Subject: AP: Impoverished East Timor celebrates anniversary of independence

Impoverished East Timor celebrates anniversary of independence

May 20, 2004 2:14am AP Online

DILI, East Timor_East Timor celebrated its second anniversary Thursday while its leaders called for patience in the face of a sputtering economy and a declining U.N. presence in Asia's poorest nation.

President Xanana Gusmao, a former freedom fighter jailed by Indonesia during its 24-year occupation, told thousands of revelers that the country's future was in their hands now.

"I appeal to you all, my brothers and sisters, to help rebuild this country with the skills and capacity that we have so that there will be a bright future for the next generation," Gusmao said. "Show the international community and the United Nations that we can govern our own country."

The crowd of former guerrillas and students rallied at Dili's municipal stadium and stood silent for a minute to honor the 200,000 victims of the country's long fight for independence.

Thousands of people gathered along the palm-fringed waterfront, picnicking, dancing and playing traditional folk music.

"This day makes me so happy," said Ernesto Sarmento, a 34-year-old government employee. "We struggled for so long to achieve independence. And in just two years, we've seen improvements in security, education and public health."

After four centuries of Portuguese rule followed by Indonesia's iron-fisted reign, East Timorese voted for independence in a 1999 U.N.-sponsored referendum. The Indonesian military and its proxy militias responded by laying waste to the former province, killing 1,500 Timorese and forcing 300,000 from their homes.

The United Nations administered the country for 2 1/2 years and then handed it to the Timorese on May 20, 2002. At the height of the mission, 9,000 U.N. personnel were deployed in the nation of 800,000 people.

Since then, a reduced U.N. military and technical mission has been helping the world's newest nation. This was set to end on Thursday, but the Security Council voted to extend a scaled-down operation for another year.

About 600 U.N. soldiers and police will serve as advisers to the Timorese security forces, and several dozen civilian technical experts will help the government in critical areas such as administration and civil aviation.

Although analysts say much progress has been achieved in the past two years, the government also has encountered serious problems.

Riots broke out in the capital in December 2002 and left scores of buildings in ruins, including the prime minister's house.

Security has since improved but the reduction of the U.N. force has set off fears along the border of renewed attacks. Many people are upset over an economy that is expected to grow a tepid 1 percent this year and by unemployment of over 20 percent in urban areas.

"Nothing has changed since independence," said Aitahan Matak, a former guerrilla fighter. "If you go to the villages in the rural areas, you see people are still hungry."

"The farmers cannot sell their fruits and potatoes because the government has not repaired roads in rural areas. People are asking why they cannot enjoy this independence."

Although tens of millions of dollars in oil revenues from the Timor Sea have dropped into the country's coffers, this has been overshadowed by a growing feud with Australia over ownership of the most lucrative fields.

Gusmao and other government officials have accused Australia of stealing the oil because the fields in question are located deep on the Timorese half of the 500-kilometer (310-mile) -wide waterway between the nations.

East Timor has also struggled to address the abuses that occurred in 1999.

A U.N.-backed Special Panels for Serious Crimes has indicted more than 380 people and convicted 52. But most, including Indonesian presidential candidate Gen. Wiranto, remain in Indonesia, which refuses to extradite them.

The issue came to head last week when a court in Dili issued an arrest warrant for Wiranto. Jakarta appealed to Dili to block the warrant, and Timorese leaders attempted to appease their larger neighbor by promising to find a solution that would be "acceptable to all."

East Timor and its former occupier are enjoying a burgeoning economic and political relationship, in contrast to the strained ties with Australia.

Rights activists say East Timor must push ahead with prosecution of all rights abusers.

"Two years after independence, the people of East Timor still lack any semblance of justice for decades of atrocities," said John M. Miller of the East Timor Action Network.

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