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EAST TIMOR: Road to Nationhood neither Straight nor Short

By Johanna Son

DILI, Jan 15 (IPS) - East Timor today has some of the elements that come with its birth as a country -- it has its own international dialing code and its own postal service.

The civil registry of the East Timor Transitional Authority (ETTA), the country's governing authority, opened in December with the issuance of its first birth certificate to the son of East Timor leader Xanana Gusmao and his Australian wife, Kirsty.

But in contrast to these signs of a functioning administration, there seem to be few rules in place for other areas of governance.

Businesses have sprouted without any registration in Dili, amid the wrecked and burned out buildings that are the legacy of the rampage by pro-Indonesian militias after the 1999 pro-independence vote.

Likewise, people have squatted on land owned by others. Here, one can drive a vehicle without a license and without registering one's car. A year and a half after it broke away from Indonesia's 24-year rule, East Timor has one foot in self-rule and the other one, sometimes under United Nations administration or at times, under no rule at all.

For the East Timorese, the road to real nationhood is neither straight nor short.

''I'm not happy about how things are, but I must understand,'' Antonia, a Dili-based worker said. ''We are starting from zero.''

''It is difficult to say I am happy,'' added Hugo Fernandes, an editor at the local 'Talitakum' newspaper. ''Today we solve one problem, and tomorrow there is another.''

It is time more attention is given to giving East Timorese real powers to govern, says Xanana, president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) and a member of the National Council, the transitional lawmaking body.

Expressing some frustration with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), Xanana said in an interview over the weekend: ''It is important that the success of this mission is for the East Timorese, and not for the UN.''

''We want to say that the mistakes of the past year could not be repeated in this second year,'' he told visiting journalists. ''More than criticism, we appeal to serious commitment of UNTAET to prepare the East Timorese.'' He called for genuine 'Timorisation', which he said means building locals' capacity to run and decide their own affairs.

For instance, he said that East Timorese should be getting into basic tasks like a vehicle licensing system. But ''if after one year we cannot have East Timorese controlling this, how (more) difficult will it be in other sectors?''

He criticised the naming of East Timorese to administrative positions without clear jobs or authority, like the case of the East Timorese administrator in Manatuto district.

This, he says, shows ''the formality of having some East Timorese as administrator but without any conditions of work. That is why we appeal for more serious commitment.''

There are other problems -- be it signs of resentment among some locals against Muslims and ethnic Chinese and amid the richer lifestyles of United Nations and foreign staff, questions about the transparency of foreign investment deals and restlessnesses brought about by poverty.

In a country where up to 80 percent of people are unemployed, the difference between ramshackle dwellings and a brightly-lit hotel ship owned by a Thai hotel chain, docked in Dili, stands out all the more.

Likewise, prices have shot up to unaffordable levels for the average East Timorese. In place of the wrecked telephone system under Indonesian rule, locals have to use mobile phones serviced by an Australian provider.

Schools and hospitals are far from being completely rebuilt and getting qualified teachers and doctors remains a challenge. Most of them had been Indonesian, since Jakarta's annexation of East Timor as its 27th province in 1976.

Rebuilding is also made harder by what Xanana calls a lack of understanding of local realiities by some UNTAET staff, who might be using the professional standards in their countries as yardsticks for recruitment for work and areas like a taxation system, human rights.

''They say 'in Australia it is like this, in the United States it is like this, in Canada it is this way','' he explained. ''I believe the essential
reason is they don't know the reality and maybe it is a reason to consider that the East Timorese are not prepared.''

Meantime, as East Timor grapplies with reconstructing its economy and administration, it is also preparing for the election in June or later on of a constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution.

An unresolved issue is the registration of political parties, which some here say raises the possibility of political conflict and violence, and the drafting of an electoral law.

Fernandes adds that many people are unclear about the political road ahead, saying that civic education is badly needed for East Timorese to participate in the process. Xanana himself says he ''is more worried about political violence''.

The fears of CNRT officials lie in what they say is a campaign, ahead of political season, of ''misinformation'' by pro-Indonesian groups like one called the Council for the Popular Defense of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste (CPD-RDTL).

The group is said to be linked to former Indonesian armed forces chief Wiranto and military officials involved in the violence after the September 1999 vote.

Xanana has also been criticised for remarks that the new constitution need not take a ''lengthy period of time'' to debate, when national public consultations in Asian countries like Thailand, for instance, took years.

Asked if he would join a political party at some point, Xanana replied: ''In any, any, any circumstances, no.'' He also said he would not run for office.

Still, the uncertain scene is raising questions about the kind of U.N. pullout that is best given, among others, the untested political process and security threats from across the border in Indonesian West Timor.

Despite his criticism of UNTAET, Xanana gives what some see as mixed signals on the length of the U.N. presence he sees for East Timor.

''We do not call for a hasty transition period, an inadequate one a la Cambodia, where international staff left a vacuum behind after leaving,'' he said. ''We are not rushing to get independence, what we want to be sure is that the process of preparation is effectively gradual, done in a smooth process.''

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