Celebration, Challenges Welcome New East Timor

Some 100,000 East Timorese gathered shortly after midnight to mark the country’s hard-fought independence, which came after centuries as a Portuguese colony and more than two decades of harsh Indonesian rule.

On hand for the celebration were former U.S. President Bill Clinton; Megawati Sukarnoputri, president of East Timor’s former ruler, Indonesia; and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations.

The U.N. took control of the shattered half-island territory in 1999 after a bloody militia rampage following an independence referendum. Since then, U.N. officials have worked with the East Timorese to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and help craft an independent government.

Xanana Gusmao, the country’s new president and a former anti-Indonesia independence leader, thanked the international community for its help in establishing the nation.

“Today, with humility – and before the international community – we take upon ourselves the obligations towards our people. We wanted to be ourselves, we wanted to take pride in being ourselves – a people and a nation,” Gusmao said. “Today, with your assistance, we are effectively what we have always striven to be.”

East Timor’s prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, and cabinet ministers were also sworn in.

Although its long climb to independence has ended, East Timor still has difficulties to surmount. The infrastructure of the tiny nation of 800,000 remains in tatters and more than 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line of $0.55 per day. A recent U.N. report called East Timor “one of the least developed nations in the region,” with a life expectancy of 57 years and half the population remaining illiterate.

The nation, which is currently dependent on foreign aid, took its first step toward building its economy when Prime Minister Alkatiri on Monday signed an agreement with Australia to share revenues from offshore oil reserves in the Timor Sea beginning in 2005. The deal, which gives East Timor a 90 percent share of the profits, is expected to be worth $7 billion over the next 20 years.

Although the country faces critical challenges, new Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, told Reuters he’s confident East Timor will weather the storms to come.

“So far we have disproved all the skeptics who say East Timor will not be viable and that East Timor will be forgotten,” he said.

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