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Can the UN build a new nation?

East Timor lacks the basics for building a government, like experiencedleaders.

The rich nations and private charities that call themselves the international community have largely abated the humanitarian crisis in East Timor.

Now the UN is getting ready to practice a more experimental and mysterious art - nation-building - and the opening-night jitters are grabbing hold.

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"The United Nations doesn't have a clue or a plan yet" for putting a state together in East Timor, says one UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This operation represents the UN's largest undertaking since it sent 16,000 troops into Cambodia seven years ago to oversee a Vietnamese pullout, run elections, and create a transitional government - with partial success. The UN has run similar operations in Haiti and Bosnia. And it is now overseeing the social and political reconstruction of Kosovo.

But unlike in Kosovo, where Albanians have governing experience, the UN must start from scratch in East Timor.

One of the UN's biggest challenges here is obvious: Much of the place is a wreck. On Aug. 30 East Timorese voters chose to break away from Indonesia, which annexed this island territory in 1976, prompting a destructive backlash from Indonesian troops and others who opposed independence. The more profound problems are a lack of local talent and a murky political scene in which a pro-independence coalition is poised to assume power but has no official mandate from the East Timorese people.

The first is due to the way Indonesia managed East Timor - by importing many bureaucrats, teachers, and other civil servants from other parts of the country. Virtually all these officials have left and in all likelihood will not return. Indonesian troops and other officials made their final departure from East Timor early Sunday.

East Timorese society mainly consists of largely unskilled farmers and laborers; a small, educated diaspora located primarily in Australia, Indonesia, and Portugal; and an even smaller group of guerrillas who have been living in East Timor's jungle and fighting Indonesia for a quarter century. A poor region to begin with, East Timor has "no leadership class," the UN official laments, adding: "How are we in the UN going to find 500 competent people who can come in and run the country?"

The second problem is partly of the UN's own making. The August referendum was ostensibly a vote on whether East Timorese wanted to remain within Indonesia, not a choice between Indonesia and the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), a pro-independence coalition established in 1998.

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The ballot used has both a written explanation and two drawings to illustrate the choice for East Timor's many illiterate voters. While the text makes no mention of the CNRT, the images present a choice between an outline of East Timor bearing an Indonesian flag and one that bears the CNRT banner. Most voters registered their choice by poking through or pressing their thumbnail into one of the pictures, says another official who has seen the ballots, giving the CNRT reason to believe that it does indeed have a mandate to rule.

Certainly the CNRT and its president, Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo, act as if they will take over after the UN completes a two- to three-year period of "transitional authority."

The problem is that the unifying goal of the CNRT's agenda - the eviction of Indonesia - has been achieved, and no one is certain whether or how the coalition will stay together. And the skills involved in agitating for independence are different from those needed for political leadership in a new country. "Resistance is not the same thing as development," says a third UN official.

The UN's concerns over local talent and political ambiguity come to a head over language. Most East Timorese speak a local lingua franca called Tetun. Many others speak Indonesian, which has been the language of education, administration, and commerce since the mid-1970s. Educated people over 40 usually speak at least some Portuguese; Portugal ruled here for more than four centuries until 1975. But Portuguese is also the language of the anti-Indonesian struggle and of many clergy.

Finally, there is a constituency for English that includes East Timorese exiles in Australia and those that think the territory's meager economic prospects would improve if many people were to learn the language of the Internet.

The question is: What will East Timor speak? The CNRT's own official language is Portuguese, and its members say the same will apply to a newly independent East Timor. But Gusmo says the matter is under negotiation, in all likelihood because he is being pulled in different directions.

Portugal, which is nowadays much enamored of its once neglected former colony, is pushing Portuguese. Lisbon's promises of assistance might not be so generous if East Timor were to forsake the colonial tongue. But East Timor also owes a debt of gratitude to English-speaking Australia, whose troops are leading an expensive and dangerous multinational mission to restore peace and stability here.

A lot of choices are being made without a master plan. Some UN officials disparage Tetun, saying it is too undeveloped to function as a national language, even as some of their colleagues prepare to start primary school education in it. Still other UN officials are working on creating a legal system that would very likely rely on imported, English-speaking lawyers and judges who would initially apply Indonesian law and conduct hearings in Tetun.

UN officials aren't the only ones who sound a bit confused on this subject. "I would start by using Indonesian," says Ernesto Gusmo, a junior high school teacher in Dili, who now earns money driving journalists around on his motorcycle. "Then I would bring in Tetun and use Indonesian for more difficult themes. I don't understand Portuguese or English so how can I teach in those languages?"

Mr. Gusmo's brother Joo, who has been studying medicine - in Indonesian - at an Indonesian university, says East Timorese leaders will opt for Portuguese, because the language is more familiar here. But he concedes that he speaks much more English than Portuguese and prefers to see the former taught in the schools "because it is an international language."

CNRT president Gusmo may think first of national cohesion - to win the support of the small elite and the guerrilla fighters whose sacrifices give them moral authority among East Timorese, he may have to choose Portuguese, a language in which he himself is fluent.

At the same time, even this decision is not up to Gusmo and the CNRT. "The UN is the governing authority and it consults them," says yet another official who would not be further identified. But he adds that the UN's nation-builders could not impose a policy that did not have the support of the East Timorese - in whatever way their will is to be measured.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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