TOPICS > Politics

Background: East Timor

May 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: A midnight fireworks display heralded East Timor as the world’s newest nation today. The festive ceremony stood in contrast to these images of devastation broadcast from East Timor three-and-a-half years ago.

The tiny half-island territory in South Asia had been occupied by Indonesia since 1975, when Portugal gave up its 460-year colonial rule. In August, 1999, after years of bloody conflict, the Indonesians, under pressure from the world community, allowed the East Timorese to decide their political future. 80 percent voted in favor of independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum. But local Timorese militia forces believed to be allied with the Indonesian army opposed independence.

Within days of the vote, they took to the streets, killing nearly a thousand and wounding many more. Most of East Timor’s buildings were destroyed, as were water, power, and communications facilities. Three-quarters of the 800,000 East Timorese were displaced from their homes during the fighting. Many fled to the other half of the island, still held by Indonesia.

The violence ended in October, 1999, after Indonesia, under foreign pressure, withdrew its army, which deprived the militia of support. Indonesia agreed to allow international peacekeepers from Australia and elsewhere to police East Timor and enforce a cease-fire. The Australian-led force was succeeded by a 15-nation U.N. force. That group ran East Timor’s transition to self-rule.

Representatives of the countries that helped shepherd East Timor to independence were prominent at today’s celebrations. President Bush sent former President Bill Clinton. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard was there. Even Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a longtime opponent of independence, made a point of coming to East Timor for the ceremony.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan handed over sovereignty to East Timor’s newly elected President Jose “Xanana” Gusmao.

KOFI ANNAN: As Secretary General of the United Nations, I have the honor to transfer executive authority the united transitional administration to the institutions of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

RAY SUAREZ: In his inaugural speech, the resistance fighter and political prisoner-turned- president said plenty remains to be done.

JOSE GUSAMAO: After our political independence, our supreme objective will be the comprehensive development of all aspects of the lives of our people, from the cultural to the scientific; from the social to the economic. Our history will continue to be made by our people for the dignity of the human being, in the tolerance among groups and the respects among communities.

In the collective, dynamic participation of society, this will be our new philosophy as citizens, our new culture as a country, and our policy as East Timorese. To the international solidarity, we extend a profound word of thanks from our people.

RAY SUAREZ: The people of East Timor celebrated all day. A triumphant military parade was held in the capital, Dili, and East Timor’s prime minister swore in his government in a ceremony outside its new headquarters.

And at the new U.S. Embassy, former President Clinton watched as the stars and stripes was raised.