Subject: SMH: Timor's Social Gap

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, April 15, 2000

Review section

Timor's social gap

Bishop Carlos Belo would be shocked if he knew. It is well after midnight and the streets of Dili are deserted, except for a few stray dogs. But the discotheque on the multi-storey cruise ship moored at shore is packed, sweaty and jumping to loud music. Two women peacekeepers attached to the United Nations mission are drunk and, for an apparent dare, take off their panties and dance with them over their heads.

At weekends groups of UN personnel and international peacekeepers pack beaches just east of Dili, where hundreds of bodies washed up after Indonesia's bloody 1975 invasion. Many women are scantily clad, a few even go topless at more secluded areas, while closer to town, along a winding track littered with beer cans, Timorese women swim at another beach wearing long sleeved shirts and shorts.

The arrival of almost 10,000 UN peacekeepers and UN personnel in East Timor after last year's violence and destruction has raised concerns about a clash of cultures in the staunchly Catholic territory and is fuelling anti-foreign sentiments among Timorese. Before the arrival of the UN contingent, Belo, the head of the church, would get upset when he saw young unmarried Timorese holding hands in public. On New Year's Eve he protested when he heard Timorese partying after midnight at the offices of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, led by the former guerilla fighter Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, who is widely tipped to be East Timor's first president.

And as the UN cranks up its multi-million-dollar operation steering East Timor to independence, many unemployed Timorese who battle each day to feed themselves and their families see the new arrivals living the good life. Mob violence has returned as people vent their anger, forcing the UN to step up security for its staff, especially on the foreshore adjacent to the two ships which are home to hundreds of foreigners from distant parts of the world.

Six months after the Indonesian military, police and their proxy militia looted and destroyed almost everything of value in Dili, the town is quickly acquiring facilities usually seen in Asian resorts. Entrepreneurs are targeting the wallets of UN staff, most of whom are on salaries and allowances starting at $US50,000 ($84,700) a year, while the territory has joined the world's list of very poorest nations with the most impoverished African states.

Take a helicopter flight across the half-island territory ($US300 for 10 minutes). Sit on the beachfront sipping lattes and eating fresh bagel sandwiches. Take a bay cruise with Wombat Charters (full-moon special recommended). Eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast and lashes of bacon at the old UN compound where last September diehard UN staff, journalists and Timorese refugees huddled under gunfire, existing for days off meagre rations and sleeping on concrete. Or, as the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, did on his recent visit, enjoy good food and wine served in the ruins of a burnt-out house, one of more than a dozen restaurants in a town that a few months ago had none.

"There's a lot of aggression that's been built up and there are not effective ways to deal with it," says Ramona Mitussis, the co-ordinator in East Timor for Apheda, the overseas aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. "There are no jobs. There's a lack of food. Basically, if you've got money you are OK, but the vast majority of the population have no means of obtaining money."

Sergio De Mello, the head of the UN operation, admits there is a "lot of frustration" among the Timorese. But he says that while the destruction of East Timor took only days, rebuilding takes a long time. Donor countries which pledged $US522 million to a recent conference in Tokyo wanted first to see detailed reconstruction plans, he says.

"In terms of reconstruction, we are talking months," he says. "I cannot change that." But representatives of many governments in East Timor, international aid agencies and organisations like the World Bank, which broke all records going into the territory last year, are critical of the slowness and priorities of the UN bureaucracy.

Staff sit in air-conditioned offices - the first to be rebuilt - and hold seemingly endless meetings.

"The UN people in East Timor are dedicated and hard working," says a UN career officer over a beer on the deck of one of the cruise ships. "We have come here to help the Timorese people, willing to risk getting malaria or dengue fever and face the isolation," he says. "But we are as frustrated as anybody else about the mountains of red tape we have to cope with, the rules and regulations. It's the nature of the UN."

Mark Plunkett, a Brisbane-based lawyer who runs Paximus, a peace operation and conflict management company, says the UN is on the road to making the same mistakes as it did during its $US2 billion operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s.

"The main problem is that the UN on the ground has not moved quickly enough to establish a rule of law, which should be at the heart of every peacekeeping mission," says Plunkett, who was the UN's Special Prosecutor in Cambodia. "While the UN personnel are usually well meaning, many are clueless about adopting practical measures to restore law and order in a traumatised society."

Plunkett says that, as happened in Cambodia, the UN has failed to quickly provide justice logistics, there are not any functioning courts and the only operational jail in Dili is full.

"The international civilian police who have arrived in the territory are unsure of their role or powers," Plunkett says. "All the signs are there for civil unrest in the short and medium future unless the UN acts promptly."

In some outlying areas such as Liquica, 40 kilometres from Dili, UN police have been unable to charge several accused murderers despite strong evidence because no jail cells are available.

An Adelaide businessman, Gino Favaro, whose family owns the beach- front Hotel Dili and plans to build 350 new rooms, describes the latest violence as a "bit of gangsterism" that is being pushed by members of pro-Jakarta militia who, he says, have returned and want to stir up trouble.

"If it gets out of hand and cannot be handled by the temporary administration, the local people will act," he says.

"These people don't want handouts. They want to be able to work so they and their family members have food and shelter, the basics of life."

Favaro says the local chamber of commerce, of which he is vice-president, wants to see the UN employ 10 Timorese for every one international staffer, while the UN is now employing only one Timorese for every foreigner.

Apheda's Mitussis says the East Timorese feel they are in a vacuum. "They have no idea what is going on," she says. "The UN publications, for instance, are very generalised and don't debate issues and aren't open to having issues debated within them."

Favaro says many Timorese are desperate. "They have seen their country destroyed and now it is being run outside their control, outside their wishes."

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