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Visiting East Timor, one bittersweet year after

By Atika Shubert
CNN Producer

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Mourners sprinkle flower petals Wednesday at the Santa Cruz cemetery, the site of a massacre where pro-independence activists were killed by Indonesian soldiers, in Dili, East Timor  

In this story:

Shifting from opposition to power

Old and new, side by side


DILI, East Timor (CNN) -- This week's one-year anniversary of East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia is bittersweet for people here.

August 30 marked the day East Timor asserted its voice for political freedom in 1999. But the people of East Timor remember the vote also sparked three weeks of violence that saw hundreds of people killed and thousands driven from their homes, and much of the territory's infrastructure destroyed.

On Wednesday, East Timor's people celebrated -- and remembered. Dili's Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo led a Mass in memory of those who died. Hundreds of people watched in silence as he cast wreaths of flowers in remembrance into the Timor Sea.

Shifting from opposition to power

East Timor's independence leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao and his wife Kristy Sword enjoy anniversary celebrations in Dili on Wednesday  

East Timor's struggle for independence captured international attention when the United Nations and Indonesia agreed to hold a referendum on the issue.

Despite months of terror by anti-independence militias before the vote, East Timor's people voted overwhelmingly to reject Jakarta's rule. The militia violence that ensued was put down only by international intervention.

East Timor today is very different from a year ago. It is now a laboratory of modern political, social and economic ideals. The U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor is trying to make it a model of modern nationhood.

Under a self-imposed deadline, UNTAET must hold elections and transfer authority to the new government by the end of 2001.

Under U.N. oversight, the people here are beginning to define for themselves what it means to be East Timorese, and not simply in terms of opposition to Portuguese colonialism or to Indonesian military rule.

East Timorese delegates vote on a motion during a meeting of the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) in Dili on Sunday  

The National Council for Timorese Resistance, or CNRT, which with its guerrilla wing Falintil was once the major opposition movement for independence, is now reshaping itself to govern. The group is now a kind of coalition of competing pro-independence parties.

In the past week, the CNRT played host to a congress on East Timor's political future. Delegates piled into a large gymnasium and listened to speeches, perking up to hear the man whom many expect will become East Timor's first president, Jose "Xanana" Gusmao.

Gusmao spent years in Indonesian prison for leading the guerrilla war, though he recently resigned as head of the guerrilla military. He is an idol for younger East Timorese. His image is plastered on posters, stickers and T-shirts.


He has said he will not run for president, yet he is widely considered by many East Timorese to be the only leader with the moral authority to unite rival factions and gain the people's trust to manage the transition. He was re-elected as head of the CNRT.

"We must come together to build this country," Gusmao told a cheering crowd in Dili on Wednesday.

Reconciliation between those who favored and opposed East Timor's independence from Indonesia is a particularly thorny issue.

East Timorese girls in traditional dress dance during celebrations in front of the United Nations office in Dili on Wednesday  

East Timor still suffers from occasional militia violence. Last month, two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in clashes with militia.

The head of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in East Timor, Lt. Gen. Boonsrang Niumpradit of Thailand, told CNN he believes there are eight to 10 suspected militia groups that have crossed from the refugee camps of Indonesia-controlled West Timor into East Timor.

Some of the militia members want to return to their homes in the east. Nuimpradit said at least one group near the town of Same has indicated a willingness to give up its arms as long as its members are peacefully repatriated to their villages.

Old and new, side by side

Along with rehabilitating the economy, the United Nations is charged with creating a nation from scratch, acting as an incubator of a functioning, elected government, according to the U.N. transitional administrator in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Dili, the capital, is flooded with international aid workers, many of whom stay at a floating luxury hotel docked at the city's port. Bright new cafes invite customers with Western delicacies such as poached pears in wine sauce at steep prices charged in East Timor's official currency, the U.S. dollar.

Bishop Carlos Belo speaks Monday, August 21 at the opening of the National Council for Timorese Resistance national congress in Dili  

East Timorese children press their noses against the windows of a Western-style supermarket, ogling the imported junk food that most families cannot possibly afford.

This dual economy highlights the dangers of what one CNRT delegate called a "U.N.-style colonialism." The fear expressed by some East Timorese leaders is that the country will become dependent on international aid just as it is gaining independence.

UNTAET created a council to bring East Timorese into the decision-making process. It is composed of the heads of political parties as well as some U.N. experts. UNTAET's objective is to create a temporary policy-making body that will be replaced by an elected government.

De Mello said the two-year transition period is less than ideal because of the scope of the changes involved. But he insisted it was enough time to ensure a smooth transition, and he pointed out that next year's elections will not mean the U.N. aid team will abruptly pack its bags and leave. International aid agencies probably will remain to help on specific projects, he said.

East Timor's registered voters cast ballots Monday, August 30, 1999 during the historic referendum to determine their territory's future  

Many East Timorese, particularly in rural areas, claim they have seen little change in their lives since last year. Food is still scarce and unemployment remains high despite international aid.

Before the vote, militias burned most of the homes in the village of Memo, on the border with Indonesia. Villagers have erected temporary shelters of woven palm leaves amid the charred remains.

The villagers said the U.N. was unable to help them with either building or food materials. Nevertheless, they said they were satisfied with the U.N.'s performance. They felt safe under the watch of U.N. peacekeepers, they said, and they were confident that U.N. efforts to rehabilitate the economy would trickle down to the smallest villages.

And, they said, they were eager to participate in the campaign season and in next year's elections.

"There are still many things to be done," said Joaquim Amaral Lopez, a rice farmer. "But we are much happier now, because we are safe and because we are free."

RELATED STORIES: ASIANOW -- CNN, Time and Asiaweek In-Depth: Indonesian Elections (June 1999)

CIA World Factbook 2000: Indonesia
Republic of Indonesia Department of Foreign Affairs: East Timor
United Nations
   • U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor
   • ESCAP: Economic and Social Commission for Asia
    and the Pacific

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