Dream comes true for courageous East Timorese

 

EAST TIMOR: A day of tumult that began with Bishop Carlos Belo kissing the flag of liberated East Timor ended with the UN Secretary-General assuring the globe's newest nation that the "world's commitment to you" would endure. The UN flag came down long after midnight and that of East Timor was raised close to 1 a.m. to ecstatic cheers and drums beating in a crowd of about 200,000 people, including 92 representatives from abroad.

Mr Kofi Annan told the rapt crowd at Taci Tolu outside Dili of his excitement at the success of a dream. "I still recall the day, 45 year ago, when my own country Ghana attained it independence. Tonight, I am as excited as I was then." He said he was "deeply honoured and moved" to be there. "I salute you, people of East Timor, for the courage and perseverance you have shown." And he said he was proud of the people's partnership with the UN. "The transitional period has been truly unique," he said. "This noble mission" had been carried out with "courage and imagination."

Mr Bill Clinton said it was "too bad the people of East Timor had to struggle so long for their freedom" but he had a clear conscience. "My administration did what it could" to help, he said, referring to pressure on Indonesia which helped end its 24-year occupation in 1999. Representing President Bush, the closest he came to acknowledging a US role in the past was to say: "No one feels good about what happened."

Throughout the day at the normally sleepy Comoro airport, world leaders arrived amid intense security that was at times more an illusion. They came with visionary words about leaving the past behind and working on the challenges of nationhood. "Citizenship is hard work," said Mr Annan, adding: "Above all you must remain unified." The UN would stay, he said referring to the change of UNTAET into a support mission.

But unity meant "celebrating a variety of views and ideas - all of which can help build a diverse and creative society. Timor has at least 16 political parties. The Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr Durao Barrosa, likened the birth of a new nation to that of a baby: "It is a painful moment."

The Prime Minister of Australia, Mr John Howard, had some painful moments. He told his press conference that the controversial Timor Sea Agreement between his country and Timor was consistent with Canberra's "national interest" and rejected several hostile suggestions that it was unfair to Timor. His visit later to a trade exhibition was attended by amplified protests.

Accompanying him, Timor's Chief Minister, Mr Mari Alketiri, was unable to be heard when he took issue with the 100 or so left-wing protesters. Mr Howard was accused of stealing Timor's wealth. He is to due to sign the treaty today, although several issues of undersea boundaries remain. Critics say the treaty, apparently giving Timor 90 per cent, in fact gives Timor 20 per cent of what it already owns under the Law of the Sea, which Canberra has rejected.

Preeident Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia was taken by the hand by the Foreign Minister, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, and was applauded three times by the crowd. Asked about five Indonesian warships for Ms Megawati's security, Mr Annan said a weekend diplomatic incident had been "a hiccup" and should not be blown out of proportion. Mr Clinton said Ms Megawati's presence could be taken as "a sign that things will be different".

Mr Annan was asked too about an NGO petition on West Papua, another disputed Indonesian territory. Like Mr Howard, he said he respected the territorial integrity of Indonesia. On the thorny question of bringing Indonesian officials to justice for the September 1999 atrocities, he said he was still hoping this would be done by Jakarta.

Mr David Andewsis represent the Taoiseach at the celebrations. Before the hand-over Bishop Belo took several hours to give Communion to thousands in memory of the 200,000 who died in the struggle. Little work will be done this week as Timor's people continue the party.