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Less than 100 Days Until East Timor's Statehood Declared - 2002-02-13

In 1999, East Timor voted overwhelmingly to break away from Indonesia. Now, in fewer than 100 days, it will become a fully independent country. During the period in between, the tiny territory has been trying to build a nation.

In September 1999, East Timor was a world headline. A referendum for independence from Indonesia set off a wave of violence by anti-independence militias that left the small island territory a blackened, smoldering ruin.

After two and one-half years under United Nations administration, East Timor will get its first democratically elected president in April and gain full independence in May.

But the attention span of the world is short. Terrorism is today's headline, and Afghanistan is the new focus of international aid. Francis Hammond, Asia director of the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental aid organization says the world has largely forgotten the fledgling nation just as it is about to achieve its goal.

"It's ironic that they've gone so far only to find themselves at the last hour suddenly bereft of resources to go forward. It's such a small country, and such a small population, that how much could it really cost, is always my question? And the answer is, not a lot. But the reality is, they're not even getting that," Mr. Hammond says.

The eastern half of the island of Timor was a Portuguese colony until Indonesia - which already held West Timor - invaded East Timor in 1975 and subsequently annexed it. But an active East Timor armed resistance, coupled with the fall of Indonesia's autocratic president, Suharto, convinced Indonesia's interim president, BJ Habibie, to grant a referendum on independence.

Even in the face of massive intimidation and violence by the pro-Indonesian militias, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Afterward, it was left to a United Nations transitional authority, dubbed UNTAET, to administer East Timor until full independence.

Under U.N. supervision, East Timor has elected a Constituent Assembly. The assembly approved a draft constitution on February 9 that provides for a strong parliament and a largely symbolic president, as well as a judiciary. A presidential election will be held April 14, with independence to be declared May 20. However, a U.N. presence will remain, largely to help with development and training of politically neutral police and defense forces.

Sidney Jones, executive director of the group Human Rights Watch, is cautiously optimistic about East Timor's future. She says that not only has the infrastructure ravaged in 1999 been largely restored, but there is now a political infrastructure being put into place - something that East Timor never had under Portuguese or Indonesian rule.

"So I think that this country has a good chance of actually not only surviving as a country but surviving as a democracy," she says.

But there are pitfalls, Ms. Jones warns. Among the things to watch for in the new government, she says, are a willingness to tackle corruption, maintenance of a clean judicial system, and acceptance of differences among political competitors. She adds that East Timor must also come to grips with the painful past, and learn to live with Indonesia as its neighbor.

Some aid workers, both Western and Timorese, say East Timor is perhaps being pushed too fast towards Western-style political institutions. Adriano do Nascimento, coordinator of L'ao Hamutuk - a Timorese group monitoring political developments - says the new electoral system is simply too strange for many of his countrymen.

"People understand how to vote. People understand who will be elected. But the problem here is that the way of how do you call it? having an election because the system is new here, yes, the system that they are applying here is new," he says.

The International Rescue Committee's Mr. Hammond agrees, saying the years of Portuguese and Indonesian rule did not provide solid education and training for many Timorese.

"So you have a lot of East Timorese who are strong of heart but very weak in preparations to go into all aspects of self-governance and development of their country," Mr. Hammond says.

The other key question is how East Timor will survive. Its main cash crop has always been coffee. But that is not sufficient to power the economy of an independent East Timor.

Much hope is now being placed on oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. A deal is reported to be close at hand with an Australian firm to develop the fields, thus bringing East Timor much of the revenue it will need to survive as a new, independent member of the community of nations.