Subject: Asiaweek/E Timor: Is Independence worth it?

AsiaWeek January 28, 2000 issue

The Highs and Lows: Is Independence worth it?

East Timor, still euphoric over being free, must now "build a nation from scratch"


Maria Esperanca dos Santos has come to the Red Cross for help. Her upper lip quivers and she fights back tears in front of her three children as she describes last September's brutality in East Timor. "I saw the militias with my own eyes, and the Indonesian military right behind them. They killed people as if they were animals. If my husband had to die, I did not want him to die that way." Maria's husband Florentino (not their real names), has been missing for about four months. He is one of the tens of thousands of East Timorese still unaccounted for following the vindictive rampage by pro-Jakarta militias when the former Indonesian territory voted overwhelmingly for Independence in a referendum.

During the worst of the violence, Maria fled to neighboring West Timor, which belongs to Indonesia, with the children. Florentino, a known pro-Independence supporter, would have endangered the family's safe passage and so chose to stay behind. Maria has been searching for him since. Having combed the refugee camps of West Timor and returned to Dili to find their home looted and destroyed, Maria has come to the Red Cross tracing center - her last resort. "Perhaps if he fled to Australia, he may not have been able to contact us yet . . ." Her voice trails off, knowing that the chance of Florentino having survived is slim and that the note she is writing him may never be read.

In the Red Cross office, lists of unanswered messages are posted, and one corridor is lined with photos of young children separated from their parents. Mugshots of boys and girls holding placards with their ages and their names. Otilda dos Santos, 4. Ernesto Carvahlo, 11. Adina Soares, 5. Of the hundreds of displaced children, the Red Cross has managed to reunite more than 30 with their families, but the rest can only stare back expectantly. Children hoping to be recognized. Messages waiting to be read. A haunting wallpaper of the cost of freedom for East Timor.

Despite the exacting toll they incurred to gain Independence, most East Timorese still feel their cause was worth the sacrifices. "These are the consequences of our struggle," says Fernau Soares, a university student whose father was killed by militiamen. "Of course we regret the people we have lost, but it is more important to have our freedom."

In East Timor today, the euphoria of Independence and the rhetoric of a bright future remain in vogue. During the recent Christmas and New Year celebrations, talk of reconciliation and a fresh beginning seemed on everyone's lips - a sentiment expressed succinctly by the slogan of the U.N.-sponsored millennium party: "Tomorrow begins today." The East Timorese have embraced their independence with a characteristic mix of pragmatism and resilience. Friends and neighbors are adopting children who have lost parents. People are building furniture from the discarded packing crates of international food aid shipped to the territory.

East Timor's ambition is to be a viable nation. But though the road ahead is paved with good intentions, the journey will be a long and arduous one. Its success depends on international assistance from the U.N. and from interested parties like Australia, which leads the multinational peacekeeping force Interfet, and Portugal, the former colonial power. More than anyone else, success depends on the East Timorese.

East Timor is currently a U.N. protectorate administered by UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor). For the moment, the aspirations of the East Timorese are embodied in the National Consultative Council, a 15-member committee which the U.N. consults on all decisions. Designed to roughly mirror the results of East Timor's referendum (78.5% of voters rejected autonomy within Indonesia, effectively voting for Independence), the council comprises seven pro-Independence East Timorese leaders including de facto president Xanana Gusmao, and three pro-autonomy figures. They are joined by one representative from the influential Catholic Church and four UNTAET representatives, including its head, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The council has its work cut out. One problem is that members are not fully united on what needs to be done and when. Different agendas have to be accommodated, and things move slowly because consensus is required. The council's overall program reads like the syllabus of an experimental university elective: "East Timor: Building a Nation from Scratch." In the coming months, the council, in concert with UNTAET, must select a national language, choose a currency, recruit a civil service, determine business licensing laws and tax regulations, establish immigration and custom protocols, decide on citizenship criteria, and oversee the rebuilding of schools. More generally, the council and UNTAET have to erect the infrastructure of a civil society in a culture weaned on violence. One of the biggest challenges the embryonic nation faces is convincing its citizens that rule of law is more desirable than "might makes right," and that due process is preferable to "an eye for an eye."

The forging of a new judicial system has begun, with the first eight judges and two prosecutors sworn in at the newly refurbished district courthouse in Dili. For the first time, justice will be meted out by the Timorese. "We will work hard to explain that in a democratic society, even the worst criminal deserves to have his or her case heard," says UNTAET chief de Mello. "This is the new justice we will bring to East Timor."

