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UN Preparing Transition Government In East Timor

As voters in East Timor went to the polls to elect a constituent assembly, leaders of the U.N. administration were preparing to phase in a new transitional government. The move is part of a plan to prepare East Timor for self-government just two years after the territory voted to be free of Indonesian rule.

The head of the U.N. administration in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, says when the election results are announced, he is prepared to name a new transitional government, which he says will be all Timorese.

Mr. de Mello adds he is thinking of naming a chief minister to coordinate the cabinet of the Timorese transitional authority. In effect, this would be a prime minister of a pre-independence Timorese government. "The best way of preparing them for self-government is to let them govern themselves," he said. "And that is what we shall do in the final phase of this transition, which will also be a useful rehearsal, a useful training for all of them to fully assume the reins of power on independence day."

East Timor was devastated two years ago when pro-Jakarta militia's sacked the country after the voters chose independence rather than integration with neighboring Indonesia, which had occupied the former Portuguese colony for 25 years.

The devastation, combined with the lack of preparation under the Portuguese and the Indonesians, has made many wonder if the East Timorese are ready to govern themselves when they achieve full independence sometime next year.

One of the leaders of the independence struggle and currently the foreign affairs cabinet minister, Jose Ramos Horta, voices the feelings of many East Timorese who want independence. "We are ready," said Mr. Ramos Horta. "Obviously we have a lot of weaknesses, deficiencies, lack of senior managerial people at senior or middle level. We lack enough medical doctors, economists, planners. But we haven't been doing too bad either in the last year and a half."

Mr. Ramos Horta acknowledges that support from the international community will still be needed, especially from peacekeeping forces. But he says most of the international civilian staff can be drastically reduced.

The transitional administration has recruited and trained more than 9,000 civil servants to administer public services.

A long-time observer of East Timor, Father Frank Brennan, who heads the Jesuit Refugee Services here, says East Timor is a classic case of de-colonization but one that is occurring in a compressed period of time. "Usually with de-colonization, you have a period of time, 10-20 years when the colonizing power is placing people, the local people, in situations to be able to run the show," he said. "That hasn't been able to happen here because the Indonesians have been running it for 25 years and left in a wholesale fashion, leaving of course a huge vacuum."

Father Brennan says the United Nations has been trying to fill the vacuum, but has had only two years to train people.

The United Nations, under pressure from the Timorese people, is planning to withdraw 90 percent of its civilian personnel next year. As a result, many fear difficult times as the young government tries to balance the long-frustrated aspirations of its people with the realities of an economy that has been devastated by the recent struggle for independence.