Helping build a new nation

Something truly remarkable is happening in a small half-island in the Pacific. East Timor is on the home stretch to nationhood as the creation of the first new country of this millennium is fast approaching. Elections taking place on August 30 will create a Constituent Assembly, the first democratically elected body in East Timor's history. This marks a defining moment in that country's long and often painful process of self-determination, a process that will culminate in independence, likely in early 2002.

The rampant violence that followed East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence in 1999 brought not just killing, abuse and massive displacement but physical destruction on a monstrous scale. Evoking descriptions of the fate of Carthage, virtually every building was burned, looted or razed to the ground; agriculture withered; all records were destroyed. It was into this vacuum that the United Nation's Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was tasked to work with the Timorese to rebuild or rather build their nation.

Starting from ground zero, the U.N. and the Timorese have worked together to establish a degree of peace and security not witnessed in decades and to develop the institutions and train the people to manage them required for an administration that will be representative, transparent and efficient. The process, to be sure, has not been flawless, but that is in large part because it has never before been attempted. There is no instruction manual on how to build a country.

In the past two years we have witnessed stages of development that have taken generations in our own countries. Executive power has for over a year been in the hands of a Timorese dominated Cabinet whose decisions have been carefully screened, sometimes rejected, by an embryonic legislature, the recently dissolved all-Timorese National Council. A new civil service is up and running together with financial, legal and judicial systems with the latter now trying key cases related to atrocities committed by the militia in 1999. Medical clinics and schools are operating again. Agricultural activity is back up to pre-violence levels and life is being breathed into the economy; the Timor Sea arrangement recently arrived at with Australia has the potential to bring in significant petroleum revenues for decades to come.

On the international front, many foreign governments have established representative offices in Dili, the capital, while East Timor was invited to send a delegation to the recent ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi. Clearly, East Timor's most important relationship will be that with Indonesia, the two countries inextricably linked by history and proximity. Today, militia activity is muted, and the level of general crime throughout the country is at an all-time low, a fraction of that experienced in most developed countries. Moreover, the U.N. Peacekeepers and Civilian Police are both being increasingly assisted, before eventually being supplanted, by professional, well-trained Timorese forces. The East Timor Defence Force, constituted chiefly from former FALINTIL liberation fighters, has graduated its first officers, many of whom will be on active duty alongside the U.N. military during the elections. The East Timor Police Service has trained more than 900 officers (nearly a third of whom are women) now visible on duty throughout the country.

This unprecedented climate of security and personal well-being has been the key in getting close to 185,000 refugees back to East Timor, the vast majority of whom have been welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, perhaps as many as 80,000 still remain in refugee camps in West Timor but I am hopeful that after a peaceful election, and all signs thus far suggest it will be one, most of these refugees will be convinced that their futures lie in East Timor.

Following the elections, there will be a further significant transfer of authority from UNTAET to the East Timorese leadership, most significantly through the formation of an all- Timorese Government based on the results of the ballot. This intention to pre-figure East Timor's Government on independence is premised on the basic guiding philosophy that you cannot fully prepare a nation for self-government without giving that nation the opportunity truly to govern itself. It will also allow for a softer transition from an administration with a significant international component to one that is almost entirely East Timorese. Post-independence, the new government will have to tighten its belt considerably if it is to be politically and economically sustainable over the long haul.

But it would be dangerously shortsighted to equate the imminent democratic political transition with the establishment of an effective public administration. In the next months, UNTAET will not complete the tasks it was set by the Security Council. Learning from mistakes elsewhere, a consensus is emerging that the U.N. and the international community must stay the course or risk undermining the progress of the past two years.

Plans are currently being drawn up for the U.N. to remain on the ground in East Timor after independence to assist the new government establish the fundamentals of government as quickly as is sensible and as economically as is prudent. Unless this is done, the independence that East Timor will obtain will be hobbled by economic dependency and undermined by institutions of State that are neither fully developed nor adequately staffed and which will be vulnerable to the mismanagement that was so much a feature of the past.

For the international community, the U.N. operation in East Timor brings to life the spirit of the U.N. Charter as graphically and as eloquently as any mission in the organisation's history. We should all take pride in our collective achievements so far while remaining mindful of the road still ahead.

For the East Timorese, this unprecedented level of international attention, though not to be taken for granted, pays homage to their fortitude and determination in the bleakest days of the past to persevere for that goal, once so elusive but now just around the corner: the right to determine and manage their own futures.

(The writer is the Transitional Administrator in East Timor and the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for East Timor.)