Friday, 24 May 2002
In case anyone didnt notice, something rather historic happened this week. A new country -- East Timor -- was born. Mondays formal independence celebration in Dili, attended by the likes of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and former US President Bill Clinton, commemerated the outcome of a 27-year struggle against Indonesian rule, and concluded three years of protective rule under the United Nations. East Timor, the newest nation in the world, will become the 190th member state of the UN system.
The Briefing thinks this event worth dwelling on for three reasons. First, because it is uplifting news. This publication unintentionally fosters a grim view of the world -- a quick review of this weeks news section reveals ongoing violent conflicts in the DRC, Liberia and Madagascar, severe economic hardship in Argentina, continued instability in Afghanistan and worsening health and food security in southern Africa. Amidst this harsh reality, the image of 800,000 people rejoicing in newfound political freedom is heartening.
East Timors independence is also important because it demarcates an ongoing tension in international politics. From the Philippines to Russia, and Indonesia to Somalia, there are plenty of regions and territories that could potentially break-off from their current political masters. In a sense East Timor is only the most recent example of the post-cold war trend in independence movements -- a trend that was arguably initiated in the former Yugoslavia in early 1991, and which is particularly problematic for archipelago states like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Their respective national governments, along with the UN and regional bodies like ASEAN, will have to carefully manage local expectations and autonomy if the bloodshed that followed East Timors 1999 independence referendum is to be avoided elsewhere.
There is a final reason why Mondays celebration is noteworthy. In an age when most people in North America and Europe take democracy and self-determination for granted, East Timors formal independence is a timely and fair reminder that freedom and the right to govern ones own territory come at a price. And while we are careful to note that the subject of self-determination is not without its own complexities, in this case at least it appears that the international community, the former government, and the majority of the local population all believe the outcome to be right and fair. East Timorese have struggled for independence since the 16th century. We join them in celebrating their freedom and a more hopeful future.