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3 Years After Independence, Future Looks Bright for East Timor

  • Tim Johnston

East Timor is celebrating the third anniversary of its independence, Friday. The tiny nation has had its difficulties with the legacies of Indonesian rule and trying to kick-start the economy, but recent developments have given the country a brighter future. As a mark of its new maturity, United Nations peacekeepers have left.

The third anniversary of independence marks a milestone for East Timor. It is the last day United Nations forces formally guaranteed the security of the world's newest country. The U.N. mission, which once numbered over 11,000 people, will now be reduced to 130 administrators and police and military advisers.

The situation is looking brighter on other fronts also. East Timor is still desperately poor, but it is about to sign a long-awaited agreement with Australia, which should lead to the development of substantial undersea oil and gas deposits, which could pay the country more than $5 billion over the coming years.

The government is upbeat about the future. Jose Ramos Horta is East Timor's Nobel Prize-winning foreign minister.

"I am very optimistic: optimistic because the economy is picking up. We'll do much better in a year or two," he said. "At the same time, our relations with Indonesia improve further under the leadership of [Indonesian] President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. With investments also coming from Indonesia, Thailand, China, I think we are on the right path."

But there is still some unfinished business. Although relations between the governments of East Timor and Indonesia are cordial, many East Timorese people are finding it hard to forgive the violence surrounding East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia. Some 1500 people are estimated to have been killed by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies before they pulled out.

The United Nations has appointed a so-called "Commission of Experts" to look into criticisms that Jakarta has done too little to bring to justice those responsible for the violence. Indonesia has refused to extradite suspects to Timor, and has only tried 18 people in its own courts. Seventeen of these have already been acquitted and the 18th is out on appeal.

The independent commission has been given a chilly welcome in Dili and Jakarta, which have set up their own Commission of Truth and Friendship, which they hope will, in their own words, settle the issue "peacefully and objectively."

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