On May 20, 2002, East Timor is to become an independent nation, following about 30 months of UN administration.
East Timor had been a Portuguese colony for over 400 years before a civil war erupted in August 1975, which culminated in an Indonesian military occupation and a guerilla war which lasted until 1999, when the people voted overwhelmingly for independence.
A major problem facing East Timor is the dire poverty which afflicts most of the people. Four hundred years of Portuguese occupation and 25 years of Indonesian rule left the country with a per capital income of $US300 a year and life expectancy of just 50.
The country has a good system of roads, built by the Indonesians, and limited electricity supplies in the major towns. But these need to be maintained and extended.
Beyond that, health and education services are desperately inadequate, and services which we would regard as indispensable for a functioning modern society are absent.
For example, there are no street signs, street numbers, or postal deliveries anywhere in East Timor. Telephone services, supplied at prohibitive cost by Australia’s Telstra, operate only in the capital, Dili.
Thirty months of UN Administration, and the expenditure of over $2 billion by the international community, have not established even these basic facilities. There is an almost total absence of manufacturing industry in the country.
The challenges facing the new nation are therefore formidable.
While the new government is dominated by members of Fretilin, the political organisation which seized power in 1975 and subsequently waged a guerilla war following Indonesian occupation, East Timor has a large number of political parties, a number of which are represented in the Parliament.
Further, the newly-elected President of East Timor, “Xanana” Gusmao, fell out with Fretilin last year, and was elected President on the endorsement of opposition parties, but not Fretilin.
Among the critical issues facing the new government is the lack of money for national development. The new government faces an estimated $US170 million shortfall in its already lean budget for the first three years of independence.
At least equally important is the lack of capital in East Timor for the development of small businesses, run by the Timorese. Banking is almost non-existent, with the result that financial transactions are very difficult.
While the Australian government will undoubtedly have a role to play in maintaining military forces in East Timor, particularly in the border area with Indonesia, there is an important role for Australians in assisting economic and social development in East Timor.
One of the most effective ways of doing this is through the Salesian Mission Office (715 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Vic. 3056), which assists a large number of schools, medical clinics, orphanages and community projects in East Timor.
- Peter Westmore