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Independence Day in East Timor

May 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on East Timor, its independence and future, we turn to Jean-Marie Guehenno, United Nations Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping; and Dwight King, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. He’s worked as a senior adviser and election monitor in East Timor for the Carter Center.

Professor King, as we look at the balance sheet as East Timor begins its first week as a country, what are the assets and liabilities that the Timorese have to work with as they build a country?

DWIGHT KING: In terms of assets — clearly they have a great desire and a will to form a nation. They have waited so long, first through Portuguese colonialism, then the Indonesian invasion and occupation.

So I think the will of the people, perhaps, is their strongest asset. Another major asset, of course, is the attitude of their new President, Mr. Gusmao, who has been a very firm advocate of reconciliation, of looking ahead to the future.

In terms of liabilities, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is how to maintain fiscal policies in the midst of such dire economic and social needs. That’s going to be a major problem because this is a very poor country. Estimated 55 percent of East Timorese are below the poverty line. They– life expectancy is only 55 years; unemployment is very high. Only perhaps 37 percent of the adults over age 15 and outside the capital city are literate.

And for the time being, economic resources are probably adequate in the sense that the assistance being put together by the U.N., by the donor countries, amounting to about $360 million over the next three years is going to do a lot. But beyond that, the problem of resources, I think, looms very large.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Undersecretary, given what the Professor just said, and given your experience in helping usher East Timor to this day, what are its prospects for viability as a healthy, independent country?

JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO: Well, I think as was just said, the greatest resource of the East Timorese is their will. They have also some luck in the sense in what is called their East Timor, the Timor gap – that is the expanse of sea between Timor and Australia – their oil and gas resources – and we hope that within three or four years these oil and gas resources will begin to bring a steady flow of money to East Timor.

But I think what’s needed at this stage is jobs, a lot of jobs. As was mentioned, there is still quite a bit of unemployment in East Timor, and we’ve got to get the economy running in foreign investment coming to East Timor. We’ve got to get the attention of the international community focused, continuing to focus on East Timor.

RAY SUAREZ: And Mr. Undersecretary, maybe you could explain a little bit about the unusual status that East Timor enjoyed in the last two years — United Nations receivership, a very unusual kind of process. Tell us more.

JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO: Well, in September of 1999, after the vote showed that the East Timorese had opted for independence, there had to be a solution, because they couldn’t be independent overnight. And that’s how the international community came to the conclusion that East Timor would be run for a temporary period, for a transitional period, by the United Nations.

That was something quite unprecedented. That meant that the United Nations and the peacekeeping force would not just provide the security, but would provide an administration, judges, tax experts, all that is necessary to run a country. And that’s what we have been doing in the past two years and a half.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor King, you thought it went pretty quickly on the whole, that process from really the devastation that we saw in the beginning to what’s there today?

DWIGHT KING: It went quickly in that the United Nations very well orchestrated first the popular consultation that gave the direction for the political development to move toward independence, then the elections for the constituent assembly and finally just last week, the presidential election.

So in that sense, in terms of the very well administered political development by the U.N., developments have progressed rapidly. I think in this last election, there has been much more ownership over the process by the East Timorese.

But clearly there is tough sailing ahead; for example, I think friction has opened up between Mr. Gusmao, President Gusmao, the prime minister, Mr. Maury Ocutori, and that tension is probably good in terms of checks and balances but it also means that Timorese elite are going to have to work together very closely if they’re going to make progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Megawati Sukarnoputri’s presence at the independence ceremonies, if there was still heavy conflict inside Indonesia over this transition to independence, why the president? Why not some lower ranking official who would at least show the Indonesian flag and then go home when this was all over?

DWIGHT KING: Well, indeed, Mr. Gusmao made a special trip to Jakarta to personally invite President Megawati to the festivities. The Speaker of the House and the Indonesian Assembly took the position that with so many unresolved issues and, above all with the psychological problems that exist over this relationship, that that was too high a profile and that it was quite enough to send the foreign minister.

Eventually, the Indonesian army indicated their support for President Megawati to go to East Timor. Once that came through, then it was very clear that she would go, but I think certainly it was the right decision. Indonesia is– surrounds East Timor. They have to be able to work together. Indonesia has a lot to offer East Timor. Timorese leadership, as I said earlier, wants to look forward. So having President Megawati there, despite a lot of disagreement in Indonesia, was the right decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Undersecretary, how long are we talking about for a transitional period? The Timorese are in charge. They have a flag. They have an anthem, a government. But the U.N. is still very much involved, isn’t it?

JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO: Yes, because it’s still a very poor country, which needs to be– to consolidate itself. So the Timorese have asked the international community to stay engaged. There is a provision of security. The Timorese are building a defense force. It will be a small defense force. But at the moment they only have 600 soldiers. They will have a little more than that, about 1,500.

So we still keep a peacekeeping force in East Timor. And then on the government side of East Timor, there are few critical functions where they do still need the support of the international community.

So I think we are talking about probably two years to close the mission. And then that doesn’t mean that the involvement of the international community will cease. I think there will continue to be a need for development assistance, for support to East Timor.

RAY SUAREZ: And has the United Nations learned some lessons in this project that might make this something you could do with other nations in trouble, this U.N. receivership?

JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO: Well, receivership is a strong word. What we have seen is that there are a number of situations where nation states need international support and that supporting them is part of the peace building process.

I think what we are learning from East Timor is a lesson of humility and at the same time of adequate resources — humility in the sense that when you help a nation build itself, you have to make sure that it owns the process — that you are supporting it, you are not substituting for the people who have to build their nation.

At the same time, it’s also a lesson of putting the adequate resources. Too often we have done– we have tried to do too much with too little. And I think in the case of East Timor, we have been successful because the international community mobilized the right resources. It made a major effort in the past two and a half years. And that’s why we have a success now.

RAY SUAREZ: Undersecretary, Professor, thank you both.