Subject: FEER: Ghosts Of The Past Still Haunt East Timor 

Far Eastern Economic Review Issue cover-dated August 31, 2000


Ghosts in Paradise

One year after a vote for independence and its bloody aftermath, a budding nation hopes to bury its conflicts and build on its natural resources


IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND one thing about the patient called East Timor. Sure it's in intensive care, still gasping for life and hooked up to an intravenous drip of United Nations assistance and transfusions of foreign aid. But for all the destruction, the political uncertainties, the woeful shortage of trained people and the sheer magnitude of its many ailments, it doesn't have to be another Third World invalid.

Boasting oil and gas and world-famous arabica coffee, potentially self-sufficient in rice and maize, a beckoning playground for eco-tourists and scuba divers, East Timor has plenty going for it, even its name-recognition. "It could be a paradise," muses Joao Carrascalao, cabinet member in charge of infrastructure for the United Nations-administered transitional government. "It's a small country, with a small population and a lot of good friends around the world."

If that promise is to be fulfilled, East Timorese leaders will have to exorcize the ghosts that allowed it to go from downtrodden Portuguese colony to brutalized Indonesian vassal. Some of those ghosts lurk across the border in West Timor in the form of the Jakarta-backed militiamen who laid waste to East Timor last September and could remain a serious security threat for years to come. Guerrilla activity has heated up in recent weeks with the deaths of two peacekeepers in separate clashes with well-armed militiamen. The United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor, or Untaet, is convinced the Indonesian military can stop cross-border raids if it wants to. The authority is growing tired of unfulfilled government promises to close the West Timor refugee camps that are home to about 120,000 East Timorese and are a breeding ground for the militias.

Other ghosts mingle among the East Timorese themselves. Political adversaries must settle decades-old differences before East Timor can be nursed to full nationhood, as the UN hopes to achieve by the end of next year.

The National Council of Timorese Resistance, or CNRT, an umbrella group including two long-time adversaries--Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union--has created at least the impression of unity in this half-island nation. But tribalism and the absence of democratic tradition make the task ahead that much more difficult. It was fighting between the two groups after the Portuguese abruptly abandoned the colony in 1975 that left the door open for Indonesian invasion and annexation a year later.

Both parties are keenly aware it could happen all over again unless charismatic former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's apparent president-in-waiting, and Nobel peace laureate Bishop Carlos Ximines Belo can keep tensions in check. "The CNRT is a fiction of an organization held together by the thinnest of threads and Xanana's personality," says a former UN official who has spent years watching East Timor. "The Dili leadership is at each other's throats."

Gusmao relinquished command of Fretilin's armed resistance force, Falintil, on August 20. Wisely discarding his fatigues for sandals and jeans, Gusmao, 53, is clearly trying to model himself on Nelson Mandela: a saintly, statesman-like leader who put his bitterness aside. "If you really want peace, if you really want stability, you have to put everything behind you," Gusmao told the REVIEW. "If not you will live under a trauma, the ghosts of the past. You can't see the future."

Gusmao is determined to ensure that if East Timor's internal differences are revisited, they will be dealt with peacefully, through politics. While both groups call themselves social democrats, Fretilin's dominance is obvious. Falintil remains largely intact--the apparent core of a planned 3,000 to 5,000-man East Timor defence force. That makes some Timorese Democratic Union supporters nervous, but in stepping down as Falintil chief Gusmao is making his political neutrality clear. "Security is secondary to the resolution of East Timor's political problems," says one senior Western military officer. "Solving that means the militia problem will go away."

Although few people question Gusmao's legitimacy, there are those who question just how democratic he really is, saying they have seen nothing yet to indicate a willingness on the part of the CNRT to encourage genuinely free and open debate. But it's only in the past month that the UN authority has brought the East Timorese fully into the political process in the governing structure of the transitional government.

The first CNRT congress, which opened on August 21, is likely to provide some signposts to East Timor's political future. But critical decisions about a new constitution, the country's political structure and even its official name will not be decided until after elections next August for a 50 or 60-strong constituent assembly. CNRT Vice-President Jose Ramos Horta says the president should hold executive power. Gusmao himself appears to favour a system in which the president would share executive powers with other elected officials.

If there's a gulf at the leadership level, a debate over whether to adopt Portuguese or English as an official second language reveals generational differences as well--an important issue when political and economic power rests with only 20 to 30 elite Timorese families. After Tetum, the native tongue, CNRT leaders favour Portuguese, which they say is "part of their culture," though only 8% of the 800,000 Timorese understand it. Younger Timorese, almost all of whom speak Indonesian but not Portuguese, suspect the CNRT is trying to prevent them from participating in the new government.


In any case, there is general agreement that for the first five years after it is formed, East Timor's new government will have to depend heavily on expert UN or Western bilateral assistance, particularly at senior levels. The sheer lack of qualified people is particularly evident in health and education. East Timor has only 15 qualified doctors. There are plenty of primary school teachers, but few secondary teachers. None of the 18 district court judges recruited so far has a full law degree.

It's not all bad news, however. Australian finance expert Michael Carnahan, an UN authority consultant, says he has been impressed with the quality of candidates who have applied for positions in the treasury, taxation and budget departments, all of whom hold Indonesian degrees.

UN officials say the biggest challenge in building a new bureaucracy is ensuring that corrupt practices from the old Indonesian regime aren't carried on. "We have warned them that cases of corruption will be dealt with harshly," says Mozambican judge Gita Honwana-Welch, head of judicial affairs for the transitional administration. "If we fail there, then we would have failed in other areas as well."

Restoring East Timor's infrastructure is also key to getting the country back on its feet. The highways running east and west out of Dili are still in relatively good condition. But those across the central mountain chain have deteriorated badly. The World Bank, the trustee for the overall aid effort, is concentrating on improving the highway between Baucau and the rice-growing Viqueque district to ensure at least one serviceable north-south route.

It is also shoring up the winding road to the main coffee-growing area of Ermera, in the forested hills southwest of Dili. Mari Alkatiri, who has returned from exile to handle economic affairs, believes East Timor can double arabica production in three years. He is also confident that with better farming of fertile valleys the Indonesians kept fallow for security reasons, East Timor will have little trouble achieving self-sufficiency in rice.

The best chance for prosperity lies under the Timor Sea: Oil and gas reserves there could provide revenue and the collateral to underwrite international loans (See article on page 18). But for now, Timorese leaders feel, it is important to keep expectations realistic. After what East Timor has gone through, that may be the wisest course yet.

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