Renewed commitment needed on East Timor

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2007, 12:00am

Presidential elections in East Timor today should go a way to bridging simmering ethnic and political divisions but are not in themselves a solution to the country's numerous challenges. These can be overcome only through the sustained help of the international community.

Such was the pledge in 1999 when the world rushed to the aid of East Timorese as they fought for independence from Indonesia. The United Nations was instrumental in that goal being achieved three years later and international donor meetings and non-governmental groups have helped build infrastructure.

A deal with Australia has been struck on the most viable source of income - oil and gas - and a petroleum fund is accruing the financial resources that will be the lifeblood of development in coming decades. How today's elections, the second since independence, are conducted will indicate the state of democracy.

But a steady income stream and democracy are not the only cornerstones of nationhood - and as Asia's poorest and youngest country, East Timor faces considerable hurdles. Corruption is rife, 60 per cent of East Timorese are illiterate, about half live on less than US$1 a day, and 10 per cent of children do not see their fifth birthday. The average life expectancy is just 57 years, while an ethnic and political rift runs through the island and has led to dozens of deaths and the displacement of tens of thousands of people.

Despite such poor fundamentals, the world's gaze has largely been diverted elsewhere since independence almost five years ago. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Indian Ocean tsunami, nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran and the threats of global warming, a bird flu pandemic and terrorism have dominated the headlines. Given that East Timor has less than 1 million people and is of no strategic importance to the world's power brokers, it is perhaps understandable that attention has turned elsewhere.

Yet when the nation was the centre of foreign focus, there was the chance that it could one day be held up as a shining example of what could be achieved with united international effort. That opportunity still exists. East Timor is small enough that it will not divert too many resources earmarked for other causes. What is needed, though, is international will.

East Timorese were given hope, but that is fading. For their sake and the aspirations of poverty-ridden people the world over, the international community must re-engage with fresh vigour.