Subject: NZH: The painful birth of East Timor

The New Zealand Herald August 25, 2001

The painful birth of East Timor

East Timor will soon have a president and a parliament. It is, writes GREG ANSLEY, a nation rising from the ashes.

Photo: Two years ago Dili was a smoking ruin but with remarkable resilience the people are beginning to rebuild their lives.

Two years after their first jubilant attempt at democracy exploded into a nightmare of murder, rape and destruction, the people of East Timor will return to the polls on Thursday to forge a new nation.

This time the guns of 8000 troops and 1400 police will be turned outwards, protecting a people still struggling to emerge from the trauma of the carnage that followed their 1999 independence referendum and the legacies of 24 years of often brutal occupation by Indonesia and 400 years of Portuguese colonialism.

But behind the vote, that will almost certainly deliver real political power to the Falintil revolutionary movement that led the fight for independence, are the harsher realities of freedom.

East Timor is among the most desperately poor nations on earth and will remain so for many years, dependent on the goodwill of a world whose attention is too easily diverted by a surfeit of crises and pain.

Poverty and inequality are endemic and acute shortages of capital, skills and resources are part of life. While hope remains alive, the slow cancer of disillusionment is stirring the first flickers of resentment and anger.

The first battalion of their own army has been raised, equipped with modern infantry weapons from the United States and Belgium and training with soldiers from Australia and Portugal.

But the border is still protected by New Zealanders and Australians, and troops from a multitude of nations led by a Thai general will remain beyond independence, winding down their numbers as the threat from militias in the west recedes.

East Timor is a nation literally rising from the ashes.

With remarkable resilience its people have shaken off the numbing trauma of the killing of their families and the sacking of their homes to rebuild from less than nothing, and to focus on a future they will shape for themselves.

They will have oil and gas to provide income and food to feed themselves.

In Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta they have leaders of real international stature.

They will soon have a President and a Parliament, and a place in the world.

But Thursday's vote will be just the first step on a long, hard road.

Two years ago, when the UN Interfet troops arrived, Dili was a smoking ruin - every shop, office, warehouse, depot and home systematically looted then destroyed, records burned, computers smashed, furniture broken, roofs ripped off.

Every other major town, and most villages, suffered equally. The roads linking them were marked by squares of ash where houses had been torched. The countryside was denuded of people and livestock.

Crops had been abandoned. The only food came from aid sacks. Where there was water, it was dangerously polluted or diseased.

A year later most people were under cover, either in repaired or rebuilt homes, or living beneath blue UN tarpaulins. Primitive commerce had returned to the streets and to the rebuilt Dili market.

Now children are back at school, the university and teachers' college re-built, re-equipped and well into a new curriculum, and power has been largely restored in the main towns - candles and kerosene will endure in rural areas for years.

There is a legal system, judges, courts and police, a nascent bureaucracy aided by the return by Indonesia of photocopies of perhaps two-thirds of the records destroyed by the militia, and a vibrant trade in fruit, vegetables and other small consumer goods on roadside and market stalls.

Local businessmen have returned with capital and ambition, second-hand cars from Singapore crowd Dili streets, and a wave of entrepreneurs - some good, others adventurers, profiteers, or fringe dwellers - have come from abroad, mainly Australia. The building blocks of a democratic society are being laid.

Telephones barely exist outside Dili, apart from mobile coverage provided by Australia's state-owned Telstra group - and TV largely means videos distributed through the UN.

But there is a new official language: Portuguese, to the distaste of many, especially the young, who would have preferred the far more widely spoken native Tetum. Bahasa Indonesian, while the language of the former oppressor, also remains in wide usage.

There is also an official currency. The US dollar has displaced its major rivals, the Indonesian rupiah and Australian dollar, but not without controversy and no small profiteering at the changeover, when many traders simply rewrote prices from $A to $US, effectively doubling them at a stroke.

The UN and Catholic Church have national radio networks. Falintil and a student station broadcast in Dili, and there are community radio stations in Maliana, near the western border, and Los Palos, on the eastern tip of the island.

