National Geographic : 2003 May
GEOGRAPHICA one of East Timor's two official languages, is widely spoken locally but useless in the global marketplace-which is why the country's ruling elite favors the other official language, Portuguese. Instead of singing happy birthday, it might be better just to hum it. -Alan Mairson Nation Building EAST TIMOR ABabel of Birthday Wishes The world's newest nation seeks a voice of its own United Nations member states 1945-2002 144 117 76 How do you sing happy birthday to a tiny Asian country that after roughly 450 years of foreign domination finally declares its independence? Preferably, in more than one language. The people of East Timor (now officially Timor-Leste), who on May 20th celebrate their first year of independence from Indo nesia, have struggled to sort out their linguistic differences as they rebuild the infrastructure of their fledgling democracy. Located just north of Australia, the island of Timor has long served as a colonial outpost, with its eastern half under Portuguese sway for most years from the 1550s to 1975. (Timor's western half has been part of Indonesia since 1949.) When the Portu guese withdrew from East Timor in 1975, Indonesia, fearing a Marxist regime would take root next door, invaded almost imme diately. Its brutal occupation ended in 1999, when the United Nations intervened to shepherd East Timor to freedom. Year one had its bright spots. Thousands of refugees came home from the island's western side. Soldiers of the newly minted East Timor Defense Force began replacing UN peacekeepers. The linchpins of democracy, such as courts and a legislature, began functioning. But 42 percent of the population still lives in pov erty, unemployment exceeds 50 percent, and the nation's maze of languages remains a hindrance to development. Bahasa Indonesia, spoken by most people under 25 years old, carries grim echoes of the recent occupation. lTetum, ew member tte per ecde 945-2002 '40s '50s '60s '70s '80s '90s 'OOs SOURCE:UNITEDNATIONS:NGMART Since the UN was founded in 1945, its membership has grown steadily but fitfully. Its two big gest growth spurts: the early 1960s, after more than two dozen African nations declared their independence, and the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke apart. Today the UN has 191 members, including its newest ones-East Timor and venerable Switzerland, which finally joined a UN no longer riven by dueling superpowers. Find links and resources selected by our Research Division at nationalgeo graphic.com/ngm/resources/0305.