Subject: SCMP: Cafe Culture Only for East Timor's New Elite

South China Morning Post Monday, August 14, 2000


Cafe culture only for East Timor's new elite

Making a buck: an East Timorese money changer displays local and foreign currency at Marcado Lama market in Dili. Agence France-Presse photo


With its chrome chairs and international menu, the City Cafe could be in any modern capital around the world.

But it is in the burnt-out city of Dili, two doors up from the site of a brutal massacre and just strolling distance from the former headquarters of one of East Timor's fiercest militias.

On this street, cafes and restaurants are flourishing in what was once forbidden militia-ruled territory during the final months of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

One year after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, leading to the systematic destruction of the territory by pro-Indonesian militias and the Indonesian military, the City Cafe is a symbol of successful private enterprise in the world's newest country.

Charging an average A$15 (about HK$68) for a main meal and A$30 for a bottle of wine, the cafe caters for the hundreds of United Nations staff and Western workers now living in Dili.

But sitting outside at the designer tables, the only East Timorese you are likely to see are those from the privileged political and economic elite.

Like many new businesses in East Timor that cater for the Western market, the City Cafe is owned and run by members of the East Timorese diaspora who have returned to rebuild their lives, now that the Indonesians have left. Using finance from countries such as Australia and Hong Kong, often in conjunction with foreign business partners, they are able to import goods to sell them at a price far above the earnings of the average East Timorese. "We work without salaries and we eat in our homes. We cannot afford these places," says student Fransisco Cancio, who speaks of frustration among East Timorese youths who are desperate for training and jobs.

Under the governance of the UN transitional administration, East Timor has become a country of four languages and three currencies. Despite the adoption of the US dollar as the official currency, locals continue to use the cheaper Indonesian rupiah to buy goods in markets selling locally produced vegetables and goods brought in from Indonesia.

This world of open-air stalls and small street-side cafes stands in stark contrast to the air-conditioned supermarkets and chic restaurants that cater for UN staff, international aid workers and businessmen, where the prices are marked in US or Australian dollars. The disparity between these two economies has led to criticism from East Timorese, who worry that they cannot afford to support themselves because of the inflated prices.

"If we do have jobs, we only earn a little. But here prices are in Australian or US dollars and everything is very expensive. People are not angry with the UN, they are just angry because there are people without money and jobs who do not have enough money for their families," says Ina Bradbridge, an East Timorese charity worker who runs an orphanage for victims of last year's violence.

In particular, this criticism is directed against the UN transitional administration. Friction is caused by the disparity between the average Timorese wage of around US$5 (HK$39) a day, and high salaries for UN staff, which include a daily living allowance of just over US$100.

"It is so different from the situation for the Timorese. I have been working since January and I have not yet received any salary," says Mari Barreto, a security worker at the headquarters of the East Timorese umbrella political organisation, the National Council for Timorese Resistance.

As the slow process of reconstruction begins in East Timor, foreign workers are beginning to move away from expensive foreign-run hotels and into the community, helping to rebuild houses rented from locals. But there is still a sense among the population that the foreign community is living an elite life removed from the people.

In her recent visit to East Timor, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, added her own voice to the debate criticising the international presence for its distance from the population. "There is not that empathy of really understanding how much the people of East Timor suffered."

But UN workers say this criticism is unfair, pointing out that in order to attract top professionals from around the world to East Timor, the UN has to pay professional salaries, and that in many cases, there is no alternative to living and eating in expensive foreign-run businesses.

"There are many people in this mission who are devoted to East Timor and who work very hard and it would be unfair to say they are just here to make a profit," says one UN worker recruited from Darwin.

UN staff also point out that many East Timorese are hired and trained by the transitional administration for professional work, such as judges, teachers and architects, and the perception that all East Timorese are reduced to working in menial service jobs for little money is not true.

The owners of the City Cafe say they plan to be in East Timor for a long time, not just for the period of the UN administration, which is due to hand over to an East Timorese-run government next year. However, they do wonder how they will survive when the money brought in by workers from the UN and other international agencies leaves East Timor. By then, they say they hope to be catering for a broader cross-section of the community.

Joanna Jolly is a Dili-based journalist.

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