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East Timor Rises from the Ashes

An Op-ed
By Xanana Gusmao, Sven Sandstrom,
Shigemitsu Sugisaki and Sergio Vieira de Mello1

International Herald Tribune
April 26, 2000

Reproduced with permission of the International Herald Tribune

Seven months after East Timor's vote for independence sparked a wave of violence and destruction, the slow process of nation-building has only just begun. Despite generous humanitarian assistance, many East Timorese lack even basic services. All but the most rudimentary civil administration is absent. The effort to create a country literally from ashes will be monumental for the East Timorese. It will require the full support of the international community.

The UN Transitional Administration and international agencies operate in East Timor under clearly defined responsibilities. These include maintaining border security and ensuring public order; assisting in the reconstruction of shattered infrastructure; providing the basics of food, health and education; and helping to create a new administration and institutions to get the economy back on its feet and the democratic process under way.

But the key to success is the participation of the East Timorese people in all aspects of this effort.

The international community, in addition to direct contributions to the peacekeeping operations from UN members, pledged $520 million at a conference last December in Tokyo to the humanitarian aid program. The money is being channeled through two trust funds - one managed by the UN and the other by the World Bank - and through bilateral contributions.

The UN has full executive and legislative authority, including the administration of justice. The World Bank is supervising the reconstruction effort. The International Monetary Fund is helping devise systems for managing the economy. Many other international institutions and UN agencies are also involved.

Most importantly, the East Timorese have taken a seat at the table in all policy decisions. A National Consultative Council that brings the East Timorese together with the UN administration has met regularly since December to work out pressing issues.

The international organizations are helping the council to form consensus by providing technical advice in critical areas of economic and social policy. The East Timorese already are architects of an administration that will serve the country well after independence. In addition, this process will help plant the seeds of a participatory, democratic society that should germinate as East Timor moves toward elections next year. The border situation has stabilized considerably since the early days of the UN peacekeeping mission. Some of the militias that terrorized East Timor in the dark days after the vote for independence in August have been causing problems - especially across the international border in Indonesian West Timor. But East Timor, by and large, is at peace.

A new East Timorese police force is being built up. The former liberation armed forces in the territory have offered unarmed assistance. A new court system with East Timorese judges and prosecutors has been created.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled or were forced to leave East Timor in September 1999 are slowly returning. But intimidation by militias in West Timor remains an obstacle. More work must be done to ensure adequate services for those who do return to their former homes.

The East Timorese leadership is trying to bring about reconciliation of the various East Timorese factions, including those who wanted to remain part of Indonesia, because they all have a contribution to make to the country's future. Good progress is also being achieved in normalizing relations with Indonesia.

In the face of vast relief and reconstruction needs, the World Bank is mounting a comprehensive effort with short-term as well as long-term goals. It is aimed at providing jobs, homes, schools and infrastructure. Only a quarter of East Timor and half of its people now have access to intermittent electricity. Telephone service remains rudimentary at best. Few East Timorese have access to potable water.

Although there are still worries about health and nutrition, UN agencies and private humanitarian groups have made a huge effort to feed and care for those deprived of their homes and livelihoods by the wave of terror.

The UN is receiving support from other international agencies and donor countries in setting up the judicial branch. Soon a public service commission made up mostly of East Timorese will start the process of screening the staff of the civil service administration. The search for East Timorese to staff all these offices is under way, and training is being provided. Some donor countries have sent their own experts to the new administration at their own expense.

Donor nations must be prepared to provide further assistance to speed things up. There will be opportunities to achieve this when a donors meeting is held in Lisbon from June 21 to 23, and at the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in Okinawa, Japan, in July.

After the horrors of the past, East Timor has a just claim to an international commitment to concrete assistance, rapid response and respect for the aspirations to self-determination.


1 Mr. Gusmao is president of the National Council for Timorese Resistance. Mr. Sandstrom is a World Bank managing director. Mr. Sugisaki is a deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Vieira de Mello is the United Nations transitional administrator of East Timor. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.




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