|Subject: FEER: East
Timor: Poor, Not Hopeless
Excerpt: Thanks to small mercy, the UN now estimates the number of East Timorese murdered as being in the hundreds rather than thousands. But the precise number may never be known, as bodies (many dismembered) have been washed away into the sea. Those who perpetrated such atrocities must be brought to justice. The UN agencies involved need to act with much greater vigour than they have displayed thus far in investigating and prosecuting the offenders.
Far Eastern Economic Review 11/25/1999
Column: Eye On Asia
East Timor: Poor, Not Hopeless
By Frank Ching
Almost three months after an overwhelming majority of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia, the country-to-be is in a sorry state as a ward of the international community. Its people are now protected by an international force, Interfet. Its economic future is being assessed by the World Bank. And the United Nations' World Food Programme is rushing food to people in the former Portuguese colony to stave off starvation.
Until recently, East Timor had been poorly served by virtually all parties. The Portuguese simply abandoned East Timor in 1975 after 400 years of colonial rule. And while Indonesia, which forcibly annexed the territory in 1976, did build roads and other infrastructure, it also tolerated gross human-rights abuses there by its military.
Former President B.J. Habibie finally agreed to a referendum under which the East Timorese were free to choose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence. The United Nations conducted the referendum on August 30.
The potential for large-scale violence had been obvious to all. But Indonesia insisted that it alone would be responsible for security. It is a testament to the courage of the East Timorese people that over 98% of registered voters showed up at the polls, with 78.5% voting for independence, despite months of intimidation and violence. But while they put their trust in the UN, the world body was unable to protect them. In fact, UN employees were especially targeted by the militias, and the UN ended up having to evacuate many of its people to Australia.
The UN should learn a lesson from this. If it ever supervises another referendum, whether it be in Aceh, Kosovo or elsewhere, it must be able to guarantee the security of voters, both before and after the referendum.
The UN has now assumed responsibility for administering East Timor, presumably for two or three years. East Timor begins its new life having to start from scratch since pro-Indonesia militiamen adopted a scorched-earth policy. Angered by the independence vote, the militiamen went on a vengeful spree of killing and burning, leaving few buildings standing in Dili.
To its credit, Australia provided the bulk of the troops for Interfet, which was formed with Indonesian acquiescence. There is no reason why Australia should not continue to play the principal role in the new UN force that is scheduled to take over from Interfet, especially since it is unacceptable to East Timorese leaders for any Asean country to assume leadership.
As of early November, only 454,000 people remained in East Timor. The United Nations Transitional Administration, using 1998 census and 1999 voter-registration figures, estimates East Timor's pre-referendum population at 850,000. There are about 225,000 in Indonesian-controlled West Timor, having fled or been driven there. Even in camps in West Timor, East Timorese are still subjected to intimidation and harassment. Thousands are believed to be in other parts of Indonesia, with tens of thousands still unaccounted for. The return of these people to East Timor remains a problem.
Thanks to small mercy, the UN now estimates the number of East Timorese murdered as being in the hundreds rather than thousands. But the precise number may never be known, as bodies (many dismembered) have been washed away into the sea. Those who perpetrated such atrocities must be brought to justice. The UN agencies involved need to act with much greater vigour than they have displayed thus far in investigating and prosecuting the offenders.
After a period of UN stewardship, East Timor will face the formidable challenge of managing its own affairs. Most of its bureaucracy is gone, having consisted of Indonesians rather than locals. All bank records have been lost or destroyed in the recent chaos. But the situation isn't hopeless. East Timor has natural resources, particularly oil and gas reserves. The World Bank has also determined that East Timor has good agricultural prospects, with coffee being central to its economy.
After all that the East Timorese have gone through in the last 25 years, not to say the last few hundred years, the world, in particular, Indonesia and Portugal, must do everything possible to help them make a success of their country.
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