Already there are signs that implementing the new justice will be a difficult task. The independence struggle has left deep wounds among the East Timorese which will take generations to heal. Even East Timor's spiritual leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, who has repeatedly called for reconciliation and invited pro-Indonesian militia leaders to return home, holds that forgiveness is conditional on owning up to the sins of the past. "First, you must explain to the Timorese people why you burned homes and killed so many people," he says. It is hard for most East Timorese to understand why the men who killed their brothers or raped their sisters deserve to be treated humanely and have the right to a defense. Even among some of the first 10 judicial appointees there is a sense of unease about the possibility of having to defend such suspects. Hans Jürg Strohmeyer, a German judge and legal adviser to UNTAET, acknowledges that "putting personal feelings aside and acting in an impartial way" is the biggest challenge.

Beyond the bench, mercy is scarce on the streets. Stone-wielding mobs have taken it upon themselves to dispense justice on suspected militia members. Just recently, a number of militiamen and their relatives were attacked when they tried to return to their homes.

Many East Timorese are growing impatient with the rhetoric of justice. Marco Aurelio Quinitao is one of the many awaiting concrete results.An articulate 21-year-old translator for Interfet, he describes how in September he fled to the mountains when militia attacked his neighborhood in Dili, how his friend was shot by Indonesian army regulars, and how he had to sneak back into Dili to get rice from his house "like a thief in my own home." He tells the story of catching a militia member in the hills and convincing his friends to turn the man in to the authorities rather than cut off his ears (a traditional method of humiliating an enemy). But just recently, he says, he saw that same militiaman in Dili. "How can it be that international law lets captured militias go scot-free?" Marco demands to know. "Will they ever go to jail? The people are confused."

Of the several hundred suspected militia members who have been arrested over the past three months, most have been released after questioning. Only some 10 people remain in Interfet's secret detention center for "violence related to the referendum." In some cases the release of prisoners was due to lack of evidence, but mostly detainees were let go simply because there was no judicial system yet in place. Now, there is hope that things will move. Certainly the spirit is willing. The East Timorese judges, says Strohmeyer, "understand the importance of re-establishing confidence among the people that judges are the guardians of the rights of suspects and defendants rather than tools of the executive branch to lock people up."

Trust in a functional judiciary is sorely needed. Frustrated East Timorese are making a habit of taking the law into their own hands, and not just when it comes to the militiafolk. At the Australian-run Thrifty rental car service in Dili, stones were recently thrown and a tailight bashed when three East Timorese youths discovered that a car was too expensive for them to rent. In the eastern city of Los Palos, a mob attacked a power station, beating the two employees inside, because they mistakenly thought that power was being routed only to the part of town where many U.N. workers stay. On Jan. 15, at the U.N. compound in Dili, part of a 7,000-strong crowd of job seekers hurled stones at Interfet soldiers when they learned that some English was essential for the 2,000 U.N. positions available.

Whether these are isolated incidents or an alarming trend is still an open question. The U.N. reports that crime is on the increase, not a surprising development given that jobless East Timorese rub elbows daily with Australian businessmen, U.N. officials and NGO workers whose hefty per diems and shiny new land cruisers have created strata of "haves" and "have nots" in Dili. Bishop Belo says the authorities need to address this: "It is the responsibility of all the organizations present in East Timor but first, naturally, of those who administrate this territory." While the U.N. has accomplished a great deal, it has also come under fire for moving too slowly. U.N. officials themselves admit that UNTAET has yet to make enough of a difference to ordinary East Timorese. Says acting UNTAET spokesman Diego Zorilla: "Nothing of what has been done has actually improved the life of the East Timorese in a visible way. The situation remains calamitous." Unemployment is rampant. Infrastructure has been destroyed and yet to be rebuilt. Materials are scarce. Malaria is endemic. Food distribution routinely turns into free-for-alls. There are no quick fixes, despite expectations that Independence would bring a better life.

Xanana Gusmao concedes that his people's impatience, after 24 years of waiting, may be the greatest obstacle to overcome. Asked what worries him most, he replies: "Social dissatisfaction. We were united in a common objective. And now we want to see the difference; each person feels they must have a place. We will have to face many, many social, economic and political conflicts, many, many problems."

But for every problem, there is an act of quiet dignity and survival. Another family reunited by the Red Cross. A schoolteacher finally able to hold classes. Afavorite restaurant re-opened. "We are poor, but we are proud,"declares hotel security guard Manuel Fario, echoing the sentiment of countless East Timorese. "At least now we control our own destiny." As the saying goes in Tetum, East Timor's native language, "Ami bele kaer rasik amin nia kuda talin" - "we now hold our own horses' reins." The East Timorese are steering their own course, but it promises to be a bumpy ride.

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