East Timor Celebrates:
Birth of a Nation at Peace
by Hamish McDonald
The Sydney Morning Herald (centrist), Sydney,
Australia, April 18, 2002
[World Press Review, July 2002]
On a roadside in rural Balibo, among knots of people lingering
to chat after casting their vote in their country's first presidential
election last Sunday, two traditions mingle in the friendly greetings
between two o]d Timorese women. They are dressed in batik sarongs
and lace blouses and smile, revealing betel-nut-blackened teeth.
But with silver hair piled up in ancient European fashion, they
pepper their Tetum local language with Portuguese words and touch
cheeks on both sides with the distracted elegance of Parisian
The previous evening, at the Acait cafe in the seaside capital,
Dili, saw a turnout of local society. Timorese families, elderly
Portuguese, and jowly Chinese businessmen sipped wine or fruit
cocktails strengthened with the local arrak, danced in a classic
ballroom style, and watched slim boys and girls strut through
a fashion show of party-wear made with ethnic weaves of fine multicolor
A hybrid culture as layered as these village textiles is now
reasserting itself in East Timor, woven from five centuries of
penetration by Portugal, church and state, and an intense quarter-century
of Indonesian rule onto a clannish local background colored by
systems of honor, retribution, and sorcery known as lulik.
With this re-emergence, we can start to see the character
of our newest neighbor: a mixture of the fatalism and turmoil
of the Catholic south of Europe, the gaiety and frenzy of the
Malay world, a touch of Australian practicality imparted to exiles
now returned, and a stubbornness and devotion that is all its
own. It will be a republic like no other in our region.
A bizarre and unprecedented exercise in nation-building by
the United Nations approaches its climax at midnight on May I
9 when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan formally hands sovereignty
over to Xanana Gusmao, 56, the former resistance leader and political
prisoner of the Indonesian occupiers, who was chosen overwhelmingly
as the country's first president on Sunday.
For the past two years, UNTAET- the U.N. Transitional Administration
in East Timor-headed by the suave Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vicira
de Mello-has kept 8,500 foreign troops as peacekeepers across
this tiny land. More than 1,000 hired experts and volunteers of
50 nationalities have been setting up new courts, a police service,
an army, a university, a school system, radio and television broadcasters,
and an administration, serviced by a fleet of 24 helicopters,
four aircraft, three ships, and about 1,300 vehicles.
Swarms of contractors and tradesmen from northern Australia
have labored to repair burned-out buildings and reopen power,
water, and telephone services. A quieter influx has come with
a sandal-wearing crowd of educated volunteers, who staff the dozens
of nongovernmental organizations that have set up operations to
train and counsel East Timorese in social projects.
A staggering US$2.4 billion has been spent in protecting East
Timor and helping it get to its feet from the devastation wrought
by the Indonesian army and its locally raised militias after the
August 1999 ballot brought an end to a nightmarish occupation
of 24 years.
Now this period of what one U.N. official from a Latin American
country calls "magical realism" is coming to an end.
The number of peacekeeping troops is being scaled down to 5,0()()
by the end of June, and to 2,5()0 by the end of the year. By May
20, only a quarter of the U.N. foreign civilian staff will remain,
with a changed mission that makes them advisers, not bosses, to
the Timorese administration.
Already, the U.N. transitional administration is taking stock
of computers, vehicles, air conditioners, and other gear it will
take away. Where visitors were once grateful for beds in converted
shipping containers, barges, and convent dormitories, there are
now vacancies in Dili's small hotels. The exotic crowd of diverse
skin colors and uniforms is thinning in the brasseries serving
imported food and wine.
After a hectic three years of reconstruction, spending by
the United Nations and international donors will fall away this
June, leading to two years of little or no economic growth. Especially
the urban economy is in for a "negative shock," warns
the U.N. administration's finance ministry.
National institutions, meanwhile, are still at school. The
new defense force has only about 600 of its planned 1,500 troops
out of basic training. The 3,000 strong police force is barely
moving up from traffic and crowd control. The U.N.-run radio and
television service will cut out on May 20 unless legislation and
funding are quickly made ready. The nascent finance ministry and
central bank are desperately searching for enough Timorese with
economic and accounting skills.
