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East Timor Celebrates First Year of Independence - 2003-05-20

East Timor is celebrating its first year as an independent nation. But its leaders are struggling to use the benefits of freedom to improve life in the impoverished country.

It has been one year since the East Timorese flag was raised for the first time over the world's newest nation.

During that time, the East Timorese people have learned that the struggle for a better life has not ended with statehood.

On Tuesday, many in the nation celebrated independence but in a speech, President Xanana Gusmao said not enough has been done to better the lives of the country's 700,000 people.

The statistics tell of an uphill struggle for the people who fought a 24-year war of independence against Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, and annexed it the following year.

Poverty is rampant. According to U.S. government figures, 42 percent of all East Timorese lived below the poverty line at the time of independence. More than half the population over the age of 15 cannot read. Most people are jobless.

What is more, East Timor has little in the way of infrastructure. Just over 12 percent of the country's roads are paved. And few people outside the capital have access to electricity and running water.

Some of the problems stem from recent history.

East Timor won its independence from Indonesia in 1999, after a landslide victory in a vote organized by the United Nations.

But much of territory was destroyed in a rampage by anti-independence militias, bent on keeping the territory part of Indonesia. Hundreds of people died in the violence, which prompted the deployment of international peacekeepers.

The United Nations administered East Timor for two and a half years, before it handed over control to President Gusmao's government last May.

The government is nearly broke and aid donations are beginning to falter. But East Timor has some hope for a better future. In a few years, it should start earning tens of millions of dollars a year from rich oil and natural gas fields now being tapped in the Timor Sea.