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East Timor, Only 4 Years Old, Struggles with Poverty, Obscurity
The Washington Diplomat / November 2006

By Larry Luxner

The world's second-newest country is poor, nearly bankrupt, physically devastated and almost completely unknown to most Americans.

Constancio Pinto wants to change that.

Pinto is deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of East Timor, officially known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. No bigger than Massachusetts, this poverty-stricken Asian country declared its independence from Portugal in 1975. But it took a horrific war with Indonesia — and the death of at least 100,000 people — for independence to actually come to pass, on May 20, 2002. This past summer, the Balkan republic of Montenegro also declared independence, finally supplanting East Timor's status as the world's newest nation.

Pinto, a former guerrilla leader, says he's uniquely qualified to represent East Timor in the United States.

"I used to be a member of the East Timor resistance movement, and as a member of the diplomatic front from 1993 to 2000," said Pinto, 43, who's fluent in English, Portuguese, Indonesian and Tetum (a local dialect).

Pinto earned his bachelor's degree in development studies from Brown University, and a master's in international affairs from Columbia University.

"I was the first Timorese diplomat to be sent to the United States to set up this embassy," Pinto told the Diplomat in a recent interview. "We first operated out of the Embassy of Cape Verde. They gave us a small space to operate, and for almost two years we were working out of their premises. The government had no money at the time."

But international donations have started coming in, allowing East Timor to establish an embassy last year on the fifth floor of an office building at 4301 Connecticut Avenue. Until a few months ago, the ambassador was José Luis Guterres, who has since been named East Timor's foreign minister; a new envoy is not expected to be named until year's end or early 2007.

In the meantime, Pinto certainly doesn't need a big staff to look after the Timorese-American immigrant community; he says no more than 40 Timorese nationals live in the United States.

The country's annual budget has more than quadrupled since 2002, though that means little since it was starting from virtually zero.

"The first year of independence, our national budget was $75 million, then it went up to $125 million. This year, our budget is $315 million," said Pinto, explaining that revenue from oil and gas exports have brought badly needed revenue into the country, not to mention high-quality exports of organic coffee to Europe and the United States.

Besides its missions in Washington and New York, East Timor has embassies in Australia, Belgium, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mozambique and Portugal. It will soon open an embassy in Brazil.

One of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia — the other is the Philippines — East Timor has about one million inhabitants. Around 90% are Catholics, 5% Muslims and the remaining 5% a smattering of Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists and animists. Besides the official languages of Portuguese and Tetum, another 15 indigenous languages are spoken.

Colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, this far-flung piece of the Portuguese empire was known for centuries as Portuguese Timor. The Netherlands eventually gave Indonesia its independence, and on Nov. 28, 1975 — after Portugal had effectively abandoned its former colony — East Timor declared itself independent as well.

But that status was short-lived. Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded East Timor, and in 1976, the Suharto regime declared it the 27th province of Indonesia.

A fierce war ensued, with the Falintil — as East Timor's guerrilla force was known — waging a long-running campaign against the Indonesian military machine, which was openly backed by the United States.

A detailed statistical report, published by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (known by its Portuguese acronym CAVR), puts the official conflict-related death toll from 1974 to 1999 at 102,800; Amnesty International says the true number is closer to 200,000.A ccording to UN and World Bank statistics, the long years of fighting destroyed 89% of the country's infrastructure.

During the early 1990s, resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, a leader of the Fretilin faction, turned to diplomacy to stop the fighting and became the most recognizable face in the cause of East Timorese independence. For his efforts, the Indonesian military captured him, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In August 1999 — following a UN-sponsored agreement among Indonesia, Portugal and the United States — a referendum was held in which inhabitants voted overwhelmingly for full independence from Indonesia. That triggered violent attacks by the Indonesian militay, and aided by Timorese pro-Indonesian forces.

Eventually, the UN established a peacekeeping force. In the interim, Gusmão went to Lisbon to convince Portuguese leaders to recognize Timorese independence. Full independence was achieved on May 20, 2002 — and impoverished East Timor became the first new country of the 21st century.

Yet the promise of oil wealth from offshore petroleum reserves in the waters separating East Timor and Australia hasn't been enough to quell the violence.

Earlier this year, rioters protested the dismissal of 591 soldiers for deserting their barracks. In the ensuing violence, five people were killed and 20,000 fled their homes. Fierce fighting broke out again in May between pro-government troops and disaffected Falintil troops, apparently over the distribution of oil funds and the fact that East Timor's security forces include former Indonesian police and former Timorese rebels.

"It started as a very small issue of discrimination against some military men, and I think we missed the opportunity to solve the problem before it got worse," he explained. "Unfortunately, we had to seek international intervention. That's why Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal now have troops there. But it happened only in the capital city, Dili, not the entire country."

On Jun. 21, Gusmão — in his role as president — asked the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, to resign; he did so five days later, and on Jul. 8, José Ramos Horta was named as his successor.

These days, Pinto is mainly concerned with moving beyond the past, and ensuring the future of his struggling nation.

For one thing, East Timor is Asia's poorest country, with an average per-capita income of less than $500, and 41% of the population lives below the national poverty level of 55 cents a day.

"Up to 80% of the country's working-age population is unemployed," reports Freedom House in its Freedom of the World 2005 report. "Income from oil and gas is the economic lifeline that the Timorese and international donors are counting on to help the country achieve self-sufficiency."

The Economist estimates that proceeds from oil and gas deposits could bring the struggling nation an additional $8 billion over the next two decades.

That money can't come fast enough for East Timor, which endures one of the world's highest infant mortality rates; 60 of every 1,000 babies die before they reach their first birthday.

"When the Indonesians pulled out in 1999, there were barely 20 practicing doctors left in the country," according to a recent Australian TV report. "Entire communities had never had a single doctor, under Indonesian rule or the Portuguese."

Yet help has come from a rather unexpected corner of the world: Cuba.

Thanks to a bilateral agreement signed earlier this year, 286 Cuban doctors are helping build East Timor's health system from scratch. They've spread to every district and sub-district in the country, staffing clinics and field hospitals for next to nothing.

In return, more than 300 East Timorese are studying medicine in Havana. The Castro regime is also funding a new medical faculty at Dili's National University. The goal, according to East Timor's health minister, Rui de Araujo: to train doctors so that by 2015, there will be at least one doctor for every 1,000 people in East Timor.

Just as importantly, East Timor seems to have made up with Indonesia, its former colonizer.

"Relations with Indonesia are very good. We've had no problems since independence," said Pinto. "A number of Indonesian heads of state have visited East Timor. We have agreed to mark the boundary between the two countries, and the final agreement is now being signed."

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