Subject: AGE: A Year To Remember

The Age Company May 20, 2003 Tuesday

A Year To Remember

Jill Jolliffe

Hard times have taken the shine off the independence of a people still searching for identity and justice, writes Jill Jolliffe in Dili.

It has been a long year for East Timor. From the glitter of independence eve on May 19, 2002, when Xanana Gusmao and Megawati Sukarnoputri raised their arms together in celebration, through the Dili riots, to the militia attacks and economic austerity of 2003, it has been a bumpy ride.

When Dili exploded in rioting on December 4 last year, many wondered whether the new nation was going to get through its first year at all.

Would it lapse into the violence that had characterised the country since Portugal announced its withdrawal in April 1974? Fortunately, because of the pragmatism and strong, cultural identity of its people, the historic pattern did not prevail. But it has a long way to go before its future is guaranteed.

On independence eve, former guerrilla commander Xanana Gusmao was sworn in as President of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, taking power from Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had headed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) since late 1999.

Vieira de Mello had arrived in Dili soon after departing Indonesian troops had marched through the smoking capital in a silent procession, heads bowed.

For the next two years, UNTAET built an administration and supervised parliamentary and presidential elections. The nationalist party, Fretilin, won a 58 per cent majority in August 2001 and its leader Mari Alkatiri became the country's first prime minister.

The Brazilian diplomat flew out of East Timor the day after independence, making way for the UN's successor mission.

The smaller United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) was led by Indian diplomat Kamalesh Sharma. Its brief was to advise - not run - the newly independent country. Its unwritten mandate was to wean the Timorese from dependence on international aid.

However, the UN retained control over police and defence, and extended the life of its Serious Crimes Unit (SCU).

The latter had been set up under a Security Council resolution to prosecute those guilty of killings, arson attacks and the deportation of about a quarter of a million people during the 1999 referendum.

East Timor came to independence as one of the poorest Asian nations. Two out of five people did not have sufficient means to meet their basic needs; three out of five adults were illiterate; and between 8 and 9 per cent of children died before they were one year old.

Moreover, although the UN presence had helped East Timor to emerge from war and poverty, the influx of thousands of high-spending internationals created tensions.

Having adopted the US dollar as currency in 2000, the country's cost of living is far higher than its neighbours, yet the average East Timorese earns about $A2 a day.

Mariano dos Anjos grimaces with pain as he adjusts the bamboo pole laden with fruit, which bears down on his shoulders. He is one of the child coolies in the streets of Dili.

Mariano is 10 years old, but looks seven or eight, and has a worn, adult face. He carries 20 strings of five tangerines, weighing about 10 kilos in all, which he sells to foreigners. It is tempting to buy generously to lighten his load; but it would be in vain because, as soon as he sells out, he is re-loaded by his backstreet supplier.

succession to independence. Mariano sells an uncomplicated product, although the weight he carries endangers his bone development.

Other boys sell movies on CD-Rom, which UN peacekeepers devour in bulk (including pornographic productions, known as "jiggyjiggy"), and sometimes the children themselves are the product.

Like street kids everywhere, they are vulnerable to the human predators whose presence follows wars as surely as night follows day.

Johanna Eriksson Takyo of UNICEF estimates there are about 120 street kids aged between seven and 18 years working and sleeping on the streets of the capital, and up to 300 who work on the street, but return home to sleep.

"It can't compare with Calcutta or Bombay," she says, "but it's a significant number for a small city like Dili (population estimated at about 50,000)." She points out that it's hard to stop street kids working when they may be their family's only breadwinner. A preferred interim strategy is to ensure they go to school for part of the day, and work shorter and safer hours.

Poverty is most felt in the countryside, and the postindependence year was marked by discontent from the rural unemployed, especially former guerrillas.

This was expressed through the activity of animist cults such as the Sacred Family in Baucau, and Colimau 2000 near the West Timor border. In the village of Fohoream, one sect toured a Timorese couple as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Illiterate villagers paid $2 for the privilege of kissing the hands of the throned figures.

