Subject: SMH/E Timor/Comment: Great expectations as rebuilding begins

Sydney Morning Herald Friday, December 24, 1999

Great expectations as rebuilding begins


It is hard to imagine the citizens of Dili celebrating Christmas amid the devastation of their city. Although the capital was already ablaze when I was evacuated last September, the extent of its destruction still shocked me earlier this month.

But today it is a safe and relaxed place, thanks to Interfet. In this atmosphere the Timorese are now turning their minds to the task of building a new nation, Timor Lorosae.

This time I again stayed with Timorese friends who last September were forced at gunpoint to go to Kupang, from where they had not long returned. It was an ordeal, but they now insist it was worth it, for at last the Timorese are free.

Their aspirations have been boosted by the international response, especially in terms of aid. And now that the World Bank has come up with its $750 million reconstruction package, a mood of optimism is in the air. For the Timorese the year ahead is truly one of great expectations.

The way ahead will not, however, be easy, and their patience will sorely be tested. This is especially true of Dili, where almost 100,000 people have returned to face the rigours of the wet season in primitive conditions.

While aid agencies have done a lot to provide food and medical services, when it comes to housing reconstruction, the Timorese have so far been treated to little more than rhetoric. The telephone system is still being repaired and there is no post office. Citizens are thereby deprived of the social side of Christmas - the reunion of friends and relatives.

There is not even a hardware store whose wares are so desperately needed for simple repairs.

The vacuum in government is also causing a certain restlessness, especially among the younger generation. The euphoria accompanying the liberation has passed, but the new order has yet to take shape.

The Transitional Authority (UNTAET), under its energetic leader, Dr Sergio Vieira de Mello, has taken over from Unamet, but most of his staff will not be in place until the end of January.

As for the physical reconstruction of Dili, that will not begin in earnest until well into next year. Apparently the first large consignment of building materials will not arrive before March.

The best-known leaders, Mr Xanana Gusmao and Mr Jose Ramos Horta, have been active since their recent return, but understandably are not yet in a position to ease the pain suffered by most of their people.

With electricity services now restored to most of Dili's population, and with many houses crudely patched up, the pulse of life in the capital has quickened. In this gap between the appearance of UNTAET and the visible implementation of its policies, impatience for material progress, especially among the younger, educated Timorese, is increasingly noticeable.

The situation is not helped by young people enduring enforced idleness in a city where most social institutions have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Timor no longer has a library, even in its University..

While the presence of the UN's Transition Authority is generally welcomed, most educated Timorese are increasingly looking to their own national leadership, something Dr Vieira de Mello himself is encouraging.

Since their return, Mr Gusmao and Mr Ramos Horta have been visiting principal centres of the territory and meeting Timorese who had served as officials under Indonesia. These will help form the nucleus of the new public service, under UN administrators, but they have yet to return to work.

Because most senior positions were occupied by Indonesians, trained senior administrators are in short supply.

There is also a serious shortage of professional staff, such as engineers and doctors (there are apparently only 10 qualified Timorese doctors).

Some help will come from qualified Timorese living in Australia and Portugal, but the need for outside professional help will continue well beyond independence, which National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) leaders are now keen to bring forward.

Dr Vieira de Mello has moved quickly to construct an interim government with extensive Timorese involvement. In UNTAET's first two regulations a National Consultative Council has been established, with prescribed high standards of behaviour. The first regulation set out the powers and authority of the interim administration, at the same time obliging all public office holders to observe international human rights standards.

The second regulation establishes the National Consultative Council "to advise the transitional administrator". The NCC has 15 seats, with the CNRT to hold seven of them.

The stipulation that the council's membership "shall broadly reflect the results of the popular consultation" should ensure CNRT's dominance.

But the coalition is a loose one, and its unity and the resilience of its leaders will be put to the test in the months ahead.

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