World's Youngest Country Revels In Newfound Independence

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The people of East Timor awoke Monday to a new era as citizens of the world's newest nation, putting behind them a long history of neglectful colonial rule under Portugal, followed by military occupation by neighboring Indonesia.

Tens of thousands of East Timorese celebrated overnight as the flag of the interim United Nations administration was lowered and replaced by a new, black-red-and-gold national flag.

Speaking an hour after the U.S. flag was raised outside the brand new U.S. Embassy in Dili Monday morning, the embassy spokesman said by phone an exchange of diplomatic notes with the government of East Timor was underway, establishing full diplomatic relations.

"The atmosphere is absolutely jubilant. Happy and proud are the two adjectives I'd use," he said. "I've seen it in the streets, and among the U.S. delegation that's been here for the past two days, as well as among the staff on the ground here."

The emotional event Sunday night and early Monday morning was attended by representatives of 92 nations, including former President Clinton, representing President Bush and the American government and people, and the leaders of Indonesia and Australia.

East Timor, described as Asia's poorest nation, will be looking to those three countries in particular for economic and political support in the years to come.

More than two decades of repressive rule over the small Roman Catholic territory by the world's largest Muslim state ended only when an Australian-led U.N. peacekeeping force landed in 1999 to stop pro-Jakarta militiamen who went on a rampage following a referendum in favor of independence.

Despite this history, the man sworn in midnight as East Timor's first president, Xanana Gusmao, appealed for reconciliation and good relations with Indonesia.

"The Indonesian people and the Timorese people have endured 24 years of difficult relations," said Gusmao, the former head of a leftist-armed organization who fought Indonesian rule for 17 years.

"Today we all agree that the strains in our dealings were the result of a historical mistake which now belongs to history and to the past. And this past ... should not continue to stain our spirits or to hamper our attitudes and conduct."

Gusmao took Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri's hand and welcomed her as "the head of state of the brotherly and neighboring country with which we share common borders."

Megawati's appearance drew applause from the gathering, despite some unease earlier at the weekend over the reportedly unauthorized arrival of six Indonesian Navy vessels. After protests, four of the six were withdrawn.

The Indonesian leader's decision to attend the independence celebrations drew sharp criticism from political opponents at home when first announced.

'Look to the future'

The U.S. is another country with whom the fledgling state hopes to establish strong relations.

Official documents unclassified six months ago pointed to President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger having prior knowledge of Jakarta's decision to invade East Timor in 1975 -- and even endorsing the plan.

The then-Indonesian leader, Gen. Suharto, justified his plan on the basis of concerns that in the aftermath of a sudden end to Portuguese colonial rule, East Timor could fall to communism as had Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The subsequent invasion, resistance to the occupation, and famine cost as many as 200,000 lives.

The revelations prompted protests in East Timor, but Gusmao, when questioned by reporters at the time, said his people had to look "towards the future, not to the past," and noted the leading role played by the U.S. in the 1999 independence referendum and since then.

Speaking in East Timor Sunday, U.S. delegation head Bill Clinton said the world had been taught a lesson by the people of the territory, whom he said had given "all of us a chance to remember that freedom is precious and that your freedom was paid for by blood and sacrifice."

Australia is the third country expected to play an important role in East Timor's future. As a wealthy, western democracy, it is an important and influential power in the region.

Canberra's leading role in the East Timor peacekeeping operation strained its relations with Indonesia, although ties have been improving under Megawati.

Australia Monday signed a treaty with the new country delineating a 30,000 square-kilometer sea development zone between the two, to exploit oil and gas deposits. In a bid to help East Timor economically, the agreement splits royalties from the zone 90 percent in favor of the new country.

Australia is also taking a key role in helping East Timor establish its own defense force.

Defense Minister Robert Hill said Monday Australia was providing specialist infantry training, military and other equipment, helping develop training facilities and a communications infrastructure for the new force.

The U.N. will maintain a post-independence peacekeeping mission in the country for the next two years.

'Thank God'

At a Mass earlier Sunday, the Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo -- who shared the 1996 Nobel peace prize with East Timor's new Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos Horta -- said the people of East Timor should thank God for their new-found independence.

"If God had not been with us, we could not have achieved it, we could not have survived," he told some 1,000 people gathered for the open-air service.

A little larger than Connecticut and located between Indonesia and Australia, East Timor has a population of some 740,000, and an annual per-capita gross domestic product of just $478.

The territory forms the eastern half of an island, the other portion of which remains part of the Indonesian archipelago.

The official languages will be Portuguese and Tetum, an indigenous tongue related to other Pacific languages, while the constitution also makes provision for the use of English and Indonesian.

Assuming the trappings of statehood, the country's elected legislative assembly Monday became a national parliament, and was due to sign a number of international treaties, including the U.N. Charter and the Geneva Convention. It will became a fully fledged member of the U.S. in October.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow