Note No 148
23 August 2001


VIENNA, 23 August (UN Information Service) -- "Vota Timor; Vota Ho Dame" (Vote East Timor, Vote for Peace), sings a youthful band that is crisscrossing the remote villages of East Timor. Evoking memories of a past struggle and spreading messages of peace and unity, the Cinco do Oriente band receives rapturous welcome in every hamlet it calls on. The villagers merrily sing along.

In the breezy mountains and plateaus of the soon-to-be independent territory of East Timor, a tiny half-island on the southeastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, nature's voices are no longer subdued by pounding gunfire. That is good news, but often, good news is considered no news. It is time for comparisons.

The peace that prevails in East Timor these days stands in stark contrast to the long nightmare its people had to live through for a quarter of a century. A territory that was under Portuguese rule for over four centuries, East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1975. For 24 years, the people of East Timor bitterly resisted the Indonesian occupation. More than 100,000 Timorese are estimated to have lost their lives in their battle for freedom.

And then came the UN-sponsored referendum on 30 August 1999, in which an overwhelming majority - nearly 80 per cent of the population - voted for independence. It was not the dawn of a new day for the people of East Timor, but just the beginning of yet another nightmare. Soon after the results of the referendum were announced, pro-Indonesia militias, backed by the Indonesian military, launched a reign of terror against the pro-independence majority.

More than 2,000 East Timorese were killed, thousands of homes were reduced to charred rubble, and more than 250,000 people - a quarter of the total population - were forced into exile, mostly in Indonesian West Timor. The militias roamed the country furiously, burning everything in their path and leaving only scorched earth behind them.

A month after the pogrom, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) inherited the charred shell of a country. UNTAET was entrusted with a uniquely challenging mandate - to create a government with all its institutions from scratch to be turned over to the Timorese in just a short period of time - a challenge of such broad scope never embraced by the UN in its entire history.

Nearly two years on, has the United Nations lived up to the expectations?

On 30 August, exactly two years after the carnage that followed the autonomy vote, the East Timorese will be electing a Constituent Assembly in the first democratic elections in their history. Sixteen political parties and numerous independent candidates are vying for positions in the 88-member Assembly, which will write a constitution and may transform itself to become the parliament of the world's newest country.

In early July, encouraged by the United Nations, 14 political parties signed a national unity pact, which binds them to a code of conduct during the election period and beyond. The pact is also intended to act as a deterrent to political violence. For most people - more than half of the East Timorese are under the age of 25 - political violence has always been part of their lives.

The signing of a treaty in July this year between East Timor and Australia to share revenues from oil and gas production in the Timor Sea is considered a major achievement of the UN administration. According to the treaty, which took protracted and often bruising negotiations with neighbouring Australia, East Timor will receive 90 per cent of the Timor Sea revenues while Australia will benefit from the rest.

The treaty replaces an earlier agreement between Australia and Indonesia that split royalties evenly between the two giant neighbours of East Timor. The oil and gas bonanza, estimated to be US $4-5 billion over a 20-year period, is expected to dramatically increase the prospects of economic independence for the impoverished territory.

Over the past 20 months since the UN moved in to find East Timor at ground zero, the country has risen from the smoldering ashes like a Phoenix. Since October 1999, the UN peace-keepers have succeeded in ridding the country of all significant threats of militia activity, giving the nation a sense of well-being that is the best it has been in decades. There is now running water and electricity in most parts of the territory, roofless and blackened buildings have become a rarity, and more than 180,000 East Timorese have voluntarily returned from exile to start their lives anew.

In a three-month civil registration exercise, the territory's entire population has been registered in preparation for the Constituent Assembly elections. A police force with more than 850 East Timorese officers is now trained and deployed throughout the country. Other institutions of government such as health, education, and judicial and legal systems have been re-established. The FALINTIL revolutionaries, the heroes of the territory's independence struggle, have peacefully laid down their arms to join a newly created East Timor defence force.

"Even the harshest of critics must be surprised at what we, the United Nations, have achieved in turning the ashes and debris that we found at the beginning of UNTAET, working ever more closely with the people of East Timor, into a functioning state, heading fast towards a democratic future," says Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor.

If the August 30 ballot is peaceful - all indications are that it will be - a new Constituent Assembly and a new all-Timorese transitional government will be in place by mid-September. What may follow is a presidential election, expected early next year, and independence leader Xanana Gusmão - East Timor's Nelson Mandela - is currently the most popular candidate tipped for the slot.

With that, East Timor will become the first new nation of the millennium, and a democratic one to boot. Good news, after all, need not necessarily be no news at all.

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