East Timor's peaceful but contentious first round of balloting last week for the largely ceremonial post of president may give the impression that a stable democracy has taken root in that island nation. Unfortunately, East Timor's troubles are far from over. Indonesia's harsh annexation of East Timor lasted from 1975 to 1999 and left deep, disabling wounds. At best, elections this spring for a new president and prime minister might become turning points in the struggle for democratic self-sufficiency.The presidential vote starts a crucial second round of elections for the new state, which was created with United Nations assistance after Indonesia's forces withdrew, with a final, punitive spasm of violence, in 1999. It has been five years since the Timorese adopted a constitution and elected their first president, parliament, and prime minister. In that time, former freedom fighters have often fought each other, shaking the foundations of the new state and requiring the prolonged presence of some 3,000 peacekeepers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand.
Armed conflict last year between rival security forces, the consequence of feuding among political elites, deprived Timorese of basic safety and raised the specter of anarchy. In combination with pervasive unemployment, particularly among the 40 percent of the population that is under age 25 , those clashes between factions of the armed forces have opened the way for street warfare among youth gangs.
"If I am president of this country, I will ask the UN, Australia, and New Zealand to stay on here for as many years as possible," one of the leading candidates for president, Jose Ramos-Horta, has said. "More important than so-called issues of sovereignty and nationalism, for me, is that the common people are able to sleep in peace at night," said the Portuguese -speaking diplomat, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with East Timor's Catholic bishop, Carlos Belo, for their nonviolent roles in the independence struggle.
Whatever the outcome of East Timor's elections this spring, there will be a great need for the international community to remain engaged in keeping the peace among Timorese and helping them overcome the half-island's dire poverty. The new nation has begun to receive royalties from offshore oil and gas reserves, but it still needs funds for job-creating infrastructure projects. And to transform the bleak prospects of young men now in youth gangs, there must be broad-based vocational training programs.
Nation-building is still needed today in East Timor because foreigners did so much to destroy the foundations of that new country, including President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who winked at Indonesia's 1975 invasion. It is always easier to destroy than to help build a nation.
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