Subject: BBC: East Timor's struggle to build a nation

East Timor's struggle to build a nation

Jonathan Head - February 15, 2008 04:05 GMT

BBC News, Dili

They gave Alfredo Reinado a hero's burial, his coffin draped in the red, black and yellow flag of East Timor.

His bearded face looked down defiantly from banners in a revolutionary pose that deliberately aped the portraits they used to hoist of Xanana Gusmao, the one-time guerrilla leader who is now prime minister.

Hundreds of young men shouted the salute of the anti-Indonesian resistance movement, although former Major Reinado had apparently tried to kill two of the icons of that movement, Mr Gusmao and President Jose Ramos-Horta, on Monday.

Heroes change, and yesterday's heroes in East Timor are world-weary politicians today.

But there is something worrying about the readiness of East Timor's young to pass the hero's mantle on to a man like Reinado, who took up arms against the government in the chaos of May 2006 and refused to lay them down.

Reinado had nothing to offer East Timor except the continued idealization of armed struggle as an alternative to the unglamorous task of building a country from very little.

It is an appealing ideal for the 50% of young men who cannot find jobs here.

It is one of the reasons violent gang culture is now endemic in Dili's poorer neighbourhoods.


East Timor was supposed to be a poster-child for UN-sponsored nation-building.

It is the only country the UN has ever actually governed, and despite the huge challenges confronting it in the aftermath of Indonesia's destructive withdrawal, its small size seemed to make it an ideal recipient for the huge amounts of aid and goodwill that accompanied its birth as an independent state.

Today, though, the poster-child has grown into an unruly and self-destructive adolescent. So what has gone wrong?

If you ask ordinary East Timorese, you almost always get the same answer; it is the politicians.

And they have a point. The governments which have run the country since independence in 2002 have done almost nothing that gives the people any benefits they can feel.

Remarkably little infrastructure has been rebuilt from the ashes left by the Indonesian army. The roads are terrible, the country littered with the burned ruins from 1999.

They chose Portuguese as the official language, although only a very small minority of mainly older people spoke it, and then failed to provide the resources to schools to teach in Portuguese.

They have more than a billion dollars in the bank from oil revenues, but have failed to spend it. The government even failed to spend a large part of the modest budget it gave itself last year.

Much of this can be put down to inexperience. Almost no-one in East Timor had any experience of administration at the time of independence, even at a local level.

One international worker explained that their weakness in designing budgets for development projects is such that ministries frequently leave out funding for basic necessities like mobile phones or petrol for transport. The project then grinds to a halt.

But much also appears to be due to a chronic lack of urgency.

At his office in the Ministry for Employment, Fernando Encarnacao, an East Timorese expert working for the International Labour Organisation, argues that spending the money to fix the terrible roads could provide employment for 400,000 people.

The machinery might need to come from abroad, but not the labour.

'Not ready'

The lack of jobs is one factor tearing at the threadbare fabric of East Timorese society; the lack of security is another.

More than 100,000 people fled from their homes during the unrest sparked off by the disintegration of the armed forces and the police in 2006.

Remarkably few have gone home. As a result the capital Dili, already a dilapidated little town, now hosts squalid refugee camps on every patch of open ground.

Luis Vieira, head of the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) mission in East Timor, says many factors explain the reluctance of the refugees to return.

Some are attracted by the food handouts they get at the camps. Some are intimidated into staying by men who have built up local power bases through their control of the camps.

It is the absence of security, though, that is most often given as the reason for staying.

The refugees may only have had stones thrown at their homes. But in East Timor, where many people have vivid memories of the appalling suffering and mass relocations that accompanied the Indonesian invasion in 1975 and its withdrawal 24 years later, a small amount of intimidation is enough to make people flee.

Bonny Boramil works for the United Nations by day, but at night he stays in under a white tent donated by the IOM together with his mum and dad.

Two years ago their home in Dili was ransacked by hostile neighbours. "I'm not afraid to go back" he told me, "but my mum is, and I would rather stay here with her".

Camp living has soured the fruits of independence for Bonny. "East Timor is like a child", he said, "We are not ready for choice, we are not ready for democracy".

'Unreasonable expectations'

The United Nations must also carry its share of the blame for the mess in East Timor.

Its greatest failing was the blunder it made in creating and training the army and police while it was in charge before independence.

Their disintegration into warring factions two years ago almost destroyed the country; the violent death of Alfredo Reinado was one of the aftershocks of those events.

Today the UN is running a substantially boosted peacekeeping mission; the presence of international forces undoubtedly prevented Monday's attacks from setting off further instability.

The head of the UN mission, Atul Khare, says everyone has learned lessons from the disaster in 2006. They are trying to rebuild the police force more carefully, and avoid the haphazard training that weakened it before.

East Timor, it turns out, was not a poster-child.

It is a very small country, but with very big and unusual problems that were greatly underestimated in the euphoria that accompanied the birth of the world's newest nation in 2002.

"This is a country which is doing for the first time both nation-building and state-building at the same time" says Atul Khare, "and this is a rare case of a country dealing with a post-conflict and a post colonial situation at the same time."

"Six years is a very short period of time. We should not have unreasonable expectations."

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