Subject: Asia Times: East Timor one year on

Asia Times May 20, 2003

East Timor one year on By Jill Jolliffe

DILI - On May 20 last year the Democratic Republic of East Timor became the first new nation of the second millennium. In the presence of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, then US president Bill Clinton and various heads of state, the crowd roared as President Xanana Gusmao and Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri raised their hands in friendship, signifying that the bitter memory of Jakarta's 24-year military occupation was behind them.

The glamour faded quickly. The media departed, foreign personnel left in droves, and East Timor faced the hard task of surviving alone. At its head as president stood Gusmao, a former guerrilla commander, while lawyer Mari Alkatiri was prime minister. His nationalist Fretilin party had won 58 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2001.

The territory was administered before independence by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), after peacekeeping troops secured the territory from marauding Indonesian-backed militiamen in 1999. Post-independence, the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), has a mainly advisory role, although it retains control over police and defense forces.

The past 12 months have seemed the longest in the life of any new nation. East Timor came to independence as one of the poorest countries in Asia. According to the National Planning Commission, two out of five people did not have sufficient means to cover their basic needs, three out of every five adults were illiterate, and around 8-9 percent of children died before the age of one.

Mariano dos Anjos grimaces with pain as he adjusts the bamboo pole laden with fruit that bears down on his shoulders. He is one of a band of child coolies in the streets of Dili. Mariano is 10 years old, but his frame is that of a seven or eight-year-old. He has a worn, adult face. He carries 20 strings of five tangerines, weighing about 10 kilograms in all, which he sells to foreigners.

The child laborers are the belated casualties of East Timor's traumatic 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 "jiggy-jiggy"), 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 the United Nations' Children Fund estimates that there are about 120 street kids between seven and 18 years working and sleeping on the streets of the capital, and another 200-300 who work but return home to sleep. "It can't compare with Calcutta or Bombay," she said, "but it's a significant number for a small city like Dili."

Poverty is most felt in the countryside, and the year was marked by discontent from the rural unemployed, especially ex-guerrillas, who expected independence to deliver instant rewards. There has been an upsurge of animist cults, such as The Sacred Family in Baucau, and Colimau 2000 near the West Timor border. Mixing Christian liturgies with voodoo-like invocations, they conduct animal sacrifices and preach that guerrilla heroes killed during the war with Indonesia will emerge from the jungle. 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 thronged figures.

But in the past year it was the urban discontent expressed in violent rioting in Dili on December 4 that most shocked, sending some foreign investors scurrying. Its true authors are unknown - a promised government report has not materialized. It was possibly an aborted coup against the Alkatiri government, whose critics see it as dogmatic and undemocratic and oppose its decision to make Portuguese an official language.

Many wondered then whether the new nation was going to get through its first year. Would it lapse into the severe infighting and violence that had marked its sad and traumatic history since Portugal announced it would decolonize in April 1974, or was this a mere blip on the radar screen?

It did survive because the East Timorese are a pragmatic people with a strong cultural identity, factors that overruled the temptation to extremism and intolerance. They were deeply shocked at the depth and extent of the violence. Shops were burnt down, along with the prime minister's residence, and the parliament building and a mosque were attacked in a day in which the mob ran out of control in the streets. UN peacekeepers and police failed to intervene, leading to growing criticism of UNMISET.

In the following period, politicians moderated their rhetoric and went out of their way to work together. "It was a wake-up call," one diplomat commented, "East Timor was in danger of becoming a one-party state."

In January new alarm bells rang as militia groups from West Timor raided border villages, after almost two years of peace at the frontier. Seven people were killed at Atsabe, on the central border, and in February there was a further attack, at Atabae in the north. A bus was fired on, killing two. UN peacekeepers tracking the militia unit clashed with it days later, killing one and capturing four.

Under a UN Security Council resolution, prosecutors from the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) have the task of bringing to justice those responsible for the murders, arson attacks and deportations which accompanied the 1999 referendum and the Indonesian army's subsequent scorched earth withdrawal.

Since beginning work the SCU has indicted 247 people accused of crimes against humanity. Of these, 169 (over 65 percent) are at large in Indonesia, and despite Megawati's newfound friendship with the East Timorese, her government has consistently refused to hand them over. They include former defense chief General Wiranto, who was indicted on February 24.

The failure of justice to be seen to be done means that the trauma many East Timorese suffered in 1999 remains raw, affecting the credibility of the local justice system. The work of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation has alleviated the situation, but is seen as insufficient. Modelled on South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, it has held village hearings nationwide during the past year to reconcile those who fought on different sides during the conflict with Indonesia. Its work is applauded, but the cry of "justice before reconciliation" - meaning Indonesian officers who ordered the violence should be tried - remains in force among the common people.

The year was not all doom and gloom, however. In April, Australia and East Timor signed a $25 billion deal to jointly exploit offshore hydrocarbon resources. The first substantial income, which will underwrite future budgets, should register around 2006.

Elizabeth Huybens of the World Bank sees two lean years ahead for East Timor. "The winding down of the UNTAET mission and the slowing down of reconstruction means growth has declined sharply," she stated.

Yet she sees the government as having taken "major strides" towards delivering services to isolated areas, and lists recent achievements: soaring child vaccination rates, increased medical attendance at births (child and maternal mortality rates being a major problem), and more children attending school nationwide than ever attended under the Indonesian occupation.

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

After years of war and terror, the East Timorese no longer believe in miracles. They're just crossing their fingers that next year will be better. 

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