Subject: Chinese businessmen in East Timor under threat

South China Morning Post Saturday, August 5, 2000


Chinese businessmen under threat

JOANNA JOLLY in Dili Ethnic-Chinese businessmen trying to re-establish East Timor's economy have become a target for hostility and extortion by the local community.

The Chinese are re-starting the profitable wholesale, retail and supply operations they ran before last year's independence vote, but face strong opposition from indigenous East Timorese.

They feel it is too early for the Indonesian Chinese to return because of their past relationship with the former Jakarta regime.

"All Indonesian businessmen in Dili were helping the soldiers kill us, giving them food and money. They are coming back too soon and people hate this," said East Timorese businessmen Akui Leong who is associated with the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), East Timor's umbrella political organisation.

Chinese businessmen came to East Timor after the Portuguese colonial rulers granted them exclusive licences to run import and wholesale businesses. This practice continued under the Indonesian regime when many Chinese businesses allied themselves to Jakarta's military machine for protection.

As the process of reconstruction slowly changes the face of Dili, systematically destroyed in September by the retreating Indonesian army, ethnic-Chinese shops selling everything from motorbikes to food processors are flourishing again.

But the owners report that gangs of youths associated with Timorese political groups regularly visit their premises to intimidate them and demand money.

"We have to give them money, or they will give us problems. They come here and drink beer and don't pay. Some threaten us," said Sebastian, an East Timorese Chinese businessman who has returned to Dili to reopen his family shop. Sebastian said he was not allowed to speak Indonesian with his Indonesian Chinese employees.

"It is very dangerous for them to stay, it is even dangerous for them to be seen on the road," he said, citing intense competition for jobs amongst East Timorese as inflaming the hostility.

Resentment against the Indonesian Chinese business community reached a peak on April 30 when two Indonesian Chinese were ordered to leave the country by CNRT President Xanana Gusmao, after they were blamed for inciting a riot.

CNRT leaders later told the businessmen they could return, but they continue to face difficulties operating in Dili. Indonesian Chinese are accused of undercutting local businesses by illegally importing goods from Surabaya and from Indonesian West Timor. Duty must be paid on goods coming across the land border from West Timor, but there are reports of Indonesian businessmen bribing Indonesian soldiers to avoid this.

"Indonesian businessmen don't give us a chance to set up our own businesses. They have better supplies, they can sell cheaper and we can't do anything," said Akui Leong.

Mr Leong is ethnic Chinese but is regarded as pure Timorese by the community because of his support for the underground resistance movement against the Indonesians.

Analysts worry that Chinese businessmen like Mr Leong could exploit the hostility against the Indonesian Chinese to secure the market for themselves.

"The locals can distinguish between those ethnic Chinese who have been here for a long time and the Indonesian Chinese," said one Western analyst.

"The Surabaya Chinese are undercutting the prices of the East Timorese Chinese who do not want them here. It may seem like an ethnic problem, but it is actually all to do with economics."

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