East Timor becomes the 21st century's first new nation on May 20th, almost three years after voting for independence from Indonesia. The referendum in 1999 triggered widespread violence when Indonesian army-backed militias went on the rampage. Over 1,000 people were killed and much of the infrastructure destroyed. Many aid agencies and their partner organisations were caught up in the violence. One such agency is CAFOD, which has worked in East Timor for over 12 years. Speaking as preparations were being made for independence day next Monday, Catherine Sexton, head of CAFOD's Asia section described the occasion as a testament to the courage of the East Timorese people. "Many have lost their lives striving for freedom from oppression. Their example gives hope as the task of building a nation begins," she commented. "East Timor still faces many challenges. Many of the perpetrators of the crimes have not been brought to trial. Indonesia continues to show a lack of will to bring to justice the most senior military figures involved. Perhaps now is the time to set up an International Tribunal for East Timor. Without justice, reconciliation for the people of East Timor will be that much more difficult". The newly independent state also faces great economic challenges as independence brings with it formal recognition of the new state's position as Asia's poorest country. Prime Minister-elect Mari Alkatiri wants donor countries to cover a $90m budget deficit over the next three years. In his opening address at a conference in Dili co-hosted by the World Bank and the United Nations this week, he told delegates from 27 countries and organisations that financial assistance was vital to the country's development as a nation. "We need assistance to maintain the momentum of development and to ensure that the foundations which have been put in place during the transition are sustainable." Mr Alkatiri's statement was backed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) who said political and economic development over the next two years would be crucial to the state's future success as a nation. In a report published on Monday the UNDP found the average life expectancy of the East Timorese to be 57 years. Fifty per cent of infants are underweight and half the population earns less than 55 US cents a day. CAFOD's Catherine Sexton warned that loans will not be enough. "The international community must continue to provide the necessary aid to get East Timor on its feet. It is crucial that the 21st century's first state is not born saddled with the kind of debt that has done so much to stifle development in the Third World." Bishop Basilio Do Nascimento of Baucau in East Timor thanked the catholic aid agency for all its work in his country saying, "I know that CAFOD is only the visible face of another big group who stand behind it and CAFOD is only one way of bringing all kinds of help coming from people of the United Kingdom and especially from the churches. I would like to thank very much the Church in the United Kingdom and particularly all those who helped CAFOD to help us.'
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