Timor-Leste: Countdown To Independence


Professor James Fox

The transition to independence for East Timor is now in its final phase. Elections for an 88 member Constituent Assembly were held on 30 August 2001. Fretilin, the party that led the long struggle for independence, obtained just over 57 per cent of the vote, giving it 43 nationally determined seats and another 12 district seats in the new Assembly. On 15 September, this Assembly was sworn in and on 20 September, a ĎSecond Transitional Governmentí, consisting entirely of East Timorese ministers, vice-ministers and secretaries, was appointed by the United Nationsí Special Representative, Sergio Viera de Mello. Mari Alkatiri, the Secretary-General of Fretilin was named as the Chief Minister of this Government. Finally, on 31 October, the United Nationsí Security Council endorsed 20 May 2002 as the day for the official transfer of sovereignty.

The Constituent Assembly is currently in session drafting a Constitution. The first draft of this document is scheduled for completion in time for East Timorese to celebrate 28 November as the date of Fretilinís original declaration of independence in 1975. In the future, it is possible that East Timor will celebrate this date as their national day.

As the transition to independence proceeds, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has begun a substantial reduction in its personnel. The present peace-keeping force of approximately 8000 will be reduced to 5000 military personnel by independence. Some previous serving contingents such as those from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Jordan will conclude their service in Timor; while other new contingents, including 700 members of the Japanese Self Defence Force, will take up a peace-keeping role in early 2002. The first battalion of the new East Timorese Defence Force, which has been undergoing training under Portuguese and Australian supervision, will be assigned to the eastern region of the country.

Plans remain in place for an East Timorese Police Service of 3000 officers for which, by the end of January 2002, UNTAET expects to have trained and deployed 1500 local officers. For the complex tasks they will face, members of this new police service lack experience and still require further training. Therefore an international police commissioner will continue to oversee a civilian police force, comprised of local and international officers, in the period after Independence.

UN civilian personnel will be reduced more rapidly than the military or police forces. The number of UN civilian staff in East Timor at the time of the elections will have been cut by roughly 75 per cent by January 2002. Further reductions will be carried through to the middle of May. A core of UN professional staff, however, will continue to serve in East Timor performing functions for which local expertise is not yet available.

UNTAET has recruited and appointed about 9500 East Timorese civil servants. This is approximately 90 per cent of what is intended to be a small but highly efficient civil service. A Civil Service Academy has been formed and has already given training to almost a third of the present civil service staff. The future of the new nation will be in the hands of its elected leaders and this new civil service.

WATCHPOINT: How well East Timorís civil servants perform in difficult conditions, will be the test of whether the United Nations has succeeded in bringing forth the first new nation of the 21st century.


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