Subject: Age: Like a Phoenix, East Timor Rises Again

The Age [Melbourne] Tuesday 27 June 2000

Comment and Analysis

Like a phoenix, East Timor rises again


It is just over six months ago that Sergio Vieira de Mello arrived in East Timor to set up what is regarded as the United Nation's most ambitious operation of its kind, a mix of peacekeeping, national rehabilitation and nation-building.

The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) began its mission with considerable optimism. InterFET, under the command of Australia's Major-General Peter Cosgrove, had restored security to virtually all parts of the territory and had facilitated humanitarian relief operations. Most Timorese were persuaded to return from their mountain havens to what was left of their towns and villages.

UNTAET's task went well beyond the restoration of security. It was to guide East Timor from the ashes of the Indonesian military's scorched-earth policy into nationhood.

The magnitude of the task was not at first fully appreciated. Not only were East Timor's towns and villages in ruins - the hasty departure of thousands of Indonesians, who virtually ran the local government, the education system, the justice system and the province's commercial life, left the country devoid of an infrastructure. A hastily assembled group of officials and experts from more than 50 countries had to start at ground zero.

Has UNTAET passed the test? Despite some worrying shortcomings I believe it has. At last, despite sluggish beginnings, the new nation of East Timor is beginning to take shape. The massive task of material reconstruction has begun and an ambitious program of political and administrative reform, which will in effect mean giving the Timorese their L plates, is about to be launched.

The reconstruction process, however, has a long way to go. Dili's central business area is still in ruins, its redevelopment being hampered by, among other things, ownership disputes. Indonesians are starting to reassert their ownership claims (some of them dubious), which ultimately need to be considered against reparation claims, the legal basis of which will be affected by the outcome of legal processes against the generals charged with responsibility for last year's systematic destruction.

While major reconstruction projects are still few, the general housing situation has greatly improved, especially in Dili where most dwellings have at least been temporarily repaired. Most power stations and other utilities are again in operation.

The position of the East Timorese has also substantially improved, particularly regarding food supply and health. If anything, the medical situation is now being more comprehensively monitored than ever, thanks to the work of non-government humanitarian missions and UN agencies.

The agriculture sector is recovering quickly and, with improved techniques, production should reach record levels in the next year or so. A longer than usual wet season has already resulted in better than expected harvests.

More than 170,000 children are back in primary schools, but there are still problems with education. The sudden departure of Indonesian teachers has left the system with a drastic shortage of school staff. The secondary school system, staffed previously mostly by Indonesian teachers, has been particularly badly affected. Education problems have been further complicated by the need to change the syllabus, not to mention the proposed reintroduction of Portuguese as the national language. The University of East Timor, which was badly trashed, will not reopen until later this year, an unfortunate delay for a much-needed institution.

The down side is UNTAET's failure to reduce the massive level of unemployment in urban areas, which has apparently resulted in social unrest, increased petty crime and occasional demonstrations outside UN offices. The contrast between the position of the East Timorese and the incomes and lifestyles of UN employees and other foreigners is inevitably a source of discontent and criticism. But, so far, public discontent has been contained, partly because high levels of unemployment persisted under Indonesian rule and this time, as "Xanana" Gusmao has assured his people, their disadvantaged status is only temporary.

The security situation in East Timor is surprisingly calm, although a series of troubling militia attacks in recent weeks, the last one 30kilometres inside the border, is causing some anxiety. But UNTAET military commanders seem confident the Indonesian military is now behaving more responsibly and that the militia can no longer count on its support.

More than 170,000 refugees have returned but, largely because of continuing militia obstruction, more than 120,000 East Timorese remain in poorly serviced refugee camps over the border in Indonesian West Timor.

UNTAET is proposing a new political structure, including a number of ministries in which the top positions will be occupied by East Timorese - although, to satisfy the terms of the UN Security Council resolution, they will still be responsible to the UN administrator.

An even more significant move is the proposed expansion of the National Consultative Council into a form of legislature. Its membership is to increase from 15 to 33, the new members representing districts, women, youth and the church. This proposed reform has done much to improve relations between UNTAET and the East Timorese leaders.

A new confidence is in the air.

James Dunn is a former Australian consul to East Timor and author of Timor: A People Betrayed. E-mail:

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