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East Timor Enters Community of Nations Facing Challenges - 2002-05-16

After 400 years as a Portuguese colony and more than two decades under Indonesian occupation, East Timor is becoming independent on Monday, May 20, 2002. But the new country faces many challenges, not the least of which is how to earn money to provide for its people's daily life.

As East Timor enters nationhood, it is among the world's 20 poorest countries and, according to the United Nations, the poorest in Asia. A U.N. report said about half of East Timor's 800,000 people earn less than 55 cents a day. And their immediate prospects do not look good.

"After 25 years of a rather brutal occupation and oppression, the entire infrastructure of the country was basically destroyed," Lelei Lelaulu said.

Lelei Lelaulu is vice president of the East Timor Development and Reconstruction Organization in Washington D.C. "A lot of the roads outside of the capital, Dili, are unserviceable after a heavy rainfall. And of course they're in the monsoon belt, so this is a major problem," he said. "So the outlying rural areas are in constant danger of going into famine, as little food or supplies can reach them during the difficult climatic times. Then, there's the power supply. The grids are not in place, so to call a power supply spotty would be a gross understatement."

Mr. Lelaulu said East Timor's needs go beyond physical infrastructure. For example, he said teachers need to be trained. Finance professor Warren Bailey, at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University, agrees, saying East Timor is basically starting from scratch.

"There's a lack of legal or governmental infrastructure - laws, regulations, precedent. There's also a lack, not totally, but a big lack of people - bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, people to run a police force. All these things are in relatively short supply," Mr. Bailey said.

Professor Bailey said it will be hard for East Timorese to put together an education system, a legal system, and a police force when they do not even know what the new country's official language will be. Many older Timorese speak Portuguese, most younger people speak Indonesian, and still others speak a native local language or English.

Mr. Lelaulu notes that many educated Timorese who were in exile are now returning home, but are bringing back very different perspectives. "It's like taking a family and splitting up the siblings and sending them to completely different countries and different continents for 25 years and then trying to reunite them again. They're all speaking different languages. They've all been developed under different thought processes, so it's that sort of problem. They have a common strand which links them, which is their country. But everything else they have is not in common. It's going to require an awful lot of goodwill, an awful lot of dialogue," he said.

Over the past two years, East Timor has been administered by a U.N. mission. An economy has built up around hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to the international staff working in East Timor. But they will gradually depart, and Professor Bailey has said East Timor needs to be weaned off what he calls this "post-traumatic semi-occupation" by well-meaning foreigners.

Foreign governments have pledged more than $360 million to help East Timor get through the next few years, until revenues start flowing from the oil and gas resources in the waters between East Timor and Australia. But Professor Bailey cautions East Timor against relying on oil and gas wealth without building up the rest of its economy, because it will then be at the mercy of volatile oil prices.

Mr. Lelaulu points out that East Timor has had a thriving coffee industry and can develop that once again and also expand into other agricultural crops. Professor Bailey said East Timor will have to look at the question of property rights and decide how aggressive it wants to be about nationalizing property because Indonesians now hold much of the coffee-growing land.

"For example, we might have an Indonesian company or maybe even an Indonesian general who owns a coffee plantation. What do we do? He probably got that inappropriately. But do we look at that and say, "Clean slate, let's respect property rights, and let's go from there," and maybe buy those people out, or let them operate it and earn some taxes from them?" Professor Bailey said.

Lelei Lelaulu said East Timor's new president - former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao - wants his administration to strive for social justice and reconciliation but resist the temptation to seek recrimination for past injustices. He said others may not be so willing to forgive and move on - and that could lead to political divisions in the coming months.