- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

DILI, East Timor — As Indonesia marked five years as a democracy last month, its former territory of East Timor celebrated its own landmark — one year as an independent nation.

But persistent poverty, anger at the slow pace of nation building and the struggle to come to terms with a brutal past overshadowed the celebrations.

“Life is better than it was under Indonesian rule, but just a little,” said Moises da Conseciao, who spends his days hawking spicy barbecued chicken and corn-on-the-cob on the seafront of the capital, Dili.

“You try living on a couple of dollars a day,” lamented the 44-year-old father of two, fanning the coals on his brazier.

On May 20 last year, the United Nations, which had administered the territory since it voted overwhelmingly for independence 30 months earlier, handed over governance to the East Timorese.

Jubilation after more than four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of occupation by Indonesia did not last long.

The new government faced daunting challenges — unemployment of 80 percent, an infrastructure sacked by retreating Indonesian troops, the need to balance war-crimes prosecution with national reconciliation — and the first year was rough. Riots in January destroyed parts of the capital, including the prime minister’s residence.

These days, East Timor’s expatriate community and a tiny local elite enjoy Dili’s cafes and bars, but life for most of the country’s 800,000 people remains as hard as ever.

“The poor are not benefiting from independence. Only the rich are,” said Maria Verago, who lives in the capital.

The social gap was blamed for the January riots. Former guerrillas who complain they cannot get jobs also were held responsible.

“The government cannot offer anything to solve the problems,” said opposition politician Fernando Lasama de Araujo. “They know how to make promises to the people, but since independence, they have not satisfied anyone.”

President Xanana Gusmao has tried to ensure good relations with the country’s giant neighbor and former occupier by not aggressively supporting calls for the prosecution of Indonesian officers.

Indonesian troops and their militia proxies destroyed much of the territory and killed up to 2,000 people before and after a U.N.-sponsored independence referendum in 1999.

In Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, charges were filed against 18 senior security officials over the bloodshed. The tribunal has acquitted 11 and convicted five, who got prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years, leading some local and foreign human-rights groups to call the process a sham.

Prosecutors in Dili also are pursuing war-crimes trials, indicting nearly 250 people, including, in absentia, the former chief of the Indonesian military, Gen. Wiranto. Thirty persons, mostly former militiamen, have been convicted.

East Timor is still dependent on foreign aid, but the country hopes royalties from a multibillion-dollar natural gas field under the Timor Sea will be enough to bring it economic independence when the project comes on line next year.

Government spokesman Gregorio de Sousa noted there is still much to do. “We cannot perform miracles in a year,” he said.

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