But it was the urban malaise expressed in the December riots that most shocked the world and sent some foreign investors scurrying. It is still not known who was behind the riots - an expected government report has not materialised.

Some see the riots as an aborted attempt to overthrow the Alkatiri Government, which has been criticised as dogmatic and undemocratic. Many opposed its decision to make Portuguese an official language.

"The riots were a wake-up call," one diplomat says. "East Timor was in danger of becoming a one-party state." The year was not all doom and gloom, however. In April this year, Australia and East Timor finally ratified the Timor Sea Treaty, which is expected to provide revenue of $A50 billion for Timor over 30 years, with the first substantial income beginning in 2006.

Elizabeth Huybens of the World Bank says there are probably two more lean years ahead for East Timor.

"The winding down of the UNTAET mission and the slowing down of reconstruction mean growth has declined sharply, from 15 and 18 per cent in 2000 and 2001 respectively, to 3 per cent in the current year," she says.

She recommends that planners seek niche markets for local products, and build a business-friendly atmosphere in the country.

She says the Government has taken "major strides" towards delivering services to isolated areas: vaccination rates have soared; medical attendance at births has increased (child and maternal mortality rates are a major problem); and more children now attend school nation-wide than under the Indonesian occupation.

Huybens thinks that, despite the problems Timor faces in developing a tourist industry - such as bad roads and the global downturn in travelling - it is still a good long-term prospect.

She cites the great popularity of diving, and the fact that the tiny Pacific island of Palau has built a diving tourist industry worth $US50 million ($A78 million) a year.

"I don't want to underestimate the challenges, but I think the East Timorese are focused and can make things work, so long as nobody expects miracles," she says.

For many people, the barometer of the healing process is the progress that has been made in restoring justice to the territory and asserting humanrights standards. Decades of military occupation left a whole generation that had never experienced the rule of law. Its tendency was to answer violence with violence.

If the new republic was to function, three things were needed: a credible criminal justice system, reconciliation between East Timorese who had fought on opposite sides, and the trials of those responsible for crimes against humanity - in particular the massacres of 1999 involving the Indonesian army and its militia proxies.

On the first score, it has failed. Courts are understaffed and chaotic, with prisoners jailed on remand long beyond the legal limit. The nongovernmental Judicial System Monitoring Program stated recently: "Judges and lawyers in Dili District Court are failing to follow East Timor's law - undermining the rights and interests of all people using the court system." The Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission conducted community hearings across the country throughout the last year.

Villagers are satisfied with its work, but see it as insufficient.

The catchcry of "justice before reconciliation" - meaning perpetrators of the 1999 atrocities must be tried - remains in force.

Dissatisfaction over bids to bring Indonesian perpetrators to trial reached a head earlier this year after the SCU issued an indictment for General Wiranto, Indonesia's former defence chief, on charges of crimes against humanity for murder, deportation and persecution.

They were filed in a Dili court, standard practice since UNTAET times. Since the SCU began work in 1999, it has issued 169 arrest warrants for alleged perpetrators at large in Indonesia, but the Megawati Government has consistently refused to meet its UN obligation to hand them over.

In Jakarta, Wiranto said the SCU was "not a representative of the UN" and had no authority outside East Timor, a view echoed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda.

Human-rights advocates in Dili were shocked when UNMISET head Kamalesh Sharma appeared to back this view. His office stated that "while indictments are prepared by international staff, the United Nations does not have any legal authority to issue indictments".

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has since criticised Sharma and dissociated himself from statements by President Xanana and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, made during separate visits to Jakarta, that East Timor does not intend to press charges in the interests of good relations with Indonesia.

He told The Age: "Crimes against humanity must be judged and the international community has primary responsibility. I don't know what the UN's game is, but it should assume responsibility." The debate will continue in the new East Timor as it enters its second year of independence, economically fragile, searching for identity and craving justice.

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