By Ellis CoseNewsweek
October 21, 2002
East Timor is still more an idea than a reality--surviving, for the moment, on the kindness of friends. A former Portuguese colony forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975, the tiny state became independent in May--the first new country of the new millennium. Last month it joined the United Nations, which is a huge step for a fragile country struggling to stabilize and define itself.
Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's foreign minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes the media, in a sense, created his nation. In the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion, an estimated 200,000 people died in East Timor (out of a population of less than 700,000), and the world was largely silent. "We did not make it into the prime-time news of global television because there was no global television at the time," recalls Ramos-Horta.
By the 1990s, things had changed. The Internet and 24-hour news programming were realities. And as the struggle for independence intensified, scenes of destruction from East Timor ignited concern around the globe. Without that media spotlight, "we would still be fighting," says Ramos-Horta. But East Timor is much more than a testament to the power of the media. It is also (or so the United Nations would like to believe) a powerful argument for multilateralism and a monument to the beauty of nation-building. In reality, the task of building an independent East Timor is far from over. But what the United Nations has accomplished so far is impressive.
It oversaw the violence-marred ballot for independence and then moved in, with peacekeeping troops, to oversee the transition. That has meant everything from training Timorese in law, administration and the details of democracy to helping devise policies for dealing with former collaborators. It has meant, in short, constructing a foundation, both physical and political, that has a chance of surviving the United Nations' departure.
In his 100th-day address last month, President Xanana Gusmo passionately appealed for patience. Three months was not enough time to make a nation work, he said. It will take six months, he subsequently told me, to ascertain whether the government is on the right path.
Gusmo is sometimes called the Nelson Mandela of East Timor. A thoughtful man with a forgiving heart, he wrestles with how to help his country heal from violence. One of his first official acts was to recommend amnesty for many of those who had wreaked havoc during the fight over East Timor's future. Legislators rejected his proposal. While the moment for that particular gesture has passed, Gusmo still believes reconciliation will come--partly because he thinks people care more about improving their lives than taking revenge.
Gusmo and other East Timorese leaders speak optimistically, if cautiously, of their country's small steps since independence. Yet when I visited several villages outside the capital, the talk was not nearly so upbeat. In Liquica, which saw some of the worst violence, people were quite relieved that they no longer had to live their lives in fear. But they wondered, as they struggled to feed themselves and their families, when the fruits of independence would make it to their table. In Aileu, a rural area not far from the capital of Dili, CARE was overseeing a project to bring clean water to a village. Gesturing toward the water pipe, one villager observed, "CARE has done something. They did what they promised; but the government, nothing."
Nevertheless, despite the crushing poverty and their many complaints, or-dinary Timorese don't seem particularly inclined to rebel against their fledgling government. Nor do they seem inclined to exact a pound of flesh from collaborators. "Every Timorese realizes that we killed one another. They also realized the killing of each other was caused by forces outside," observes Aniceto Guterres Lopes, chairman of East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. So, for the moment, the Timorese people are suspending judgment, waiting to see if the government and the various bodies shaped by the United Nations can deliver on their promises of justice, reconciliation and, eventually, prosperity.
The investment has already been formidable. Since late 1999, the United Nations has poured more than $1.6 billion into East Timor. Individual nations have pumped in hundreds of millions more. Scores of NGOs have descended on the island. And the rebirth of the country has essentially just begun. Though it's too early to draw many lessons from the East Timor experience, one is already clear. Even for a tiny country with a compliant population and a political elite open to Western advice, nation-building can't be done on the cheap. As America and its allies increasingly take on that task--in the Balkans, Afghanistan and perhaps, in the future, Iraq--we obviously have to ask ourselves how deeply we are committed to making such experiments succeed.
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