Subject: AFP interview: East Timor at crossroads of success or despair says UN chief

Also: Hill dismisses E Timor militia concerns

Thursday May 20, 12:48 PM

AFP interview: East Timor at crossroads of success or despair says UN chief

DILI (AFP) - East Timor's second independence day is a crossroads from which the world's newest nation could stride to a prosperous future or descend into corruption and crime, the top UN official here warned.

UN special representative Kamalesh Sharma told AFP that he believed the Southeast Asian nation had the resources and pride to stand alone but needed to steel its citizens against despair and malevolence.

Speaking on the eve of the country's second birthday and before he and the bulk of a UN peacekeeping mission readies to leave for good, he also stressed the role of impoverished East Timor's neighbours in shaping its future.

"I have travelled across the country and there is poverty and deprivation, but I am amazed at how much dignity there is. It gives me hope, these people understand self-respect and they are at a level where they can rise quickly.

"The main problem is that at some point, people will start saying, 'where is the independence dividend?' Freedom is a value without measure, but at some point, they will say 'we need jobs as well'.

"It is not a question of reaching targets. You must feel that from year to year things are getting better to keep hope alive in people."

East Timor gained full independence in 2002, almost three years after 1,400 people were murdered by Indonesian forces and their militia supporters in violence surrounding a UN-backed vote to break free from Jakarta's rule.

The United Nations took over initially and UN peacekeepers were responsible for law and order until this week when control was handed to Timorese police backed by a pared down team of UN advisors and military to remain until security problems abate.

Sharma said that the new police would be key to ensuring the former Portuguese colony keeps its head above water, but must be subject to scrutiny.

"The biggest worry, like with all developing countries, is ensuring the police force remains neutral.

"They must not allow corruption to take root and stop the development of an uncivil society -- the criminals and traffickers who prey on the soft underbelly of life."

Sharma said that East Timor's oil and agricultural resources were the building blocks that would allow it to become a thriving Asian player, spurred by the prosperity of nearby countries who would prefer a wealthy neighbour.

"East Timor is in a good position, it is an LDC (lesser developed country) in a relatively affluent region and none of these countries want a failed state as their neighbour."

Crucial to this development would be a favourable end to a dispute with Australia over a hugely lucrative undersea gas and oil field that East Timor says is being wrongfully exploited by its biggest benefactor.

"A lot of it depends on successful negotiations with Australia, I hope it leads to a good conclusion," the Indian-born diplomat said.

Sharma added that he believed East Timor could strike a balance with Indonesia in maintaining good relations while bringing to account those responsible for human rights abuses during the 1999 vote.

"They have got off to a very good start, both leaderships are looking at this with a very good level responsibility. I am sure a balance can be reached," Sharma said.

A court in East Timor on Wednesday sentenced the first Indonesian, a former militia commander, for crimes against humanity committed during the territory's bloody breakaway.

But Sharma pointed to successes in demarcating a contested land border dividing the half-island nation from Indonesia.

"They have agreed on 90 percent of the border, the remaining 10 percent cannot be difficult to sort out. They have a very good relationship, which is very important when Indonesia is the country's only land neighbour."

-- ABC Last Update: Thursday, May 20, 2004. 2:00pm (AEST) Hill dismisses E Timor militia concerns

Defence Minister Robert Hill says the international community believes the issue of militia crossing the border from West to East Timor is history.

East Timor has warned that the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers could give rise to a new threat of armed militia returning from Indonesia.

East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta says there are real fears in his country the militia will come back.

However Senator Hill says the real challenges facing the country are internal.

"Well the UN military determine the size of the force and they are significantly reducing the peacekeeping force which is a sign that the international community believe that the militia issue really is in the past," he said.

"We haven't seen any sign of militia activity across the border now for a long time."


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