Subject: East Timor at crossroads 10 years after historic vote
|Agence France-Presse - 8/26/2009 4:46
East Timor at crossroads 10 years after historic vote
Ravaged by 24 years of military occupation and
threatened with reprisals by vengeful militias, the
people of East Timor went to the polls 10 years ago to
vote for independence from Indonesia.
A festive mood is taking hold as the tiny half-island of
about 1.1 million people prepares to celebrate the
referendum's anniversary on Sunday, with sports and
cultural events leading up to an official ceremony in
Hope is in the air but it is mixed with uncertainty
about the future of a country which remains one of the
world's poorest and which has been convulsed by violent
"The security is still very weak -- we haven't
professionalised our defence or taught police to respect
human rights," National Union Party leader Fernanda
Borges said, adding the country was at a "critical
stage" in its development.
"We have so much assistance from the UN in this area but
it doesn't seem to be providing the results -- people
don't seem to be accessing justice."
The United Nations arrived in 1999 to help organise the
referendum, which decided by a margin of 21.5 percent to
78.5 percent to reject an Indonesian proposal of
autonomy and instead begin a transition to independence.
In the weeks that followed the August 30 vote, the
Indonesian army and its militia proxies ran riot,
destroying much of the country's infrastructure and
forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their
An Australian-led UN peacekeeping force quickly ended
the violence but an estimated 1,400 people had been
killed, the last of 100,000 to 200,000 East Timorese who
died as a result of Indonesian abuse and misrule.
Under a joint truth and friendship commission report
released last year, Indonesia accepted for the first
time that its military was responsible for gross human
rights abuses in the former Portuguese colony.
But to this day, no Indonesian commander or civilian
leader has ever been convicted, and the report named no
perpetrators and made no recommendation for
East Timorese President and Nobel Peace laureate Jose
Ramos-Horta has defended the report and called demands
for an international tribunal "stupid" -- but victims of
the violence feel freedom has come without justice.
Independence has also fuelled tense factional rivalries.
UN troops returned to the country in 2006 after a spasm
of violence between rival gangs and factions of the
security forces drove 100,000 people from their homes.
By March 2007, the UN Police had reached a critical mass
of 1,500 people and security had been stabilised, with
peaceful national elections in June of that year hailed
as a turning point for the country.
But less than a year later Ramos-Horta was gunned down
by rebel soldiers outside his house. The president
survived after emergency surgery in Australia, while
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who was also targeted, was
The rebel leader was killed in the attack and his
followers subsequently surrendered.
Today, the streets are quiet, children play in the new
park in front of Hotel Timor, commercial properties are
being spruced up and new hotels and a mall are being
Law enforcement responsibilities are being handed over
to local police, and UN mission chief Finn Reske-Nielsen
expects the gradual drawdown of all UN forces to begin
early next year.
"It's a political determination about when it's time for
peacekeeping to pull out of here," he told AFP in a
recent interview, adding local elections in October will
be a test case for stability.
About 70 percent of East Timor's population live in
rural areas where subsistence farming is the norm; about
40 percent of the population lives below the poverty
line and life expectancy hovers around 60.
According to official figures, one in 35 East Timorese
women die in childbirth compared to one in 13,000 in
There is an average wait of five years for a criminal
case to go to trial and suspended or non-custodial
sentences are routinely handed out because the prisons
are full, according to aid workers who monitor the
Most of East Timor's income flows from huge oil and gas
reserves but unemployment in 2004 was estimated at 23
percent and youth unemployment at 40 percent, according
to the World Bank.
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