June 15th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The future of Telstra

Has the PM been misled on stem cell research?

Nationals' survival depends on new agenda

EUTHANASIA: Nancy Crick - what is the real story?

TRADE: Philippines bananas could cost Australian Government millions

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Insider dopesters / Democracy at work / The new lonely crowd

MEDIA: ABC's left-liberal Twilight Zone

Handling the boat people issue (letter)

Small business and superannuation (letter)

Drug summit in Port Macquarie(letter)

Going to war over trade

LAW: ICC report tabled in Parliament

DRUGS: WA to go ahead with cannabis toleration

DOCUMENTATION: Archbishop George Pell rebuts '60 Minutes' allegations

CLONING: truth and the middle ground

OPINION: Can the GST be wound back?

EAST TIMOR: After the celebrations, reality dawns

ASIA: China convulses but won't collapse

BOOKS: 'American Muslims: The New Generation'

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After the celebrations, reality dawns

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, June 15, 2002
The official transfer of power from United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, the new President of an independent East Timor (Timor Leste), took place in a lavish ceremony outside Dili at midnight on May 20.

After 450 years of Portuguese rule, followed by 24 years of Indonesian occupation and 30 months of UN Administration, East Timor begins life as a free nation with great optimism, fuelled by the people's enormous courage.

Significantly, the independence celebrations commenced with an open-air Mass, attended by perhaps 100,000 people.

This fact, hardly mentioned in Western media reports of the event, reinforces the important role which Christianity plays in East Timor. It should serve as a unifying factor, which will help people work constructively to overcome the difficulties which lie ahead.


The problems the new country faces are a legacy of its history. It lacks an educated class of people to run the new administration, and most people lack business knowledge and expertise. For these problems, both Portugal and Indonesia are largely responsible. Additionally, TNI-backed militias terrorised and destroyed much of the infrastructure after the people voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999.

Since then, the UN has been in charge, and has overseen the return of peace in East Timor, with the end of militia violence and the establishment of a framework of public administration.

However, it failed to put in place the basic infrastructure needed for a functioning society, despite its budget of $US500 million a year.

In particular, it did not resolve the uncertainties in property ownership, did not organise street names (even in the capital Dili), has not established a telephone service outside Dili, has organised no postal service, and did little to establish functioning health and education services.

As Geoffrey Barker commented in the Financial Review:

"The country has few resources, its people have limited skills; sustained economic growth and prosperity seem remote ... Its civil administration, including its judiciary, is ill-trained, ill-equipped, inexperienced and will be poorly paid. And crucial police and defence force capabilities are so limited the UN Security Council has voted to keep 5,000 international troops and 1,250 civilian police in East Timor for at least another year." (Financial Review, May 20, 2002)

The UN's presence in East Timor has had other adverse effects.

The United Nations presence has been accompanied by the first signs of an AIDS crisis, which is particularly serious in light of the nation's abject poverty and lack of health facilities.

The UN workers in East Timor include some from African countries where the disease is common and the use of prostitutes widespread. Nobel Prize winner, Bishop Carlos Belo, warned that the foreign presence had led to an upsurge of prostitution.

He said that on a flight he had taken recently from Bali, the plane was full of teenage prostitutes from Thailand.

"We know that there are houses of prostitutes in Dili. We know there have been signs of AIDS."

Meanwhile, the head of East Timor's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has warned of the danger of corruption in the new country.

Aniceto Guterres Lopes said that already there were signs of corruption within the legal system of East Timor, and added that the country's police had not had enough training and had not been fully accepted by a population still traumatised by years of Indonesian military rule.

Political stability

Whether East Timor can develop will depend on the maintenance of political stability, and a program of development which enables the people to participate in productive economic activity.

The new Government has devised a national development plan to counter the effects of the expected decline in the economy expected this year and in 2003, as the UN withdraws.

The plan projects a market economy with a strong role for the private sector and strategic and regulatory roles for the government, including the provision of basic services and safety nets.

It envisages that the Government will pursue efficiency and transparency, that is accountable to its constituents, and is free of corruption and nepotism.

The big challenge is to achieve these goals, in a society where the temptations to corruption and political patronage are almost irresistible.

One issue which has still to run its course is negotiation with Australia over the Timor Gap.

The challenge will be to ensure that these revenues are applied for the benefit of all the people, not just the elite.

  • Peter Westmore

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