A nation in waiting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 August, 2000, 12:00am

WEDNESDAY will mark the first anniversary of the election that brought freedom from harsh Indonesian rule and independence to the half-island nation called East Timor. It will be much less than a completely happy holiday.

As a separate country, East Timor lacks nearly everything considered crucial for self-reliance. Such basics as a civil service, a police force, functioning utilities, transport and decent housing, among others, range from inadequate to absent. It gets along, and shows slow improvement, mostly due to hard work by its own 500,000 or so remaining people and largesse from the United Nations.

But UN funds will dry up before long, and political differences among the East Timorese raise doubts about a stable future. Add in cross-border raids from militia forces across the border in West Timor, still supplied by angry and disobedient Indonesian army units, and the prospects look worse. There is no guarantee that East Timor will succeed as a free state.

However, it deserves to after so much suffering for so many years. Given its small size and unsophisticated needs, the world's richer nations should continue support of the fledgling Dili Government as needed for extra time, and help protect it from the violent resentments of certain Indonesian military units.

Indonesia too has an obligation, which its people don't want to admit, to help out economically, for Jakarta created the mess. From its takeover in 1975, it imposed harsh rule that brought death to about one-third of its then-800,000 people. And when Jakarta's occupiers had to leave after last year's UN-sponsored vote, they erupted violently - murdering hundreds, driving 300,000 into West Timor (most have since returned) and destroying the weak infrastructure.

What's left of East Timor will become one of the world's poorest nations. UN officials say it will take much luck, years of stability and a wise government to regain the low economic levels of Indonesian days. With no tradition of self-rule and differences among its leaders, providing stability will be difficult at best.

But not impossible. Signs of change have begun to appear; farmers are returning to their fields, primitive homes are under construction and politicians are striving for better working relations. There may even be offshore oil and gas revenue in a few years.

Nothing is certain, but it is possible that East Timor's second birthday will be a happier day.