Subject: STL: UN Reconstruction in East Timor


Opiniaun, Suara Timor Lorosa'e 3 June 2003. (English)

By Mericio J. Dos Reis Researcher at La'o Hamutuk Institute, Timor-Leste & Volunteer at Pacific Asia Study Center (PASCENTER). Email:


On 30 August 1999 the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) organized a referendum that finally allowed the East Timorese people to choose their fate, after a long and difficult independence struggle. Indonesia responded with widespread violence, aimed particularly at East Timorese pro-independence activists, to the point that the international community felt forced to do something to end the violence. But in the three weeks before the International Force in East Timor (InterFET) came to East Timor, Indonesian military and their militias carried out a carefully planned scorched-earth campaign, destroying the country's infrastructure, displacing two-thirds of the population and killing thousands.

Since the end of World War II, the UN has been involved in the reconstruction of several post-conflict nations. In East Timor, a United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established with a multiple mandate: to ensure peace and stability; reestablish public services such as health care, education and physical infrastructure; prepare general elections; and establish a government and necessary public institutions for an independent government. For the first time, the UN was made ruler of a country. A Brazilian UN bureaucrat, Sergio Viera de Mello, was appointed to have absolute power over all branches of the transitional UN government, in effect making him the dictator of the country. East Timorese leadership was given a token consultative role, but only after almost two years of the UN administration, after the first elections were held, were they given any power to make decisions. But even at this period all their decisions were subject to de Mello. Some of UNTAET's objectives were accomplished successfully, but others were proven to be no more than empty promises proclaimed in propaganda from the international community. One success was in establishing and maintaining peace. InterFET which was replaced by a UN Peace Keeping Force (PKF) has minimized the threat posed by the Indonesian military (TNI) and their militia. Also, UNTAET did an adequate job in running peaceful elections for a Constituent Assembly and President. But several other objectives were not given adequate attention and consideration.

Weak Public Services:


Based on suggestions from international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, who try to minimize East Timor's government expenditures, the budget for healthcare was significantly decreased from the amount under Indonesian times. Although we do not have concrete statistical data, it is obvious to any observer how under resourced the hospitals in the country are, lacking personnel (especially doctors) and basic equipment and supplies, even in the largest and most advanced enter for healthcare in the nation, the National Hospital in Dili. Until the beginning of 2003, there was a severe lack of medicine across the nation. The rural population did not have access to medical services, resulting in many turning to traditional medicine, which often has dubious results. In mid-February, I visited the Blood Test Unit at the National Hospital in Dili, where only one young Indonesian doctor, on a $2000/month contract (an East Timorese doctor makes only $200/month), hand to handle all the patients. This young doctor, lacking much experience, was unable to handle the large amount of patients, and had trouble giving proper diagnosis to everyone. In many cases, patients would have to return to the hospital because they were only given medicines to give them temporary relief (analgesics) or the wrong medicine altogether. Some patients in emergency medical situations were simply sent home with prescriptions and left to obtain the medicine themselves. Another problem faced at the National Hospital is a lack of blood for transfusions, so that the hospital often asks the family of the patient to find blood donors themselves. And there are only 2 surgeons operating, so patients have to wait their turn for hours while nobody is available to help them. Such cases result in many deaths at the National Hospital in Dili. And how is healthcare in rural areas? Severe cases need to be sent to the National Hospital to receive treatment. Until this year, there have not been significant changes in the development of the system and human resources for healthcare across East Timor, and healthcare facilities, including the hospitals, are still very limited.


In the field of education, UNTAET repaired many school buildings, but there is still a lack of resources. Books have not been distributed well and a national educational curriculum does not exist. The language of instruction creates problems, as books are not available and instead of using the official languages of Tetum and Portuguese, teachers continue to use 'Bahasa Campur' (a mix of Indonesian and Tetum), or Indonesian. The biggest problem is the lack of experienced teachers, because during the Indonesian occupation almost all the teachers were Indonesians, and few East Timorese were given the opportunity to be teachers. As a result, few East Timorese were interested in studying to become teachers. Since the Indonesians left, there has been a vacuum of teachers that will take years to fill. Many private universities have been established without adequate resources, lacking libraries, having instructors that have not completed basic tertiary education, operating out of temporary buildings, and without set standards for tertiary education. These problems are all burdens left by UNTAET, which the new independent government of East Timor now has to deal with.

