Subject: East Timor at crossroads 10 years after historic vote
Agence France-Presse - 8/26/2009 4:46 AM GMT

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 Dili.

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 factional rivalries.

"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 homes.

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 prosecutions.

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 unscathed.

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 built.

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 neighbouring Australia.

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 judicial system.

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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