Subject: Steep Curves On E.Timor's Road To Freedom [+Belo for reconciliation with Indon

The Weekend Australian September 8, 2001


Steep curves on freedom road

By Paul Toohey

Expectations vary on the political future of the nation, Paul Toohey reports from Dili

YOU live in a mountain village in East Timor; you are a woman, aged 50-70.

Once a week, maybe twice, you leave your home and garden plot to walk 16km down the road to trade vegetables for rice and oil. You then walk home again, all the way up that hill, your burden eased slightly by the pain-numbing, endurance-giving qualities of the betel nut concoction that has left your mouth a red scar.

You have lived under the Portuguese, the Indonesians, the UN transitional administration and now you have seen the beginnings of a new democratic government.

It is made up of your own people, and they will be the first to truly represent you. With East Timor now only months away from electing a president and being declared an independent nation, questions are being asked as to what the nation can make of itself.

Will independence ease the incline of that hill?

"We are working people, we are agricultural people," says Jaoa Neves, a father of eight who lives in the mountain town of Ainaro.

"Most of us must remain as agricultural people. It is what we do, it is what we know."

Until now, East Timor's vision has been the right to be free. While it has been vital for the country's psyche, freedom is here.

Beyond this, does East Timor want something more than peace set to a backdrop of endless toiling on tiny plots of dirt?

Neves and his children have known suffering but they do not fit the mould of the subsistence men and women seen everywhere at backbreaking labour in East Timor -- and for whom the arrival of democracy seems to hold no obvious significance. Neves spent five years from 1979 as a prisoner in a Bali jail for his Fretilin sympathies and, in 1999, during the disastrous referendum to choose between autonomy and independence, fled with his family further into the mountains to survive for two months on scrounged bush food.

Now Neves is a contractor working on the 80km stretch of road between Ainaro and the capital, Dili. His children dream little differently to those in First World countries. Among them, the children say, will be a doctor, a nun, an agriculturalist, a boxer, a singer, a flight attendant, a photo model and an artist. For them, being a toothless betel nut worker with hands like rasps and no apparent aspirations beyond basic survival holds no appeal.

Given that Neves is now relatively well off, his children will very likely get the chance to follow their dreams. But in doing so, will they leave behind most of East Timor's poverty-wracked citizens to unwittingly create a society in which the divide between rich and poor is so profound as to render the long wrestle for freedom meaningful to only a few?

Neves argues that the socialist principles of Fretilin, the country's biggest party, will take care of the class divide. And education is the key. "This is not going to be a capitalist nation -- it will be a socialist nation," he says. "The people who get the chance to study will be those who have the brains to study. Everyone will have the chance to study -- not just the people who have the money -- like in Australia."

This kind of talk from the Fretilin heartland makes Fretilin's leaders nervous. They have long tried to bury the word that was used a lot at the time of the 1975 Indonesian invasion.

In a left-leaning party that attracted radicals in an implicitly radical struggle, Fretilin initially won strong support from communist countries and became itself branded as socialist, if not Marxist. In reality, Fretilin was trying to gather support from wherever in the world it found it.

With Fretilin now set to dominate the Constituent Assembly in the wake of the August 30 general election, its leaders are trying to portray Timor as home to an amorphous democratic style, neither Left nor Right, but solely bent on maintaining peace and creating infrastructure.

"Nobody is looking to have a socialist country in East Timor," says Fretilin's secretary-general, lawyer Mari Alkateri.

"What we are looking for is how to eradicate poverty, how to develop the country, how to develop the private sectors, how to set up an environment so to attract foreign investments, how to develop tourism, fisheries, agriculture -- everything."

Alkateri's hope is that an outsider looking in, in five years' time, will see "a peaceful country, stable, with a good environment for investment where the people are working hard. I am sure nobody will be able to label our country socialist or capitalist." Of the people -- women, mainly -- who seem to be doing Timor's hard physical work, he says: "This is what is important -- this is what matters. We have have to have clear policies on water supply, energy, transportation, roads, all those things, and education itself. We will try to help them, to improve the life quality of these people.

"I would like to see East Timor in five years from now with poverty reduced to at least 50 per cent, infrastructure and economic structure in place, with irrigation systems and water and energy supplies for most of the districts."

Outside Dili, East Timor's main roads linking main towns are little more than goat tracks. It is not hard to envision a time when there will be better roads, or when the rubble in the towns is cleared to make way for new buildings. Not hard, but harder than it looks.

Neighbours such as Australia, also caught up in the euphoria of liberation, are impatient to see a new society, a new constitution, a new country with new ideas. The reality is we have to wait -- East Timor first has to get a life.

Oil and gas companies are pushing East Timor to sign deals over the Timor Gap, the country's only conceivable source of independent revenue, but the Timorese will not be pushed. The gas is not going anywhere, even though gas customers may go elsewhere.

Darwin wharfie Brian Manning, an old mate of Alkateri's, used to run an underground radio, passing messages from inside East Timor via Darwin to the rest of the world.

"Mari rejects being labelled (as socialist, or anything else) and is sincere about it. Fretilin doesn't want the country subjugated by foreign capital. They want to operate their own country, to be as economically independent as they can be," Manning says.

Long-term political vision, in this case, is as simple as getting water and power to the villages, and arranging a transport system so the old women can catch a bus to and from home. "If you know what life's like there, that's not a bad start," Manning says.

Fretilin platform

* A constitution that guarantees balance between legislative, executive and judicial arms

* Pro-family, and will assist vulnerable groups in society

* Free and compulsory education up to the 10th year (and beyond if revenue allows)

* Compulsory vaccination programs

* To regard the eradication of poverty as a synonym of progress

* Will fight private or state monopolies of the press

* Will promote self-built housing initiatives

* Will advocate gender equality

* Will apply for full UN membership

* A multilingual country

* Unstated as yet, but no welfare for those physically capable of work

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