Wed, 05 Sep 2001

Born again East Timor

Free at last to determine their own destiny, East Timorese voted on Thursday for an 88-member constituent assembly that will draft a Constitution for their nascent state and prepare for presidential elections next year. Administered by the UN after pro-Jakarta militias reduced the territory to shambles in 1999 when its people opted for statehood, the former Portuguese colony which Indonesia annexed in 1976 has to build from scratch. Leading presidential candidate Xanana Gusmao has warned his people not to expect immediate improvements to their lives just because they now have democracy. Of the 16 political parties which took part in Thursday's polls, Fretilin, which led the armed struggle against Indonesian occupation, is set for victory when the official results are announced next week.

Like it or not, East Timor's new government will have to depend heavily on the UN to see it through its first few years. The sensitive issue of atrocities committed by pro-Indonesia militias remains unresolved. While Mr. Gusmao is prepared to consider amnesty in the spirit of reconciliation, not all East Timorese agree with him. This issue could cause friction with Indonesia.

Thursday's election was peaceful, despite fears of violence. This is due to the presence of UN police and the 8,000 international peacekeepers. UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello said the UN and the international community must stay the course in East Timor or risk undermining the progress of the past two years. For this reason, the UN plans to stay in the territory for a while after independence to help the new government. This is to ensure that the new state has sound administration and a self-sustaining economy. East Timor, reborn, is getting a fresh lease of life. Its leaders have to stay united to build a new nation. This will not be easy.

-- The Straits Times, Singapore