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East Timor’s Example

MANILA -- East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, is the world’s newest democracy. It may have a population of less than one million, but it has a proud, heroic history and a rich culture built up over centuries of diverse ethnic and colonial influences. The island attracted Chinese and Malay traders in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese arrived not long after, and stayed 400 years. Now it is attracting attention as an example of United Nations-led nation-building.

The UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), headed by Atul Khare, consists of a civilian staff of 1,568, of which 334 are volunteers, and a police commissioner, Rodolfo Tor, with 1,623 police personnel from 39 countries. UNMIT’s main job is a difficult one: bringing about national reconciliation. While peaceful parliamentary elections were held on June 30, an atmosphere of apprehension has prevailed ever since. Neither the former ruling party, Fretilin, nor the newly formed CNRT, led by Xanana Gusmão, the hero of the resistance to Indonesia’s occupation, won an outright majority.

At first, the UN, like many Timorese, including José Ramos-Horta, the country’s Nobel Laureate president who won election last May, had hoped that a national unity government could be formed. But a month-long attempt to broker an inclusive government failed. So, in August, Ramos-Horta ended the deadlock by swearing in Gusmão, a long-term political ally and former president, as prime minister.

Gusmão had forged a coalition with three other centre-left parties. Together they won a narrow 51% majority of the popular vote, giving them 37 of the 65 seats in parliament. Gusmão’s main rival, Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s leader and a former prime minister, denounced Ramos-Horta’s decision. Fretilin, he said, would not cooperate with an “illegal and unconstitutional” government. The constitution is open to interpretation, and he argues that Fretilin, which won the largest share of the vote (29%), should have been asked first to form a government – even a minority one.