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For E. Timor, half a billion to build a nation

Donors pledge funds Friday to rebuild, but success depends on cohesion

For the people of East Timor, which is set to become the first new nation of the next millennium, the check is in the mail.

Last week here in Tokyo, some two dozen nations pledged more than $522 million over the next three years to help the East Timorese build an economy, set up a government, and get ready for independence.

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If the United Nations were to hand out cash to the 850,000 East Timorese, the international community's largess would work out to about $615 for every woman, man, and child.

But nation-building isn't like winning the lottery with a group ticket. Instead the UN is administering the territory, which lies on an island roughly midway along the vast Indonesian archipelago, in the hope that East Timor will emerge in two or three years' time with a viable economy and a democratic government. "We have a rare opportunity to get it right from the outset," says Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET).

"I must say that the amount gained has gone beyond our expectations," says Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo, the leader of East Timor's independence movement and in all likelihood the man who will emerge as its first president.

At an elegant banquet room in one of Tokyo's finest hotels, he thanked the countries and organizations that are providing this support and promised that East Timor would not betray their trust. "We will do our best to implement democracy and justice ... because development without democracy will not serve East Timor."

The success of this effort depends in part on whether the East Timorese can get themselves together and then maintain cohesion.

"If we are talking politics," says Kjell-Ake Nordquist, a professor from the Uppsala University in Sweden who is trying to help East Timorese resolve their conflicts, then East Timor's most pressing need is "a political basis as broad as possible" for dealing with the rich countries that are trying to help them. "The international community," he adds, "is continually asking what the East Timorese want and need and there has to be a competent answer."

One division is physical. Roughly 100,000 East Timorese are in neighboring West Timor, which remains a part of Indonesia. Getting them back into East Timor is a top priority - but many of them are not free to return.

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On Aug. 30, the UN organized a referendum in what was then the Indonesian province of East Timor to see if voters wanted to remain a part of Southeast Asia's largest country. They didn't - by a margin of 4 to 1. This outcome set off reprisals by East Timorese militias and their backers in the Indonesian military who favored keeping the territory a part of Indonesia. They began a campaign of murder, arson, looting, and eviction, forcing a quarter of the population to flee into West Timor. Yesterday, peacekeepers in East Timor found more than two dozen bodies in mass graves, where the body counts are expected to rise.

Today some of these militias are effectively holding hostage tens of thousands of East Timorese in West Timor, UN officials say. The groups may see the refugees as leverage to use in negotiating their own role in the territory.

The key players involved - Indonesia's government, its military high command, and the countries who can influence those two parties - have all said they favor the return of the East Timorese refugees. At the moment, says Mr. Gusmao, "the problem has more to do with reconciliation" than pressure politics.

That is why Professor Nordquist and a colleague from Australia spent part of last week bringing pro- and anti-independence East Timorese together. Militia leaders weren't present, but prominent East Timorese who favored integration with Indonesia sat down with those who are gratified that independence is soon to be theirs.

At least in some participants' eyes, there was a sense of common purpose. "Everyone knows that they are Timorese, that they are willing to contribute to the development of the country and they all agree that for the development of the country we need political stability," says Jose Guterres, an official of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, a pro-independence umbrella group headed by Gusmao.

But Florentino Sarmiento, an East Timorese who favored remaining within Indonesia, wasn't beaming after the meetings. "This has been a deep-rooted conflict for more than two decades," he said, adding that divisive issues can't be dissolved at once.

And the CNRT, added one official who spoke on condition of anonymity, was primarily taking part in the meetings to see if the talks would lead to the return of the refugees. The official concedes that with nearly 80 percent of voters favoring independence, the CNRT sees few other pressing reasons to reconcile with anti-independence leaders.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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