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East Timor facing challenges as UN leaves

Australian Associated Press - December 28, 2012

Raimundos Oki – The UN ends its peacekeeping mission on Monday after 13 years in Asia's youngest nation East Timor, with the country still hoping to overcome its bloody past and rampant poverty.

East Timor this year held largely peaceful elections, voting in a new president and parliament, as the country marked a decade of formal independence and paved the way for the foreign forces to leave.

But as the last remaining UN police and troops depart, the fragile democracy is still struggling with widespread malnutrition, high unemployment and maternal mortality rates among the worst in the world.

East Timor was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years, with about 183,000 people dying from fighting, disease and starvation before the half-island state voted for independence in 1999 in a bloody referendum, prompting the first UN mission.

There is little concern about violence in the immediate future, yet few employment opportunities, crushing poverty and a rapidly expanding population could threaten peace in the long term, analysts say.

"There's always in this situation the potential for something serious to go wrong," Professor George Quinn from the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific told AFP.

More than 40 per cent of young Timorese are jobless, according to AusAID, and although the predominantly Catholic nation has a small population, the fertility rate of 6.5 per woman is the world's fourth-highest, UN data shows.

Despite $US1.5 billion ($A1.45 billion) of aid pouring into the nation of 1.1 million people in a decade and abundant offshore oil and gas reserves, about 41 per cent of the population live on less than the local poverty line of 88 US cents a day.

In the capital Dili, barefoot children eat scraps from the ground in slums and vendors make a pittance at fruit and vegetable markets.

World Bank data from 2010 showed 45.3 per cent of children under five were malnourished, up from 40.6 per cent in 2002. On the UN's human development index, East Timor ranks 147th out of 187 nations, below Pakistan and Bangladesh, and well below the regional average.

East Timor's economy has also become visibly two-tier since 1999 – some are raking in US dollars from government infrastructure projects in urban areas, while the majority are subsistence farmers in far-flung villages.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao insisted after his July re-election that energy revenue would transform East Timor "from being an undeveloped, low-income country by 2030, by making use of all our material and human potential".

While the country's Petroleum Fund has swollen to $US10.5 billion and makes up between 80 to 90 per cent of government revenue, critics point out the reserves are fast falling as they call for diversification of the economy.

Rural Timorese also complain the money has not changed their lives. "East Timor has always had a problem with properly disbursing its income, and that problem still persists," Professor Quinn said.

Despite East Timor's problems, the departure of the remaining UN forces – which numbered 1600 at the mission's peak – underscores the progress the country has made.

The withdrawal has been welcomed by most, especially leaders who insisted the country was able to handle its own security well before responsibility was handed back to national police in October.