A new beginning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2002, 12:00am

East Timor's struggle for self-rule is over. Asia's newest country has beaten colonial misrule, violent invasion, oppression and indifference to proudly take its place on the world stage.

The resilience and determination of its people have vanquished 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule and 450 more of Portuguese colonial serfdom. Their achievement is an example to oppressed people everywhere.

Under the guidance of President Xanana Gusmao and beneath the flag of independence, there is finally a chance to succeed and flourish.

But with today's euphoria must come the realisation that with the closing of one chapter of struggle comes another just as challenging.

The world stepped in to help East Timor three years ago when all hope seemed lost. Thousands of lives had already been lost, hundreds of thousands had fled and the country lay in ruins. The United Nations, in its boldest decision yet, decided to build a country from nothing but ashes.

It has been an expensive exercise and not without mishaps. The learning curve has been steep, but the lessons learned will be useful in nation-building from the ruins of future conflicts.

East Timor was a rare experiment and unlikely to have parallels. Its small size and the lack of conflict gave the UN perfect conditions in which to operate. It will never again have such an opportunity.

The handing over of UN rule to Mr Gusmao does not mean an easy ride lies ahead for East Timor. To the contrary, life will get worse before it gets better.

In addition to being the world's newest nation, East Timor is also among the poorest. Its people have a yearly income almost half of what the World Bank defines as adequate for survival.

Anticipated revenue from oil and gas will not begin to affect lives until 2006 and even then only modest benefits are expected. Nation-building takes time and does not come overnight.

This is a country that had little to begin with and through oppression, had even that taken away. Systems of health, education and other essentials of society are being created where none existed.

It is a daunting challenge, but Mr Gusmao and his fellow lawmakers have a dream. It has been coursing in them through rebellion, jungle warfare, imprisonment and exile. They relish the challenge and believe they will succeed.

Tenacity alone cannot rebuild East Timor. The world has helped and given resources generously, but now that independence has been achieved, backs cannot be turned.

That support must continue and not end until East Timor is economically self-supporting and its people are well-educated and in good health.

Peace and security are essential and regional animosities must be put aside to ensure these can take root.

Today marks a new start for East Timor. But it is also the beginning of the next stage of commitment by the rest of the world towards a country that deserves the best chance possible to thrive.