Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

East Timor forgets woes to celebrate one-year birthday

AP , DILI

Children swim in the Banda Sea on Saturday in Dili, East Timor. East Timor celebrated it's first year of independence yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

East Timor put aside its economic woes yesterday to celebrate the country's first anniversary with patriotic songs, parades and a moment of silence for those killed during Indonesia's brutal 24-year rule.

About 10,000 Timorese gathered in front of the Government Palace in the capital Dili in a ceremony lacking the euphoria of last year, when world leaders feted the birth of the world's newest nation and crowds partied into the night.

Ballads and revolutionary folk songs wafted across the waterfront as Timorese watched their army and military march past.

The country's flag was raised and a minute of silence was held for "its national heroes" killed in the struggle for independence. President Xanana Gusmao then addressed the crowd and spoke of the country's struggles with poverty and joblessness.

Most in the crowd -- young families, villagers dressed in traditional outfits and a ragtag group of ex-guerillas -- said they were thrilled with their newfound freedoms and were proud to have a government that represented them.

But they also said the national holiday brought back bad memories, recalling how a son was tortured by the Indonesians, a father killed or an entire village terrorized.

Smaller festivities took place across the country, with church services and soccer matches. State owned Timor Telecom gave free local phone calls for all.

"Today is a chance to express my happiness," said Antonio Rosario, a 63-year-old farmer who had arrived by truck with 70 others from his village of Camea, just east of Dili.

"We suffered so much in the past," he said. "I know my government is weak but at least we are independent."

After hundreds of years of Portuguese and then Indonesian rule, East Timor voted in August 1999 to become independent in a UN sponsored referendum.

The Indonesian military and its proxy militias responded by laying waste to the former province, killing 1,500 Timorese and forcing 300,000 from their homes.

The UN administered the country for two and a half years and East Timor became independent on May 20 last year. But the first year has been filled with setbacks for the predominantly Roman Catholic country of 800,000.

Riots destroyed parts of the capital in December. Attacks by former militiamen in January raised security fears and the economy is expected to decline this year -- causing unemployment rates to rise.

President Xanana Gusmao, a former freedom fighter who was jailed by Indonesia, said people were frustrated with their "difficult living conditions" but said the country would persevere.

"A year has passed with the difficulties inherent in the early stages of any social or political process," Gusmao said. "Of course, it is up to us, the Timorese, to plan and work tirelessly to meet the legitimate and profound aspirations of our people."

But in a speech broadcast earlier Tuesday on radio and television, Gusmao painted a more pessimistic picture.

"There is little food on the hearth," he said. "There is no prospect of employment for our youth and the conditions of the legal and [government] infrastructure don't attract investors."

He complained that some Timorese were using democracy for personal gain and accused the parliament of wasting time "airing its dirty laundry as if it was a public sanitary facility."

The pessimistic mood seemed to permeate the independence day celebrations, with many Timorese using the five-hour event to air their demands for cheaper goods in the market and more opportunities for their families.

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