Subject: SMH: Dili's new dawn

Sydney Morning Herald August 30, 2001

Dili's new dawn

The people of East Timor vote today for the leaders who will guide their emergent nation. Lindsay Murdoch reports from a city that is reaching out from the legacy of death and destruction to the hope of freedom.

Carlos first introduced himself as a driver. When none of Dili's dilapidated taxis could be found, he would always produce one. Carlos (he never gave a surname) could always get you through - with a friendly wave of his hand - the many military and police checkpoints that a decade ago dotted the winding and steep roads across what Indonesia then regarded as its troublesome 27th province. But with Carlos and his friends around, notebooks and film were often mysteriously lost.

After my first few visits to East Timor, I discovered that Carlos was a Timorese agent for the Indonesian security forces which operated a pervasive spy network that intruded into the half-island territory's schools, families, churches and places of work.

The other day, two years after Indonesian soldiers, police and militia embarked on an orgy of killing and destruction across East Timor, I met Carlos again in Dili where he is doing nicely as a security officer and is accepted by the people he once spied on. "The past is the past," he says.

Thousands of other Timorese who used to support Indonesia's often brutal rule are rebuilding their lives in what will soon be proclaimed the world's newest country. More than 400,000 eligible Timorese will vote today in their first democratic election that will lead to full statehood, perhaps as early as next March. And if the election is non-violent, United Nations officials expect a flood of East Timorese refugees to return from squalid, militia-controlled refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor, where they are no longer welcome.

Xanana Gusmao, the pro-independence Timorese hero, has as much reason as anybody to want revenge after spending 15 years roaming the hills fighting Indonesian forces, seeing many of his best friends killed or maimed, then being convicted of subversion and spending seven years in jail. But he is insisting that amnesties must be considered for people who have committed crimes as a way to bring together peacefully people from both sides of a terrible conflict.

"I am concerned about the future development of this country," he says. "We must be realistic. It is better to consider reconciliation and amnesty."

Dramatic changes have taken place in East Timor, particularly since the 1999 atrocities that shocked the world. Exactly two years ago, most Timorese defied the militia violence and intimidation, got dressed in their Sunday best and went determined, with their heads held high, to UN polling stations where they voted overwhelming to reject Jakarta's rule. They queued in silence and spoke in whispers.

Few dared look into the eyes of the Indonesian soldiers and police they feared and despised, or their neighbours or even family members they knew had collaborated with the Indonesians. It was an amazing display of courage, given the behaviour of the militia who were backed by Indonesian soldiers and police.

"They have a gift of perseverance despite all odds," wrote a UN worker of the Timorese after being trapped in the UN compound in Dili as the city burnt in September 1999. "They have exercised passive resistance in their moments of despair and glory ... they are all heroes - the weeping mothers, the young men and women who huddle together and pray, the children who will be tomorrow's leaders."

Today, most voters will queue in a jubilant mood, expecting a landslide win by Fretilin, the party that led the underground opposition to Jakarta's rule for 24 years. Fretilin has campaigned largely on the past, refusing to announce detailed policies on how it plans to run the country. But East Timorese see only good omens at this momentous turning point in their history.

A few days ago a four-metre crocodile started surfing waves off Dili's Turismo Hotel where Carlos used to hang around the lobby touting business and militiamen hunted journalists in 1999 as we hid in a locked bathroom. It was the first crocodile - they are sacred in East Timor - to make its home there since the 1999 bloodshed, locals say.

"The crocodile's return does not have to mean there is violence," says fisherman John da Costa as he sews nets on the pebbled beach. "If we haven't done anything bad, it won't harm us. With Xanana as our leader, we will be safe."

AFTER Portugal's 400 years of rule by neglect and Indonesia's occupation, an air of guarded excitement is sweeping East Timor's cities, towns and villages, boosted by a flood of foreign aid and UN spending that has transformed Dili into a busy commercial centre. Outside the major towns, where 90 per cent of East Timorese live, villagers wave and smile at travellers, unafraid and relaxed, unlike the years before when just being seen talking to a foreigner would almost certainly have seen them dragged in for interrogation and possible torture.

East Timor's problems remain chronic. Its villagers are among the world's poorest who barely scrape together a daily existence. Many farmers earn less than $1 a day. Gangs of youths sometimes express their anger by rioting. An estimated 80 per cent of the people are still unemployed. Hospitals and clinics are nearly non-existent, and illiteracy is common.

