East Timor the world’s newest nation

East Timor formally declared its independence this week with a joyous ceremony attended by some 200,000 people in the capital city of Dili.

A gala of traditional East Timor music, songs, dances and drum-beating performances was preceded by an open air mass hosted by East Timor Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, a 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The high point of the celebration, the official declaration of independence by National Assembly Speaker Francisco Guterres, followed a solemn ceremony in which the United Nations’ blue flag was handed over to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and East Timor’s national flag was raised to the tune of its national anthem. In his remarks, Annan praised the courage and steadfastness of the East Timorese in their independence struggle, and urged them to remain unified in their full independence.

As he was sworn in as its first president, independence leader Xanana Gusmao called for renewed efforts to lift the new country out of poverty.

South Africa celebrates Sisulu’s 90th birthday

The 90th birthday of African National Congress (ANC) leader Walter Sisulu was celebrated this week in Johannesburg. Sisulu founded the ANC’s Youth League with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others, and was later elected the ANC’s first full-time Secretary-General.

Sentenced to life in prison in apartheid South Africa, Sisulu was released in October 1989 after 25 years, a few months before Nelson Mandela was released. Sisulu served as ANC Deputy President from 1991 to 1994, and has continued active in the ANC since.

Said South African President Thabo Mbeki, “The democratic victory brought about through the efforts of such heroes as Walter Sisulu has given us the possibility to enter the second phase of our struggle to protect the lives of the people and advance their welfare.”

“In everything he spoke or did,” said former President Mandela, “the paramount consideration was: what is best for the organization and for the advancement of the liberation struggle?”

“In Comrade Walter Sisulu we celebrate the vision of non-racialism, non-sexism and internationalism which draws deeply from the experiences and traditions of our people’s struggle,” the South African Communist Party said in a statement.

South Korean unions threaten strike

South Korean unions threatened to launch nationwide strikes this week, over demands that the government agree to a five-day, 40-hour work week and halt plans to privatize the power industry. The strikes would come just before the World Cup soccer finals being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

“We want the government to implement a five-day work week,” said Yoon Young-mo, an official of the 600,000 member Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. “We are also demanding an end to privatizations for state-run utilities.” Yoon said the strikes would involve 30,000 workers from metal and chemical industries, 25,000 hospital workers and 10,000 taxi drivers.

“If the negotiations with the government go well,” he added, “then we will halt our strike action.”

A shorter work week was one of President Kim Dae Jung’s campaign promises, but the government wants workers to also accept pay cuts and fewer holidays.

Tensions continue over massacre in Kashmir

As tensions sharpened between India and Pakistan after last week’s massacre of 35 people by extremist Islamic separatists in Kashmir, left and peace forces called for measures to move away from the threat of full-scale war, which could even involve nuclear weapons.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) called the attack, which mostly killed family members of Indian troops stationed in the disputed region, “another deliberate provocation to worsen the situation in the state and close all options for advancing the political process to restore peace and normalcy.”

Reiterating its call for demobilizing troops along both sides of the border, the CPI(M) put forward a three-pronged approach – stepping up diplomatic and political pressure on the Pakistani government to take effective steps against the extremists who are generally believed to operate from Pakistan, strengthening the political process to resolve the conflict over Kashmir with autonomy as the basis for negotiations, and heightening security measures to check hard-core extremists.

Australian “anti-terror” legislation dealt setback

A select committee of the Australian Senate has rejected the government’s proposed new “anti-terrorist” legislation.

The proposed laws would allow the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) to intercept e-mail, voicemail and other messages without a warrant. It would also allow ASIO to arrest and detain citizens “incommunicado” and would reverse the standards of proof for those charged with “terrorist” offenses. The government could ban organizations it claimed engaged in or aided terrorist organizations.

There are no provisions to lift bans, and the Senate committee said decisions would be “effectively unreviewable.” Civil liberties advocates warned, however, that they must be ruled out altogether, and not just amended to constitute a milder form of repression.