Subject: AU: A nation built on ashes

The Australian A nation built on ashes

By Peter Alford 26 June 2000

FRANCISCO Xavier do Amaral, the Fretilin founding president who in 1975 led East Timor to brief and tragically thwarted independence, rises at dawn each morning to stroll his scorched Dili neighbourhood and watch the little children coming out to play on the street.

"I see the freedom in their eyes, the happiness. For them, the worst is over," says the 65-year-old Xavier. "It's the only real gladness I have had until now."

Each day, since his return in January after 21 years in the hands of the Indonesians, dawns hopefully for Xavier too but is accompanied by familiar dark apprehensions.

He says that even as Fretilin was grasping for the reins of power that had fallen from the nerveless hands of the post-dictatorship Portuguese administration in 1974, he was always afraid.

Xavier most feared the Indonesians then massing to crush the independent state. But he was troubled then, as he worries still, that his half-island - its people so deprived of proper education and technical skills, its natural resources so scanty, its 500-year colonial experience so exploitative - could make its way as a viable, stable state.

Purged by his central committee in 1977 for refusing to go along with its plan to fight an all-out "people's war" against the invaders and isolated by two decades of captivity, Xavier was officially rehabilitated by Fretilin in May. But still he has no direct role in the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance) leadership's planning for independence and aspires only to help by "trying to advise" from the sidelines.

However, his apprehensions are these days widely shared within East Timor's political leadership, at all levels of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and among most of the international donor community.

Even had not 90 per cent of East Timor's infrastructure been burned, smashed or looted during September's lunatic rampage by pro-Jakarta militia and their retreating TNI (Indonesian army) mentors, the birth of the "the most recent country in the world", as the welcome sign at Dili's Comoro Airport proclaims, would have been an enormously fraught business.

East Timor has always been desperately poor and, even after the international donors have outlaid their promised $US520 million ($870 million) conscience money on rebuilding what was destroyed and establishing basic services, the new Timor Lorosae will remain so.

Almost every indicator of material well-being puts East Timor in the bottom league of the world's developing nations.

According to OECD and World Bank figures, its gross national product per person is $514 (better than Cambodia but worse than Laos); life expectancy is 57 years (the same as Aboriginal men); the mortality rate for children under 5 years is, at 124 per 1000, almost three times higher than the average across East Asia and the Pacific; fewer than half its 830,000 people have safe water supplies; and 53 per cent of adults are illiterate, which puts them on a par with Papua New Guinea.

Farming land is generally hilly, thin-soiled and scoured by erosion resulting from foothills deforestation. Apart from coffee, almost all agriculture is for basic subsistence.

Coffee in a good year -- and the 1999 crop brought in just before the territory exploded was among the best - earns about $32 million. The offshore fishing grounds East Timor inherits from Indonesia have been savagely over-exploited.

The largely undeveloped Timor Gap oil and gas areas offshore, until now carved up between Indonesia and Australia, are East Timor's one major economic prospect but right now the promise is mainly blue sky. At the moment, it only yields annual government revenues of $10million.

"I have been refusing to talk about Timor Gap and our finances," says Mari'e Alkatiri, CNRT's chief economic planner and one of only three surviving Fretilin founders, along with Xavier and Jose Ramos Horta.

"We have seen a lot of different data: some says it would be worth $US50million a year, others say $US300 million and, for the sake of our budget, we hope it will be much more."

Even more challenging is the poverty of human resources left behind by the occupiers although, to be fair, Indonesia was putting more Timorese students through its universities in its final year than the Portuguese managed in 450 years.

One reason Ramos Horta and so many other senior CNRT people are ex-seminarians was because the Catholic Church was the only avenue of higher education for most Timorese under the Portuguese.

In fact, the church has long constituted East Timor's cultural as well as religious sinews and its reward has been intense popular loyalty to a deeply conservative, socially engaged form of Catholicism that barely survives elsewhere today.

If anything, the church's esteem in the eyes of ordinary Timor has been enhanced by the events of the past 12 months. Bravely led by Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Bello and Bacau's Bishop Basilio do Nascimento, Catholic priests, nuns and lay workers showed great fortitude in the face of the sometimes murderous militia hatred.

Nothing illustrates the social partnership between church and people than the almost complete absence of commercial sleaze in a country that has been swarmed by about 20,000 mostly male foreigners: peacekeeping troops, police, UNTAET international staff and private contract workers.

There are no obvious girlie bars or brothels in Dili, little "fraternising" between foreigners and Timorese, and a distinct sense of physical risk for men and social ostracism for women who do stray. However, the church can't train doctors, engineers or economists.

There are fewer than 25 qualified Timorese doctors - just two with surgical experience - in the territory. More than 70 per cent of public schoolteachers, and 90 per cent in the high schools, were Indonesians and after August they left via West Timor and mostly stayed away.

Because East Timor was run as a TNI (Indonesian military) fiefdom, there were no Timorese police until the first batch of 50 officers this month completed a three-month course at the new Civil Service Academy. It will take another three months of intense "mentoring" by UNTAET civilian police before they are ready for duty.

There are maybe 100 Timorese with basic Indonesian law qualifications and 50 of those are being trained as judges, prosecutors, investigating magistrates and public defenders for the new judicial system now being built from the ground up by UNTAET.

There was, in fact, virtually no administrative experience remaining after the Indonesians left. Although more than 25,000 East Timorese were employed by the civil service in the last years of Jakarta's administration, all decision-making was in the hands of Indonesian officials and most Timorese jobs were, as a former public employee put it, "stamping permits and other bits of paper".

Nevertheless, those jobs played a large part in keeping unemployment in the towns at manageable levels. Now, with joblessness in Dili estimated above 80 per cent, CNRT has been forced to accept that the new Timorese civil service will in the next 12 months employ barely 9000 people -- more than half of them teachers, health workers and policemen -- and in the foreseeable future no more than 12,000.

The hard fact of the matter, says an Australian official in Dili, is that East Timor cannot afford anything else. "UNTAET knows it can only establish the basic services that East Timor is then able to maintain. This is going to be a very poor country for a very long time and we cannot build what the East Timorese cannot then afford to run."

This is a harsh message, especially for younger East Timorese whose expectations of playing worthwhile roles in the service of their new nation are daily diminishing.

Tomorrow: the difficult partnership between East Timor's new leaders and UNTAET's `benign dictatorship'.

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