Weak Beginnings for Judicial Fundamentals

October 1999 left many challenges for the reconstruction of the judicial system: infrastructure and judicial institutions were destroyed, law books burned, and almost all judicial personnel left East Timor. Only around 60 East Timorese lawyers remained in East Timor, but none of them had adequate experience as a judge or public prosecutor.

In terms of providing security and peace UNTAET was successful, but UNTAET didn't prioritize judicial administration. This resulted in weak legal guarantees to guard the security and peace. In its early months, UNTAET only assigned two staff to take care of all judicial institutions and to create a new judicial system with relevant laws, despite the many problems that needed to be resolved and the lack of professional staff. UNTAET only treated judicial matters as an emergency task, and did not make serious efforts to establish a credible legal and judicial system.

UNTAET often appointed legal experts with international status but little practical experience and skills to temporarily deal with cases, but did not develop a sustainable legal system together with East Timorese legal experts. This contradicted UN Resolution 1272 that established UNTAET, and required its staff to cooperate and consult with East Timorese society and to develop the human resources of the country. There were some international staff who tried to transfer their knowledge, but without guidelines on how to do it, it was often done in a paternalistic and condescending manner. Such a task should have been done at the levels of equals, with international and East Timorese staff sharing experiences together.

Another task that UNTAET failed to accomplish was handling the thousands of cases of crimes against humanity that occurred during the last 25 years, with the majority of those responsible left unaccountable in Indonesian territory. Some of the low-level East Timorese militia members have been held accountable, but the majority of suspects have yet to be tried. (see La'o Hamutuk Bulletin Vol. 3, No. 4 "Should be done: Justice still Delayed", Those most responsible for the atrocities, policy makers and high military officials in Indonesia, are now enjoying virtual impunity. Justice won't be become realized by East Timor on its own, and the judicial process and political will from the government of East Timor need support from the international community. Advances have been achieved in reconciliation, with the establishment of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reception Commission, but we hope that the high visibility of this commission will not obscure the needs for actual justice as well.

Capacity of the International Staff

UNTAET staff often acted as unquestionable experts. This attitude made them rarely try to listen to the voice of the local population and to learn about their culture, political situation, customs and general socio-economic context which would be useful information for the staff to carry out their tasks more effectively. In order to promote will and understanding among international staff that it is important for the local people to have a sense of belonging of the reconstruction process, capacity building and planning units for all the international staff on the UN mission were necessary, but not provided. Such units could organize trainings about practical methods, how to access local knowledge and resources, and how to make participatory work plans with East Timorese partners. Training would include local people, who could explain their culture, history and their social-economic context. The local people should include members of social institutions, and not only those from the elite.

Some UNTAET problems often emerged from their international staff, who would insist on doing everything by themselves rather than give the opportunity to East Timorese to try their best. Later, this problem was a main cause in why the local people did not feel that the reconstruction process belonged to them. For the local population, this was a repeat of the way programs were carried out by the Indonesian government during the occupation. The local people always felt that they were only objects of the reconstruction process rather than actors determining reconstruction plans.

Conclusion and Suggestions

In the future, East Timor will continue to need technical and financial support from international society to fund its education and health sectors, and to rebuild its social, legal and economic infrastructure. We hope that lessons will be learned from the 3 years of UNTAET, and will help the RDTL government and international institutions in running programs that are more efficient, effective and comprehensive, and follow the principal that local society must be the ones who determine what programs are needed and how to conduct the reconstruction process.

East Timorese civil society continues to demand the international community live up to its responsibility to enable justice for East Timor. Two important things that should be done include strengthening the judicial system through capacity building of local actors and build a national legal system. In the meantime, the international community and the East Timorese people need to work together to establish an international tribunal to deal with the war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during the Indonesian invasion. WITHOUT JUSTICE, THERE WILL BE NO PEACE!


Charles Scheiner La'o Hamutuk (The East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis)

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