How much help the United Nations continues to provide will
be decided by the Security Council in the first week of May, but
it will probably be substantial: It is unlikely to risk undermining
one of its notable successes in a checkered record of interventions.
A meeting of donor countries will follow in mid-May, with pledges
likely to keep support at about $130 million over the next two
years, before the first substantial revenue starts from Timor
Sea oil and takes East Timor to economic self-sufficiency later
in the decade.
The new Democratic Republic of East Timor has some of the
now-passé revolutionary flavor and the mestico or half-Portuguese
leadership that Gough Whitlam disparaged in his meeting with Indonesian
President Suharto in 1974-75. Aside from Gusmao, who emerged as
a significant leader well into the occupation, political circles
are replete with figures from that period-many of whom returned
in 1999 after a long exile in Europe, Australia, or Portuguese-speaking
The Fretilin Party has emerged as the only strong electoral
force, with about 65 percent of the 88 seats in the constituent
assembly that has become the Parliament. Its long-time central
committee member Mari Alkatiri will almost certainly be the prime
His policies, however, have so far eschewed the original revolutionary
aims of Fretilin and have been utterly in line with the conventional
economic ideas of foreign donors. Alkatiri'.s interim Cabinet
has already lined up East Timor as member of the International
Monetary Fund and chosen the American dollar as the national currency.
The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have opened an office
in Dili and will hold tight strings on aid through a trust-fund
A decision has been made to put most Timor Sea oil revenue
in the bank and spend only the interest. With careful cultivation
of non-oil taxes and limits on spending, this would allow the
current level of moderate-sized government to carry on indefinitely,
on the basis of oil-field developments already committed. New
fields and pipelines-possibly combined with seabed boundary adjustments
in Timor's favor-could bring a bonanza, but until then Timorese
politicians will need good fiscal discipline to maintain what
economists call "intergenerational equity," that is,
not blowing the benefits of nonrenewable resources. This discipline
will be one of the main tests of a national leadership split between
Gusmao and Alkatiri. Gusmao's vote of about 80 percent and the
low level of spoilt ballots and abstentions (encouraged by Fretilin)
will enhance his moral authority to question Cabinet policies.
His most effective constitutional power as president could be
his control of appointment of the chief justice and senior prosecutors,
meaning he can encourage them to go after wayward politicians
But can a country as small as this maintain such constitutional
checks and balances in practice? The army, police, electoral commission,
judiciary, and national broadcaster may struggle to maintain their
nonpartisan ethos in the face of pressure that will surely come-whether
from Gusmao, Fretilin, or social and business elites in a nation
where everyone seems to know everyone else. It may be that the
church, under its irascible Bishop Carlos Belo, emerges as the
real guardian and watchdog of the polity, although religion gets
only a passing mention in the new constitution.
The other conflict is about inclusion in the new republic.
Some of the new leaders returned to East Timor only after 1 99~)'.s
passage of fire, educated and prosperous after years in the West.
Many thousands who suffered starvation, torture, and imprisonment
have no role in the government, or even employment at all.
Some resistance veterans have been recognized in associations,
and efforts have been made to create work for them, but many others-known
as the isolados`-are forming themselves into militia-style guards
and asserting an auxiliary relationship to the regular 1,500-strong
Portuguese peacekeepers at Aileu were nonplussed this week
at the appearance of 7() aging resistance fighters. Their 61-year-old
commandant, Belbito Laite, said they lived on bananas and corn
from the hills, and their mission was to watch for Indonesians
and attack them with their bare hands, if necessary. Other groups
could develop into a more threatening muscle-for-hire. And culture
will also see a fight for inclusion. The resistance leadership's
attempt to reintroduce the Portuguese language, spoken by only
5 percent of East Timorese, is aided by a massive teaching program
funded by Lisbon through its Chamoes Foundation.
But the younger people listen to Indonesian music, read trash
novels by popular author Lonny S., and routinely use Bahasa mixed
with Tetum. While 400 students from East Timor are attending universities
in Portugal, about 1,200 are at Indonesian colleges.