Vol. 6, No. 2
John Sayles on East & West Timor
Helping East Timor's Grassroots
An Interview with Constâncio Pinto
Constâncio Pinto was a leader of the East Timorese underground before he was marked for death by the Indonesian military and forced to flee his homeland. For the past four years he has been the East Timorese representative to the U.S. and the UN. Constancio recently completed his Masters Degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
What was it like to go back to East Timor after being in exile for so long? How did it feel and what can you tell us about what you saw there?
I was happy to return to East Timor after 8 years living in exile, and to see my country free from the Indonesian occupation once and for all. But one of the things that struck me was the level of destruction resulting from the post-referendum mayhem… 80% of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.
What do you think of the job the UN is doing in East Timor? What about the big international NGOs?
The UN is doing a great job in the reconstruction of the country, but the process is very slow and sometimes confusing. The UN is also restructuring the civil administration and the judicial, banking and police systems. Unfortunately, until the recent commitment by the UN to open up new positions to East Timorese, there has been a lack of participation of East Timorese in the structure of the transitional government. The United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) argued that East Timor does not have the human resources to fill positions in the current administration. But during the Portuguese and Indonesian colonial periods, all the district and sub-district heads were East Timorese. Some of these people are still alive and ready to take similar positions. There are also many Timorese educated in Indonesia, Australia, Portugal, Mozambique and elsewhere ready to take any job within their capabilities. I do not deny the lack of experience that some of the East Timorese intellectuals might have, but it is the job of the UN to train and prepare them for their future roles in East Timor. It was a great relief that after non-stop pressure from the leadership of the CNRT [National Council of East Timorese Resistance], UNTAET changed course and has included four East Timorese in the provisional government, and I look forward to UNTAET following through and including Timorese at the district and subdistrict level.
There are hundreds of international NGOs in East Timor at this moment, each working at their own pace. Their presence is important, for they provide jobs for East Timorese. There are a lot of mixed feelings among the East Timorese about the NGOs, partly because of the lack of coordination between international NGOs and the East Timorese NGOs and political organizations. Another reason is that some of the NGOs are paying East Timorese workers below standard wages.
Are things better there now in terms of East Timorese people having enough to eat? What about housing and health care?
Things are changing every day. The economy is moving toward normalization. More micro-businesses are spreading out in main cities and villages. However, unemployment is still high. In June, according to the World Bank, 75 to 80 percent of the East Timorese population were still unemployed. Food remains a problem because East Timorese from September 1999 to this day rely on humanitarian aid. Many are now back in their farms, but it will take some months to harvest. I think by next year the East Timor will be self-sufficient in food. Health remains a problem that must be solved, there are not enough doctors and not enough medicines either.
How do you think the younger generation of East Timorese activists are feeling about their ability to be part of the decisions being made? Will they be included in the CNRT congress planned for August? What sorts of decisions will be made at that congress?
From what I heard the young Timorese are frustrated with the CNRT and other political institutions in East Timor. They feel left out of the political decisions. They should be included in the CNRT congress in August, their voices should be heard. However, it is up to the organizers of the congress to decide whether the youth should take part in the congress. If they don’t, it will be a big mistake.
What about the role of women in the emerging East Timorese society? Will they be included in the decisions made at the congress and will they have a representative role in the new East Timorese government that emerges when the UN leaves? Do they have a voice in decisions being made by East Timorese leaders now?
The East Timorese women are now struggling to make their voices heard in the East Timorese society. This is good. They are demanding their participation in political decision making. However, because of the patriarchal nature of East Timorese society, I doubt that the men are going to easily accept it. I personally would like to see more women play political roles in the new East Timor.
What sort of work will you be doing in Washington for East Timor? Will you represent one political party or all the East Timorese people?
At this moment, I am the CNRT representative to the United States and Canada. My work will be the same. I will continue to lobby the U.S. Congress and the State Department to support East Timor during and after the transition. I will also appeal to Congress and the State Department to continue the arms embargo on Indonesia until all the East Timorese refugees in West Timor can safely return to East Timor and until democracy, human rights and the rule of law is guaranteed in Indonesia.
What should the U.S. government do to help the people of East Timor in their transition to independence? What should the solidarity movement in the U.S. do?
What we need from the U.S. is political and monetary support. The East Timorese need money in order to be able to restore economic and political confidence in East Timor. The solidarity movement can still help East Timor. Activists should continue to lobby legislators concerning the situation of the East Timorese refugees in West Timor and the need to continue the military embargo on Indonesia.