Voters in East Timor went to the polls in large numbers last Thursday to vote for a constituent assembly that will lead them to full independence sometime next year. While the political transition proceeds, an intense effort is underway behind the scenes to prepare East Timorese to administer their new nation.

A large whitewashed building sits across the main square of Dili, overlooking an emerald sea. This was the governor's palace during the colonial Portuguese era and the Indonesian occupation that followed it. The building now houses the U.N. Transitional Authority for East Timor, or UNTAET, that is preparing East Timor for independence. Behind the palace, construction crews are working feverishly to finish a series of new buildings to house the administration.

Sarwar Sultana and her staff work in a cavernous, high-ceilinged room with a dozen fans whirling overhead. Ms. Sultana heads the Office of Civil Service and Public Employment for UNTAET.

She arrived in Dili shortly after the anti-independence violence two years ago that destroyed virtually all the public buildings and records here. "My challenge of building the civil service was to start from a zero-base," she says. "UNTAET had to start building the civil service from the ashes and ruins."

Ms. Sultana says her biggest challenge has been to recruit and train a public administration staff of more than 10,000 professionals in about one year.

She says when she arrived, there were no newspapers or radio, so she had to use town hall meetings and printed bulletins to advertise job openings.

She notes most senior-level jobs before were held by Indonesians, who left. As a result, another major challenge is to provide new personnel with training and education. "We have been able during the year to create the structure of the civil service," she says. "We have been able to staff the civil service. We have been able to write some of the rules and regulations for system-wide consistency. But there is a lot that remains to be done."

Longtime observers say East Timor is a case of accelerated de-colonization. The 20 or 30 years that usually were taken to bring most colonies to independence have been compressed, in this case to less than two years time.

Many wonder whether the new government will be able to provide social services and security to its people. Former independence activist and now foreign affairs minister in the transitional authority, Jose Ramos-Horta, acknowledges the weaknesses, but says it's still time for self-rule. "We are ready," he said. "Obviously we have a lot of weaknesses, deficiencies, lack of senior managerial people at senior level 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."

The leadership of this nation-in-waiting is particularly concerned about security after years of violence and authoritarianism.

Jose da Costa Souza, Commissioner of Civil Police, oversees 1,500 international police officers from 41 different nations. And he built a new police academy one year ago that has graduated 1,000 East Timorese police officers, one-third of the force that will be needed. Commissioner Da Costa Souza says the program is going well and notes basic training also includes some modern policing concepts. "The previous police force was a repressive police force and they were not, let's say, used to respecting human rights," he said. "So we give a special emphasis concerning human rights and also democratic policing."

U.N. officials say although a considerable international security force is to remain in East Timor for a while, the U.N. civilian staff is to be cut by 90 percent early next year.

Civil Service Director Sarwar Sultana says the role of the foreign civilians is changing and the ones who remain will move from direct involvement in running the administration to advisory positions. "The decision has to be done by the East Timorese," she says. "They have to be in the seat to make the decision. And I think independence that will come in the future will give them the right. Every people has the right to make its own decision, good or bad."

Ms. Sultana echoes the feelings of East Timorese who are clamoring for freedom after 500 years of domination. And although much remains to be done, the foreign workers who arrived when the territory was in ruins say a great deal has already been accomplished.