Tiny nation faces giant challenges

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 12:00am

Despite the peaceful presidential election and the victory of the nascent nation's leading symbol of unity, East Timor faces formidable challenges before its future is assured.

The first problem is not just money but the ability to use it, the territory's aid consultants say. The population of about 800,000 lacks skills, education and management experience after a quarter-century of patronage and repression by Indonesia.

There are serious concerns about how East Timor's national budget will cope until expected gas and oil revenues from the Timor Sea come on stream in four or five years.

The second key issue is relations with Indonesia, which geographically encircles East Timor.

A small but powerfully connected constituency in Indonesia still laments the loss of East Timor and blames the United Nations. This makes bilateral co-operation on security and justice issues fraught, despite the recent warmth in relations at the border between East and West Timor.

A third problem is the divisions within East Timor itself. The small and interrelated elite of East Timor has lived through many ruptures in its history of collaboration with or resistance to Indonesian rule.

There is also tension between president-elect Xanana Gusmao and the head of the largest political party and future prime minister Mari Alkatiri.

The future East Timor has a new constitution which gives more formal power to the elected government under Mr Alkatiri than that of the office of the president. But Mr Gusmao's appeal and higher international standing gives him more real clout.

Day to day in villages across East Timor, the struggle ahead is much harder - focused on how to make a living and rebuild shattered lives, and on how to deal with returning residents who had joined the Indonesian war against the East Timorese and now look for forgiveness.