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 dowagers.

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 stripes.

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 Africa.

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 minister.

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 system.

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 and officials.

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 army.

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.

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