Subject: SMH/Age: Hamish McDonald on.E.Timor: Magical Realism To Grim Realit

Sydney Morning Herald/The Age April 18 2002

Magical realism to grim reality

By Hamish McDonald

On a roadside in rural Balibo, among knots of people lingering to chat after casting their vote in their country's first presidential election last Sunday, different traditions mingle in the friendly greetings between two old Timorese women.

They are dressed in batik sarongs and lace blouses, and smile with teeth blackened by betel nut. But with silver hair piled up in ancient European fashion, they pepper their local Tetum language with Portuguese words, and brush cheeks on both sides with the distracted elegance of Parisian dowagers.

The previous evening, local society turned out at the Acait cafe in the seaside capital of Dili. Timorese families, elderly Portuguese and jowly Chinese businessmen sipped glasses of dao and vino verdhe or fruit cocktails strengthened with the local arak. They danced in a classic ballroom style, and watched slim boys and girls strut through a fashion show of partywear made with ethnic weaves of fine multicoloured stripes.

A hybrid culture as layered as these village textiles is now reasserting itself in East Timor. It is woven from five centuries of influence from Portugal, the Catholic Church, an intense quarter-century of Indonesian rule and a clannish local background coloured by systems of honour, retribution and the sorcery known as lulik.

With this re-emergence, we can start to see the character of our newest neighbour: a mixture of the fatalism and turmoil of the Roman Catholic south of Europe, the gaiety and frenzy of the Malay world, a touch of Australian practicality imparted to exiles now returned, and a stubbornness and devotion that is all its own.

A bizarre and unprecedented exercise in nation-building by the United Nations approaches its climax at midnight on May 19, when UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan formally hands over sovereignty to Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, 56, the former resistance leader and political prisoner of the Indonesian occupiers. Gusmao this week became the country's first elected president.

For the past two years, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, headed by suave Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, has kept 8500 foreign troops as peacekeepers across this tiny land. More than 1000 hired experts and volunteers from 50 nations have been setting up new courts, a police service, an army, a university, a school system, radio and television broadcasters and an administration.

Swarms of contractors and tradespeople from Northern Australia have laboured to repair burnt-out buildings and re-establish power, water and telephone services.

Sun-blasted men in shorts, elastic-sided work boots and with ponytails and mullets poking from the back of their caps are everywhere in Dili, driving about in utes laden with hardware, sinking Fourex and Bundy in pubs like the new Roo Bar, where the decor is outback workshop: rusted corrugated iron walls festooned with old tools.

A sandal-wearing young crowd of educated volunteers adds a relatively quieter note. They clutch water bottles and ride motorbikes around town and staff the dozens of non-governmental aid organisations that have set up operations to train and counsel East Timorese in social projects.

A staggering $2.4 billion has been spent in protecting East Timor and helping it get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by the Indonesian army and its locally raised militias after the August, 1999, ballot brought an end to a nightmarish 24-year occupation.

Now this period - of what one Latin American UN official calls "magical realism" - is coming to an end. The number of peacekeeping troops is being reduced to 5000 by the end of June and to 2500 by the end of the year. By May 20, only a quarter of the UN's foreign civilian staff will remain, with a changed mission that makes them advisers, not bosses, to the Timorese administration.

Already the UN transitional administration is quietly taking stock of the computers, vehicles, air-conditioners and other gear it will take away. Where visitors were once grateful for beds in converted shipping containers, barges and convent dormitories, there are now vacancies in many of Dili's small hotels. The exotic crowd of diverse skin colours and uniforms is thinning out in the brasseries that serve imported food and wine.

After a hectic three years of reconstruction, spending by the UN and international donors will begin to fall away from June, leading to a likely two years of little or no economic growth. The UN administration's finance ministry has warned that the urban economy especially is in for a "negative shock".

