Subject: IPS: In E Timor, When Tolerance Wears Thin, 'Negotiator' Is Called In

EAST TIMOR: When Tolerance Wears Thin, Negotiator Is Called In By Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Apr 14 (IPS) - In East Timor, Avelino da Silva is nicknamed the 'Negotiator' -- a reference to one of the main characters in a Frederick Forsyth novel.

But unlike Forsyth's Quinn -- an ex-US special forces man who negotiates with kidnappers and terrorists -- Avelino is a Marxist who ''negotiates'' with the UN and private businesses in the territory, on behalf of workers.

''Marxism is not a dogma; it's just a tool. We understand that we have to find political solutions and make compromises in the midst of political realities on the ground,'' said the secretary-general of the Socialist Party of East Timor (PST), now on a week-long speaking tour of Australia organised by the group Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor.

And in the present East Timor, where tensions are high because of soaring prices, the lack of food as well as employment opportunities, Avelino's role as an interlocutor is becoming increasingly important.

Avelino da Silva, together with Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos- Horta, was called recently to help calm a mob of more than 800 angry East Timorese protesters outside the Dili headquarters of the United Nations Transition Authority in East Timor (UNTAET).

Many in the crowd had shown up for promised job interviews but the UN had earlier cancelled them without informing the applicants. When the East Timorese became angry, UN staff panicked and called the riot police.

Last month Avelino was called to negotiate in a labour dispute in a floating hotel used by the UN. The East Timorese workers were getting paid five U.S. dollars a day, less than the average price of a meal in the hotel's canteen, with the management demanding they work a 12-hour shift.

Desperate, angry and frustrated that their pleas for better working conditions fell on the management's deaf ears, they urged Avelino to negotiate on their behalf.

A compromise was reached. The workers are now paid nine dollars a day for an 8-hour shift.

To a people already traumatised by the destruction and killing when Indonesian military-supported militias terrorised East Timor after the Aug 30 UN-supported independence referendum, the signs are deeply disturbing.

For those who do not speak English, employment opportunities are almost nil. More and more, East Timorese are directing their anger at UNTAET officials and international aid workers whose task it is to help them.

''We, at last, won in the referendum, but still remain unable to govern ourselves in our country,'' the new Tetum language paper, 'Lalenok', wrote in its debut editorial. ''The simple reason? We are not given the opportunity to be leaders in our own country.''

But Avelino cautioned the East Timorese against getting their hopes too high. ''Let's be realistic about things. For the first year in the rebuilding of East Timor, UNTAET will only be able to accommodate 7,000 people. So it means many Timorese will remain unemployed,'' he said.

In order to help alleviate the unemployment problem, Avelino called for foreign investment into the territory. ''We would like the establishment of joint ventures -- that is foreign investors have to set up partnerships with local businesses.''

He added: ''If you take local people as partners, then they will feel at home -- there'll be less resentment of foreigners.''

In 1997, Avelino, then a firebrand activist made news headlines when he, his wife and two children, including two others, sought asylum in the Austrian embassy in Jakarta.

The Indonesian military refused to grant him safe passage out of the country and claimed he was the mastermind of a bomb-making squad operating from Dili and Semarang in Java.

Early last year, Avelino and his family managed to escape from the Austrian embassy, after being holed up there for two years. He was believed to have been in Indonesia during the bloodbath in East Timor late last year.

But Avelino bears no grudges and for the sake of reconciliation in East Timor is willing to let bygones be bygones.''We have to forgive the past even though we cannot forget the past. That's moving on in the current political realities in East Timor.''

During East Timor's transition to independence, Avelino's biggest fear is that political expression could be stifled.

On March 15, UNTAET's head Sergio Vieira de Mello said East Timor was likely to have a United Nations-supervised election next year to appoint its first democratically elected parliament.

Despite UNTAET's mandate on developing local East Timorese capacity to assume responsibility for self-government, Avelino warned there were those against political parties. ''These so-called Timorese elites are saying political parties could divide society, reminding us of the events in 1975,'' said the PST chief.

Certain leaders in the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), an umbrella group representing 21 disparate parties, warned recently the dismantling of CNRT could lead to instability of the seventies.

In August 1975, a bloody civil war broke out between two political parties -- the popular leftist Fretilin and the Union of Democratic Timor. Numerous acts of violence were reported, many of which could be traced to personal vendettas among rival families and tribes using the civil war to settle old scores.

''PST always encourages the people to be members of political parties -- arguing that political parties are most important for the implementation of democracy, during the transition period and after that,'' said Avelino.

''We don't accept the argument that political parties will divide East Timor -- rather the lack of democratic culture will.'' (END/IPS/ap/si/ral/00)


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