Subject: AT: East Timor's Lonely Future

Asia Times Wednesday, May 26, 2004

East Timor's Lonely Future

By Jill Jolliffe

DARWIN - Officially it was a day of celebration, but there was an undertone of pessimism at ceremonies in Dili last Thursday marking East Timor's second independence anniversary and the drastic cutback of the United Nations' peacekeeping mission.

The UN had planned to pull out of Timor completely on this date, but changed its plans because of ongoing political instability and the fragility of the young democracy. Staff numbers in the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) were accordingly cut from 2,000 to fewer than 700, of whom only 477 are soldiers.

This is a sharp contrast from 1999, when 3,500 armed peacekeepers entered the territory to end a frenzy of Indonesian-orchestrated violence following the August independence vote, backed by a contingent of civilians charged with building a nation from scratch.

The new UNMISET is the fourth UN mission in East Timor, and is led by Sukehiro Hasegawa, who served from July 2002 as deputy to outgoing head Kamalesh Sharma. East Timorese officers have now assumed full command of the police force and army from the UN, but with an acute sense of going it alone.

Lonely Realities

As UN personnel and journalists head out of Dili after the anniversary hoopla, residents are facing up to the lonely realities of post-independence life. The sale of iron grilles for windows and gates is booming anew to rumors of unrest, as international editors redefine East Timor as a province of Indonesia by downgrading it to a story covered occasionally from Jakarta.

Two issues dominate the local agenda: the quality of political leadership, linked to controversy over oil resources, and justice for victims of human-rights violations.

Elections are not due until 2006. The governing Fretilin party won the country's first free poll in August 2001 with 58 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Party placed a poor second with only 8 percent. The vote was for a one-year parliament to draft a constitution, after which regular elections were to be held.

With UN coaxing, parties signed a pre-election pledge to form a national-unity government regardless of the outcome, but when Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri became prime minister he resisted requests by UN representative Sergio Vieira de Mello (who died in a Baghdad bomb attack last year) to form the agreed multi-party cabinet.

The UN caved in again when Fretilin later used its majority to insert a clause in the new constitution extending the parliament's life by five years. (In a memorial tribute to Vieira de Mello, the prime minister recently revealed they had argued strongly over these issues.)

To opposition politicians such as Mario Carrascalao, leader of the opposition Social Democrat party, the source of their young democracy's ill-health lies with these UN failures - but that is also convenient. Fretilin popularity lies mainly with rural voters grateful for its leadership in the resistance struggle, yet members of the opposition parties are reluctant to leave the comfort of Dili to contest the Fretilin government's supremacy. They accuse it of corruption and repressing political opponents but provide little credible alternative.

That is left to President Xanana Gusmao, who counters anti-democratic practices at every turn, but says he wants to retire from politics at the first opportunity.

The fight with Australia over maritime boundaries and Timor Sea revenues (flowing since 2000 and accounting for US$32 million in the current budget) has tended to unite both sides in a common national cause, diverting attention from government failings. Hasegawa is unphased by the acrimonious debate. "I'm confident the two governments will come closer," he told Asia Times Online.

The other issue of future concern is the prosecution of those responsible for the 1999 violence during the Indonesian army's scorched-earth withdrawal from Timor. Under a two-pronged system set up by the UN at that time, a special Jakarta court was to try Indonesian citizens, while in Dili the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) would have organized trials before panels of international judges.

Five years on, observers consider the system a failure. While most Indonesian officials brought before the Jakarta court were either acquitted or given light sentences, the SCU filed 82 indictments involving 369 people, the vast majority Indonesian citizens whom Indonesia refused to extradite (among them former defense chief Wiranto, a candidate in the July presidential election). The result is that Timorese militiamen, bit-players in these crimes, are serving long prison terms while their commanders walk free.

In a report to the Security Council on April 29, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan hinted that the United Nations might consider long-term alternatives such as an international court, for which there is strong grassroots support in Timor, but such moves have received opposition from politicians anxious to please Jakarta. Annan won some funds for SCU prosecutors to continue their work meanwhile, but they are expected to resolve cases early, with no firm alternative in place.

Doubts and 'Conditioned Optimism'

"I know our police and army are technically capable of guaranteeing security," Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said at Thursday's handover ceremony, "but are we capable of dealing with all the pressures on us?"

President Gusmao listed the shortcomings of the country's fledgling institutions, although his final message was that his troubled nation will overcome its problems. He spoke of a lack of professionalism in the justice system, deficient technical resources in parliament and a public service that doesn't deliver good governance.

He described corruption, and "political policing" - which he said resembled practices during Indonesia's 24-year military occupation - criticizing the Fretilin government's recent sacking of public servants for attending opposition rallies.

The pessimism of the Timorese leaders echoed Annan's unusually critical report to the Security Council on April 29. He asked the council for a one-year extension for UNMISET, but when it voted a fortnight ago it gave only six months, with the possibility of another six after review.

Annan criticized the quality of the new army, saying it was "confronted with ... serious institutional problems, including a poorly understood definition of its role, low morale, uncertain respect for discipline and authority, insufficient training of personnel and unresolved relations with former combatants".

The malaise in military ranks became evident in January when soldiers from the Defense Forces of East Timor's 1st Battalion rampaged through their base town of Lospalos and attacked the police station. It was an explosion of resentment against their police counterparts, which has simmered below the surface since the two forces were formed.

The secretary general mentioned the riot but did not spare the police either, referring to "disturbing reports of the excessive use of force, assault, negligent use of firearms, criminal activities, corrupt practices and violations of human rights".

He spoke of the potentially destabilizing situation on the border with West Timor, where 16,000 refugees, some in militia-controlled camps, have resisted best efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to bring them home, and of the UN's unfulfilled commitment to deliver justice to victims of the 1999 violence.

New UN chief Hasegawa is undaunted by the problems. He has a history of service in hot spots such as Somalia and Rwanda, and knows East Timor's leaders well. He recently worked closely with Gusmao on an ambitious Japanese-funded project giving job training to ex-guerrillas.

"We should be proud of our accomplishments," Hasegawa told Asia Times Online. "We have been focusing on strengthening good governance, but will now focus on the justice system." He said the UN will appoint 13 international judges to work alongside Timorese judges to relieve the overburdened system, in which scores of people accused of crimes are languishing in prison awaiting trial.

For some, East Timor's problems five years after UN intervention have as much to do with UN errors as with Timorese underdevelopment or the negative effects of two decades of Indonesian military occupation.

Carrascalao described UN performance as lackluster. "UN people here earned wads of money while East Timorese starved," he claimed. "The troop reduction is premature because the border is not secure. Worse, democracy is dying - we are on the road to an authoritarian regime.

"I want to be optimistic, but it must be conditioned optimism," he added.

If some East Timorese are sad to see the UN reduced to a tiny advisory force and recognize its role in guaranteeing their freedom, others feel short-changed. All know they must stand alone eventually, but the next year is full of uncertainties. It could determine whether East Timor becomes a real democracy, and whether victims of the 1999 atrocities will see justice.

In his anniversary speech, Gusmao recognized the tough times looming. "Our fighting spirit ... should continue to illuminate our path ahead," he predicted, "and strengthen our courage to face difficulties."


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