The UN's arrival created expectations that there would be immediate jobs, houses and a better life, only to disappoint. The UN money has created a temporary economic bubble that will burst as 1,300 foreign civilians - plus 9,500 international peacekeepers and police - withdraw over the next couple of years. Where there are now 300 restaurants in Dili, locals expect that when the UN has gone only half a dozen will be open.

But above all else there is renewed hope and relative peace. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN administrator in East Timor who holds the country's sovereignty until independence day, says that East Timor has defied the prophets of doom who predicted violence during the run-up to the election.

"[The election campaign] is testing the political maturity of the Timorese people - I think they have passed the exam," Vieira de Mello says. "I think that is the best guarantee that what we are building will have a strong foundation."

This week thousands of Fretilin supporters packed trucks and buses and walked across the mountains to reach rallies to celebrate the party's victory, even though the polls would not open for several days. They painted their faces and whooped and yelled in anticipation of victory.

Almost everybody you speak with in East Timor believes that Fretilin will sweep the polls and dominate an 88-member Constituent Assembly that will have 90 days to draft a constitution (official results will be announced on September 10).

But Gusmao is more wary than most people about the future of the new state he is set to lead as president after winning the nomination of the major political parties. He is worried that Fretilin will win so easily that it will create a one-party state and not be held to account for its decisions. If Fretilin, or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, wins more than 60 seats it will be able to write the constitution. While not mentioning Fretilin by name - but obviously referring to it - Gusmao spoke at almost every campaign rally of the "concept that we should not be relying on one political party". He attended some rallies of the smaller parties, apparently in an attempt to temper some of the enthusiasm for Fretilin.

"There is general concern. But not just because it is Fretilin," Gusmao says, pointing out how Golkar, the party of the former Indonesian dictator Soeharto, dominated without checks or balances in that country for three decades.

Deep-seated animosity exists between Gusmao and Fretilin's key leaders, particularly the party's secretary-general, Dr Mari Alkatiri, who is expected to become prime minister of the first government that will be based on the French or Portuguese model of a semi-presidential system where the president is directly elected by the people.

Gusmao took his guerilla fighters out of Fretilin in the mid-1980s because the party espoused Marxist principles that were alarming the Catholic Church. Under the proposed new system of government, Gusmao as president would have broad authority over defence, foreign affairs and other key portfolios and Alkatiri would run the government on a daily basis.

Mario Carrascalao, a former Jakarta-appointed governor of East Timor, who is widely respected despite the fact he worked with the former Indonesian regime, predicts the two men will have a falling out not long into the partnership.

"The relationship between Xanana and Alkatiri up to this point has largely been for show," Carrascalao says. "When Alkatiri tries to introduce his own policies it will be very hard for Xanana to resist. I have a prediction. Xanana will get the blame because nobody will be able to fix all of the problems of East Timor in the short term. Then Xanana will resign."

Asked about future relations with Alkatiri, Gusmao denies there is any friction. "I don't see how we can have animosity," he says. "We meet together. We talk together. I don't believe he is an obstacle."

Jose Ramos Horta, the Nobel peace prize winner and foreign minister of the interim UN administration, says that Fretilin's leaders realise that their world has changed in the past quarter of a century. Ramos Horta is confident that Fretilin will appoint Cabinet members based on experience and talent, not party affiliations. "It will not be an ideological government," he says. "It will not be an arrogant government as many people fear."

Alkatiri, a law professor who was abroad when Indonesia invaded in 1975 and remained in exile during the occupation, says that Fretilin is East Timor's most democratic party, having arranged elections for party positions from the village level to the central committee. He says his government's top priority will be to bring the best people into the Cabinet and other top jobs.

"Our policy is to pursue peace, stability and non-violence and above all else to develop East Timor's democracy," he says. "There is no doubt that we will win. But we will make sure that other parties do not feel defeated."

All of East Timor's leaders realise how overwhelming the difficulties will be to build East Timor virtually from ashes. They acknowledge privately that their future depends on revenues from oil and gas in the Timor Sea and worry they may have overplayed their hand in a high-stakes poker game with resource company executives over the level of taxation they will levy.

Many young people are deeply unhappy about a decision by the old elite to develop Portuguese as the official language when most of them speak Bahasa Indonesia and want to learn English.

"We are conscious of the enormous difficulties and the expectations of the people for a better life," says Ramos Horta. "But if you ask people what they want they will tell you schools, a small medical clinic, clean water and public transport. That's all they ask.

"We are very modest, humble people. I believe that with good government we can meet those expectations in a short period of time."

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