Subject: Age Feature: Timor Mon Amour: A Nation Starts To Breathe

The Age [Melbourne] Tuesday 4 January 2000


Timor mon amour: a nation starts to breathe

East Timor has set out on the long road back to normality


THREE months after his UN-backed force landed in East Timor, the InterFET Commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, chuckles about a growing number of complaints from Dili citizens about noisy armored vehicles trundling around in the wee hours of the morning. He takes the complaints as compliments - proof, he says, that East Timorese are finally confident about security in the devastated capital.

After 24 years the Indonesians have gone and the once-feared militias are little more than a disorganised, disintegrating rabble scattered across Indonesian West Timor. Diplomats say the militias remain an embarrassment to Jakarta and a painful reminder of millions of dollars squandered on the lost cause of integration, which in the end brought its armed forces international humiliation and disrepute.

Cosgrove likes to describe the Australian-led intervention in East Timor as "helping a neighbor whose house was on fire with a bully standing in the back yard". Others say the InterFET mission is one of the most successful in the United Nations' history. Australia's biggest overseas military deployment since the Vietnam War involved more than 6000 Australian men and women from all three services in the 11,000-strong InterFET.

By the end of February, Cosgrove hopes to hand over military command to the UN transitional administration. Its role is to oversee East Timor's transition to a democracy within two or three years. Its head is 51-year-old Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, a UN diplomat with extensive peacekeeping experience who won praise for his role in securing the return of about 500,000 Cambodian refugees from camps in Thailand.

But relations between the transitional administration and the Timorese have not always been smooth. In the early days, a handful of self-styled "UN tsars" who allegedly pushed their personal agendas threatened to alienate many East Timorese, including key officials in the main independence coalition group, the National Council of Timorese Resistance. A sudden decision to introduce the Portuguese currency - the escudo - into the fragile economy was a dismal failure, while another "quick-fix" scheme to train East Timorese judges angered the council. In the latest blow-up, the council's vice-chairman, Jose Ramos Horta, accused the UN and InterFET of failing to consult East Timorese over a multi-million-dollar contract involving an Indonesian company making urgent repairs to a helicopter taxiway at Dili airport.

Earlier, Ramos Horta expressed frustration at delays by UN organisations in providing roofing and building equipment for tens of thousands of people who still live without adequate shelter three months after their homes were burnt by militias.

With the onset of the wet season, action needs to be swift. The UN refugee agency and its partner, the International Organisation for Migration, say the militias' hold on more than 200 squalid, disease-ridden camps in Indonesian West Timor is showing signs of diminishing. More than 119,000 East Timorese have been repatriated but 160,000 others have yet to return.

Food is also moving slowly. The World Food Program's insistence on hand-stacking hundreds of bags of relief maize in the holds of its charter ships, rather then using containers, ties up ships for 36 hours at the busy Dili wharf. This causes unnecessary delays for other ships. The Catholic relief agency Caritas, with long-established local links, says the East Timorese bombard it with daily requests for food assistance, but it has to turn them away.

One of the most successful aid projects has been the restoration by British Gurkhas and the Australian Army of Dili's Central Market, which militia burnt down. The Mercado Municipal (central market) is now a thriving centre of commerce.

And the aid operation has improved. Hundreds of tonnes of roofing material has arrived in port; thousands of tonnes is said to be on its way. World Food Program helicopters have moved more than 1000 tonnes of food supplies. Australian, British and Portuguese engineers have begun massive repairs to the devastated electricity grid and mobile phones are working again thanks to Telstra, but only in Dili. After some dithering, the UN Children's Fund, East Timor's defacto education ministry, is offering contracts and tenders for the repair of 90 school roofs. Australian army engineers have also built a bridge on the main Suai Maliana road.

Yet money remains a problem for East Timor. Pledges at December's donor conference in Tokyo totalled more than $US522million for up to three years. The projected cost of running the transitional administration is more than $US700million for just one year. How much is going to be left for reconstruction?

Despite the odd blow-up, Ramos Horta says relations with the UN have improved. "At every level now they are talking with us. They realise after being here that there is no way you can work in this country without CNRT cooperation."

Of more concern is the future of the CNRT. Ramos Horta gives the fragile coalition a life expectancy of six months, but some of his colleagues say privately that it may self-destruct as early as February. Old UDT party loyalists grouped around the Carrascalao clan, Mario, Joao and Manuel, are said to be ready for a split. In an interview with The Age, Manuel Carrascalao warned of grievances against Ramos Horta's management style. Ramos Horta responded that he will retire from the CNRT next year and become an independent politician. He also plans to open a diplomatic training school for East Timorese.

Both Ramos Horta and the CNRT president, Xanana Gusmao, are known to be concerned about recent business dealings involving Manuel Carrascalao - notably his joint involvement in the Dili Lodge Hotel, which the UN ordered closed because it is illegally sited on state property. Gusmao has called for a code of conduct for CNRT officials.

Speaking at the Tokyo conference, Gusmao described 1999 as a year of extremes. "Happiness on the day of the ballot, tears at the destruction and loss of life which followed. The one thing that has been consistent throughout this year has been the bravery of our people, their determination to vote for an independent future, and their fortitude in facing the trauma after the ballot."

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