculture, fishing, industry and tourism, yet without compromising national independence.

The Timorese population is in a vulnerable position. The most urgent social concerns are unemployment and the health and education systems.

There is a serious shortage of basic health services and qualified professionals.

Urgent measures are needed in HIV/AIDS prevention. Extreme poverty, the large number of street children and prostitution could lead to an unprecedented explosion of the epidemic.

The lack of educational materials and a shortage of qualified teachers, the absence of a defined curriculum and the difficulties associated with re-introducing the Portuguese language are challenges that will take years to overcome.

Women are one of the most vulnerable groups in Timorese society, where they face serious discrimination in public and domestic life.

Since the end of the insurrection against Indonesian occupation in 1999, violence seems to have been transferred to the private sphere, motivated by rising unemployment and the tension in society.

Re-training society will be vital to reconcile a community and create an environment where people respect human rights.

Reconciliation is largely dependent on the work of the Commission of Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, created to uncover the truth and to explain the causes and the nature of the human rights violations committed between April 1974 when the Portuguese colonial power withdrew and October 1999 when Indonesian occupation ended.

Trials for these violations will also be essential to promote tolerance and implement economic, social and political justice.

One of the gaps in this process is East Timor's inability to put on trial the main perpetrators of the crimes of 1999. Timorese justice has serious deficiencies.

Apart from the absence of training, judicial experience and technical support for judges and lawyers, human and financial resources are limited and there is a general absence of coordination and management.

The development of a judicial and regulatory framework is a priority, since the end of Indonesian rule created a legal vacuum.

Economic development has been almost non-existent and short-term economic strategies need to include sustainable development that will make agriculture more productive and favour other opportunities for growth such as tourism and exploitation of oil and natural gas in the Timor Sea.

The economic future of East Timor will ultimately depend on transparency in managing the income from oil resources and the way in which this is invested in profitable projects.

The World Bank is responsible for the administration of donor funds, but it is still unclear what kind of social and economic pressures it will place on East Timor in exchange for its promised financial backing, or what consequences this will have on Timorese society.

The young nation must not become another victim of the economic policies of the international financial institutions. It is fundamentally important for it to promote economic development alongside equality, giving priority to the needs of the poorest.

It is also vital to remember the particular vulnerability of a country that has never had its own governmental structures. Constructive dialogue among citizens and with the government will be essential to create a genuine democracy in which the decision-making process and legislation meet the needs of the country and the population.

Numerous obstacles lie ahead for East Timor. However, its human potential and the strength and courage of its people, combined with a serious government and reliable technical and financial backing from the international community, offer hope for a sustainable future. or

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