02 September 2009

East Timor marks decade since historic vote

East Timor marks decade since historic vote By Matt Crook (AFP) – 18 hours ago DILI — East Timor on Sunday celebrated the 10th anniversary of the UN-backed vote that ended a bloody 24-year occupation by Indonesian forces and ushered in the birth of Asia's youngest nation.

Artists from each of the half-island's 13 districts were to perform at the official ceremony, as well as Indonesian pop singer Krisdayanti -- testament to the enduring cultural influence of East Timor's massive neighbour.

The 1999 referendum saw 78.5 percent of East Timorese vote in favour of splitting from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Just 21.5 percent supported autonomy.

Elation however soon turned to terror as the Indonesian Army and its proxy militias went on a rampage, destroying infrastructure and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to other parts of Indonesia.

Around 1,400 people were killed by the time Australian-led United Nations peacekeepers restored order, ending an occupation that is estimated to have claimed around 100,000 lives through fighting, disease and starvation.

Ten years later, residents of the mainly Catholic country of 1.1 million people expressed mixed feelings of pride and uncertainty about the future.

"Maybe parts of society have changed, but there's still plenty of unemployment here," said Satonino Goncalves, a 45-year-old who supports eight children by selling firewood and fruit.

East Timor formally became independent in 2002 but its people remain among the world's poorest, with 40 percent of the population earning less than one dollar a day, despite vast offshore gas wealth.

Unemployment in 2004 was estimated at 23 percent and youth unemployment at 40 percent, according to the World Bank. About 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and life expectancy hovers around 60 years.

The problems run deep despite 5.2 billion dollars in spending by bilateral and multilateral foreign aid agencies between 1999 and 2009, according to the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis.

It said that of the total aid injection, only about 10 percent had actually entered East Timor's economy, with the bulk going to international salaries, overseas procurement, imported supplies, consultants and the like.

The international effort has been hampered by political instability and spasms of internecine violence.

Fighting among police, soldiers and street gangs in 2006 killed 37 people, displaced 100,000 and required the return of UN peacekeepers.

A presidential election in May, 2007 was hailed as a success, but in February the following year the country was again in turmoil when rebel soldiers gunned down President Jose Ramos-Horta.

The bullet-riddled Nobel Peace laureate required emergency surgery in Australia. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was also targeted but was unscathed.

The assassination attempt highlighted another troubling aspect of East Timor's independence -- a culture of impunity for major crimes and human rights abuses.

Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed in the attack, but Ramos-Horta has said he will pardon Reinado's followers after the conclusion of their ongoing trials.

In the interests of good relations with Jakarta, he has also rejected demands for an international tribunal to try Indonesian generals and militia leaders indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity.

Speaking to AFP on Friday, he said his country was not a place to "experiment with international justice".

This is fine with Indonesia.

"We are becoming more mature in our relationship. We have left the past, what has happened, in history," Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

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