The new defence force has only about 600 of its planned 1500 troops out of basic training. The 3000-strong police force is barely moving up from traffic and crowd control. The UN-run radio and television service will cut out on May 20 unless legislation and funding is quickly made available. The nascent finance ministry and central bank are desperately searching for enough Timorese with economic and accounting skills. How much help the UN continues to provide will be decided by the UN Security Council in the first week of May, but it is likely to be substantial: the world body is unlikely to risk undermining one of its notable successes in a chequered record of interventions elsewhere.

A meeting of donor countries will follow in mid-May with pledges likely to keep support at about $US130 million ($A243 million) a year over the next two years, before the first substantial revenue begins to flow from Timor Sea oil and takes East Timor to economic self-sufficiency later in the decade.

The new Democratic Republic of East Timor has some of the now passe revolutionary flavour and the mestico or half-Portuguese leadership that Gough Whitlam disparaged in his meeting with Indonesian president Suharto in 1974-75. Aside from Gusmao, who emerged as a significant leader well into the occupation, political circles are replete with figures from that period - many of whom returned in 1999 after long periods of exile in Europe, Australia or Portuguese-speaking Africa.

The Fretilin party has re-emerged as the only strong electoral force, with about 65 per cent of the 88 seats in the constituent assembly that has become the first parliament. Its long-time central committee member, Mari Alkatiri, will almost certainly be the first prime minister.

His policies, however, have so far eschewed the original revolutionary aims of Fretilin and have been utterly in line with the conventional economic ideas of foreign donors. Alkatiri's interim cabinet has already lined up East Timor for membership of the International Monetary Fund and chosen the US dollar as the national currency. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have opened offices in Dili, and will keep tight strings on aid through a trust fund system.

A decision has been taken to put most Timor Sea oil revenue in the bank and only spend the interest. With careful cultivation of non-oil taxes and limits on spending, this would allow the current level of moderate-sized government to carry on indefinitely, on the basis of oil field developments already committed.

New fields and pipelines - possibly combined with seabed boundary adjustments in Timor's favour - could bring a bonanza, but until then Timorese politicians will need good fiscal discipline to maintain what economists call "intergenerational equity" - that is, not blowing the benefits of non-renewable resources.

This discipline will be one of the main tests of a national leadership split between president Gusmao and prime minister Alkatiri. Gusmao's vote of about 80 per cent and the low level of spoilt ballots and abstentions (encouraged by Fretilin) will enhance his moral authority to question cabinet policies.

His most effective constitutional power as president could be his control over the appointment of the chief justice and senior prosecutors, meaning he can encourage them to go after wayward politicians and officials.

But can a country as small as this maintain such constitutional checks and balances in practice? The army, police, electoral commission, judiciary and national broadcaster may struggle to maintain their non-partisan ethos in the face of pressure that will surely come - whether from Gusmao, Fretilin or social and business elites in a nation where everyone seems to know each other.

It may be that the church, under its irascible bishop Carlos Belo, will emerge as the real guardian and watchdog of the polity, although religion gets only a passing mention in the new constitution. The other conflict is about inclusion in the new republic. Some of the new leaders returned to East Timor only after 1999's passage of fire, educated and prosperous after years in the West. Many thousands who endured starvation or suffered torture and imprisonment have no role in the government, or any employment at all.

Some resistance veterans have been recognised in associations and efforts made to create work for them, but many others - known as the isolados - are forming themselves into militia-style guards and asserting an auxiliary relationship to the regular 1500-strong army. Other groups could develop into a more threatening muscle-for-hire.

Culture will also be a battleground. The resistance leadership's attempt to re-introduce the Portuguese language, currently spoken by only 5 per cent of East Timorese, is aided by a massive teaching program funded by Lisbon through its Camoes Foundation.

But the younger people listen to Indonesian music, read trash novels by popular author Ronny S, and routinely use Bahasa mixed with Tetum. While 400 students from East Timor are attending universities in Portugal, about 1200 are at Indonesian colleges.

With such a variety of political, social and cultural interests, East Timor will be a republic like no other in our region.


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