Dili has two daily and one weekly newspapers, although production remains based on the uncertain operations of a UN printing press and backup photocopiers. Journalists complain that the role of a free press remains a low priority for UN administrators and key Timorese politicians.

Political ranks have swollen with the return of UN-guaranteed freedoms.

The proliferation of political parties - 16 will contest the election - have presented Timorese with a confusion of choice: UN education programmes in many areas started too late for people who have never known democracy apart from a single, violent, vote for independence.

This is why Fretilin is expected to win more than 50 per cent of the votes, and the largest bloc in the new 88-seat assembly that will replace the present UN/Timorese transitional administration, draw up a constitution, hold a presidential election and oversee independence.

It was Fretilin's founding president, Xavier do Amaral, who first declared independence in 1975, shortly before the Indonesians swept in through Balibo and claimed East Timor. And it was the military arm, Falintil, led by Gusmao, which fought for 24 years in the jungle.

Although Gusmao has not aligned himself politically with the new post-Indonesian Fretilin and will stand independently for President, the association of the two is an almost invincible brand.

But there are divisions within Fretilin, some of which have splintered into rival parties and even into shadowy, semi-mystical groups that have attached themselves to former enemies still advocating rule from Jakarta.

The odd blend of strict Catholicism and local animism that believed, for example, in Gusmao's ability to change into a tree at will, gave form to a small group of Falintil dissidents as the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family), who last year took their weapons and slipped away from the guerrilla army.

They later became associated with Republica Democratic Timor Leste (RDTL), a pro-Jakarta party believed in turn to be linked to Partai National Timor (PNT), formed by turncoat Falintil fighter Abilio Araujo with Indonesian funds to promote autonomy rather than independence in the 1999 referendum.

Although both links and involvement have been denied, UN investigators believe Sagrada Familia and RDTL may have been involved in at least some of the relatively few incidents of political violence that have occurred in the runup to the election.

The absence of violence is one of the great achievements of Timor's infant democracy, formalised in a pact brokered by Gusmao between the 16 contesting parties, eschewing conflict and pledging unconditional acceptance of Thursday's outcome.

With the chasms between parties ranging from hard-left activists to pro-Jakarta diehards, there is no shortage of controversy.

Among Fretilin's strongest rivals is the centre-Left Social Democratic Party (PSD) led by Mario Carrascalao, a former East Timor Governor under Indonesian rule, whose wealthy family is distrusted by many and whose brother Jaoa has returned from Australia, where charges of fraud were withdrawn after a change of heart by witnesses.

The PSD is a splinter from the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), a centre-right party formed as a rival to Fretilin in the brief interlude between Portuguese and Indonesian rule.

Other likely major players are the youth- and social issues-oriented Democratic Party, Associacao Social Democratica Timorese and the Socialist Party of Timor.

Whoever governs East Timor beyond independence will have their work cut out.

The economy grew by 15 per cent last year and continues to expand, but this is from an almost zero base and fuelled mainly by reconstruction, development and humanitarian aid, supplemented by the local coffee industry and its prospects in a recovering world market.

Timor's real economic future lies in the wealth of oil and gas in the Timor Sea, which under the 90-10 split wrestled out of Australia will provide $A7 billion ($8.48 billion) over 20 years.

This has hit a hitch with the decision by US-owned Phillips Petroleum and its partners to indefinitely defer exploitation of the biggest field because of Timor's decision to raise an extra $A1 billion in royalties, but most analysts have no doubts the wealth will be extracted.

But even this will not be enough, with UN estimates suggesting projected annual revenues from all sources of $US65 million ($147.6 million) a year will fall far short of the $US100 million required to remain viable.

Local wage rates run to about $US5 ($11.30) a day, and GDP per capita is $US503, well below even the $US712 of the impoverished Solomon Islands.

This means East Timor will have to keep the rest of the world involved. It will also need to continue with a large infrastructure programme, urgent health and medical projects and comprehensive education and training initiatives for a population of which only half can read and write.

With Aids an added threat, East Timor is struggling with infant mortality of 135 in 1000 births, far higher than rates in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and life expectancy of just 47 years for men, 49 years for women.

A nation's birth could scarcely be more painful.

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