Subject: WP: East Timor Learns How to Go It Alone

East Timor Learns How to Go It Alone

Lesson 1: Nation-Building Takes Time

By Alan Sipress Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, October 12, 2003; Page A26

DILI, East Timor -- "Turn around!" the police cadet barked. "Get on your knees! Cross your legs!"

The suspect dropped to the hot asphalt and obligingly stretched his arms behind him. The cadet grabbed a wrist. But as he produced a set of handcuffs, he fumbled with the mechanism. The cadet, sweat soaking his white T-shirt and fraying olive green pants, paused and then tried again, finally snapping the cuffs into place.

A U.N. instructor, watching the exercise at the East Timor Police Academy, shook his head. Most of those who become East Timor's finest get only three months to learn the skills of policing in this newly independent country, hardly long enough to unlearn the lessons of 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

"They ask us, if they have trouble with a suspect, can they use force? We tell them force is a last resort," said Abang Jemat, a U.N. police trainer from Malaysia. "But they say, if in Indonesian times they could use force on a suspect, why can't we do that?"

By many measures, it should be straightforward for the United Nations to assemble a force of only 3,300 officers to police a country whose entire population of 800,000 is smaller than Montgomery County's. But the task, like others in 17-month-old East Timor, has proved unexpectedly challenging.

At a time when U.S. reconstruction efforts in postwar Iraq are focusing the world's attention on nation-building, the far more modest task of establishing a new state in East Timor offers a cautionary lesson. East Timor has wrestled to create the instruments of law and order and a democratic political culture -- both of which are priorities in Iraq.

"East Timor is probably the easiest laboratory case you could imagine for nation-building. East Timor had everything going for it, and we're still struggling with it," said Colin Stewart, a U.N. official who worked on setting up the new nation's government and political system. "Most people say it has gone well, but below the surface you're paddling like mad."

The task here would seem so much simpler than that of rebuilding Iraq. Not only is its population one-thirtieth the size of Iraq's, this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country is free of religious and ethnic divisions. And in President Xanana Gusmao, often called the Nelson Mandela of East Timor, the country has a strong, popular, unifying leader.

The U.N. forces that helped usher the Indonesians out of East Timor were widely cheered by residents and had broad international backing. As a result, the mission had a local legitimacy that the U.S. mission lacks in Iraq, where American soldiers are increasingly under attack.

Indonesia withdrew from East Timor in 1999 amid a final paroxysm of killing, burning and looting by pro-Jakarta militias. The United Nations ran the country for the next 21/2 years, a period that could seem like forever to Iraqis pressing for a rapid transition. "Even that, some people said it was a rush job," said Sukehiro Hasegawa, U.N. deputy special representative in Dili.

Many buildings are still burned-out shells, though families and shopkeepers have moved in among the ruins. In the countryside, about 110,000 people could face starvation by the end of this year unless they receive emergency aid, the World Food Program recently warned.

The most daunting task, however, has been teaching the East Timorese to take charge of their own affairs and manage a modern democracy.

While the police, for instance, are outfitted in crisp blue uniforms and equipped with service pistols, batons and pepper spray, the rookie department is struggling to shake an inherited culture of brutality.

In December, edgy, inexperienced police officers opened fire on anti-government protesters, fueling riots that left at least two people dead and dozens injured.

"Many people complain about the police," said Inspector Jose Soares, a former government clerk now in charge of training at the academy after only two years in uniform. "What they implement in the field is only what they know."

On a recent morning, the crackle of a police radio carried across the dirt field behind the academy.

"Comoro base, Comoro base, this is unit 51. Over."

"Unit 51, what is your message? Over."

"Comoro base, there has been an accident. A motorcycle traveling at a high rate of speed has a struck a woman. She's injured. Over."

As a pair of cadets recited this scenario from printed sheets, 48 other students in the class sat silently on bleachers, waiting their turn. Though the curriculum calls for four hours of practice in communications before graduation, only two police radios were available, so cadets each received less than 10 minutes of hands-on experience -- if they got any. Nearly an hour before the lesson was scheduled to finish, the batteries went dead. Class was dismissed.

At the police headquarters in Baucau district, gasoline shipments are often delayed, forcing officers to park their new cruisers and motorbikes for up to a week at a time and move around town on bicycles, according to Inspector Pedro Belo, the district commander.

It is the court system, however, that most frustrates the police, as well as foreign officials, who say that a lack of trained judges, lawyers and court administrators has left the judicial system a shambles. Until 1999, these posts were filled by Indonesians, and the process of training East Timorese to replace them takes years of special training.

There is no prosecutor resident in Baucau, the country's second-largest city. So when a suspect is arrested, the police must pile him and the witnesses into a car within 72 hours and make the nearly three-hour drive to Dili to present the case, police said.

In all areas of the government, Indonesians were the administrators and technical experts. Their withdrawal left a vacuum. Some foreign officials say Iraq is fortunate by comparison, because it has long had a broad class of managers and technicians. But others counter that East Timor is free of the tensions inherent in trying to reconcile elements of the old regime with the new one.

"It is unique because it started from scratch," said Ronald Isaacson of the World Bank.

But as in Iraq, few here have any experience with democratic rule. Foreign development organizations are training legislators about constituent services and party activists about crafting campaign platforms.

Maria Antonia, a mother of six, is participating in a U.S.-funded program to learn the quintessential skill of modern democracy: lobbying. During the Indonesian occupation, residents rarely asked the government for services, fearing they would be ignored or, worse, invite the scrutiny of intelligence agents.

With drinking water running low in three villages in her district of Liquica, Antonia overcame her trepidation, helping petition the local government last year for a new tank and a pipe to carry water from the river. Local officials referred the request to a national ministry. National officials said they were broke. Months passed.

"We were surprised that the government couldn't guarantee when they might help us," she said. "We had to learn to keep checking with them all the time."

Finally, the government and a private group supplied materials for the water system. Villagers volunteered their labor. Antonia put a notch in her lobbyist's belt.

"This is all very different for us," she said, "and it's frustrating."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Back to October menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu