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Rebuilding East Timor:
Cooperation in Recovering from Destruction

November 16, 1999

Talk Delivered at Yale University Panel on "The Case of East Timor" Sponsored by the Yale-Griffin Center for Health and Human Rights and the Health and Human Rights Committee at the Yale School of Epidemiology and Public Health

"Rebuilding East Timor: Cooperation in Recovering from Destruction" Yale University Divinity School, Main Chapel November 16, 1999

Shepard Forman
Center on International Cooperation, New York University

I will divide my comments into three parts - the current humanitarian situation; political issues facing UNTAET; and reconstruction and development. These comments are based on a field visit I paid to East Timor between October 30 and November 5.

1. Humanitarian situation -

* The humanitarian crisis persists - it is real and deep. There is continuing uncertainty re numbers - Interfet says up to 10% missing, but count may go as high as 100-150,000 -- whether these people have been moved to other islands, are still in hiding in the mountains of East Timor or have disappeared needs to be determined. Another 200,000 East Timorese refugees remain in camps in West Timor - under militia control and still largely inaccessible to the principal humanitarian agencies. Lack of land corridor, intimidation and a dis-information campaign contribute to slow refugee return. The camps in West Timor are said to be rife with rumors re lack of food, shelter and continuing violence in East Timor.

* Within East Timor itself, the damage is systematic and massive, especially in Dili, in district seats and other major towns and in villages throughout the western districts. Some highland communities in the eastern zones seem to be relatively in tact, although schools and health clinics are not functioning for lack of personnel and supplies, and food is in short supply. The residents of Quelicai, where I lived and did field work 26 years ago, are subsisting on roots and tubers.

* In many areas, the rains are beginning before this season's crops can be planted, which means that the humanitarian crisis is likely to persist into next year. Shelter remains a major problem.

The humanitarian agencies doing a commendable job.

Living and working in extremely difficult circumstances, OCHA, under Ross Mountain's exceptional leadership, has organized and coordinated a strong initial response. While access to the camps in West Timor remains problematic, UNHCR/ IOM/WFP have pre-positioned supplies at expected points of return, as well as food and seed throughout the country. An effective division of labor has been worked out with each of the humanitarian agencies working in different parts of the country in their areas of specialization. This inevitably leads to a question regarding adequacy of coverage -i.e., does each region have coverage in all essential areas? As noted, food and shelter remains serious problems in many places.

Three humanitarian/human rights issues remain.

First, Indonesia needs to be convinced of the wisdom of cooperating, allowing the East Timorese in West Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia to freely exercise their right of return and opening safe land corridors between the refugee camps in West Timor and East Timorese sanctuaries. This has to be done urgently before the rains make overland passage more difficult. Secondly, the Indonesian authorities and their surrogates need to be held accountable, individual by individual, for those who have disappeared. 475,000 registration cards with the names, residences, ages, gender and other identifiers exist for every voting adult above 17. We knew where each of them was on August 30. We need to know where each of them is now. President Wahid has promised his cooperation. We need to make certain that promise is fulfilled.

Finally, there is a very real risk that the good will the humanitarians have built up will quickly be squandered if the situation on the ground does not improve rapidly for the East Timorese.

* I could see changes on a daily basis while I was in Dili. People are returning, although in smaller numbers than might be expected. Some modest market activity was resuming, with vegetable, fruits, soft drinks and cooking fuel being sold on the streets, a few taxis shuttling passengers, and at least one auto repair shop back to work.

* In contrast, hundreds of shiny bright SUV's had arrived, each emblazoned with logos and suddenly flying agency flags on their fenders, like knights riding to a joust.

* The tent city where the humanitarian workers shared accommodations and meals and which facilitated communications at morning and afternoon briefings, was emptying out as the rush to acquire houses and office space began.

* Cold beer became available at the Hotel Dili, where the white SUV's lined up at night along the same curbside where the Timorese waited at the end of each day for signs of the ferry carrying returning refugees.

* The double standard of living/dual economy this portends is likely to be exacerbated and could create ill-will. UNTAET and the UN agencies are refurbishing public buildings and residences for their own use - by the way initially using imported Australian crews rather than Timorese labor - while the Timorese await tarpaulins and scavenge for building materials to reconstruct their homes.

2. Political situation. The recriminations have already begun. A news release from the Portuguese agency, Lusa, yesterday describes Xanana Gusmao's frustration with the continuing situation of the East Timorese while the UN mission expands. He decried the taking of property and buildings and displacement of East Timorese by UN agencies and suggested that $50 million in CNRT's hands would resolve the humanitarian crisis more expeditiously than the $199 million requested in the UN's Consolidated Appeal. For their part, UN staff are said to have complained about lack of coordination and leadership on the part of the CNRT who don't show up for meetings when the UN calls them. Let's get real!

* Xanana Gusmao returned less than one month ago to East Timor after 7 years imprisonment in Indonesia. He has no house, no car, no office space in which to convene his staff. He operates with a single satellite phone, which does not always function. None of the shiny white SUVs have been made available to him or his staff, and he is entirely dependent on the military for transport. Most of the East Timorese diaspora is yet to return, and those refugees who have found their way back to Dili are almost impossible to contact since their homes have been destroyed and the Indonesian's cut cell-phone service. In these circumstances, to complain that the East Timorese don't come to meetings is absurd at best and cynically destructive at worst.

* Let me reassure you, Xanana Gusmao enjoys the trust and confidence of the East Timorese people, including the Church and the FALINTIL. He has put together a diverse cabinet and a number of working committees to begin to structure a government, which he is building from the village level, where CNRT are establishing local commissions on health, education, agriculture, etc. Of course, there are divisions - between insiders and exiles, old and young, urban elites and rural cadres. However, CNRT was constructed as an umbrella entity that still promises and has the capacity to produce national unity if it is not undermined.

The potential fault line lies not within the CNRT but between the CNRT and UNTAET.

* The East Timorese are very apprehensive about the size and style of the UNmission, and they are troubled by what they view as their effective exclusion in both mission planning and initial execution.

* I met with Xanana Gusmao in Baucau about ten days ago. He noted that he and his colleagues were consulted neither on the content of the Consolidated (Flash) Appeal nor on the structure of UNTAET.

* He is establishing his new capital in Aileu, about one and one-half hours from Dili, in a far more comfortable climate zone, both meteorologically and politically speaking. I assume this distancing is meant as a safeguard against competition for place and property as well as a heat-shield against potential UN missteps with which the CNRT would rather not be branded.

* Current predictions are that the CNRT will seek an early hand-over of authority from the UN to an independent East Timorese government.

In my view, this would be unfortunate. I believe

* The UN should make common cause with the CNRT and seek to bolster it as a governing authority until elections can be held, ideally in two or three years time. Early elections will create fractures and weaken the non-partisan political structures that Gusmao is trying so hard to build.

* The CNRT leadership should not only be consulted on a continual basis, but should be present at all levels of the Transitional Authority in a full power-sharing role. East Timor is not the intra-state conflict that the UN has unfortunately grown accustomed to. The antagonist is gone. CNRT is the UN's best and most effective partner.

* There is a great deal of good will and expectation awaiting the Transitional Administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who has a brief window of opportunity to make things right. Whatever personal attributes he brings to the table will be undermined, however, if the UN mission is too big, too top-heavy and unrelenting in its unwillingness to fully engage Xanana and the CNRT. Of course the CNRT is thin on the ground and inexperienced in the ways of governing, but so too is the UN! which should abandon its notions of Trusteeship and work to strengthen the CNRT, to help it to gain on-the-job experience through the selective use of experts in an advisory rather than a decision-making role, and encourage its efforts to serve as a spawning ground for the growth and development of a natural political process rather than turning its understandable fragility into a self-fulfilling prophesy of lack of coordination and leadership.

* The kind of bickering and recrimination that the previously mentioned article describes needs to be nipped in the bud, and quickly, lest the UN and CNRT find it necessary to strike serious antagonistic positions, each in its own self-defense. Like it or not, the two need to be wedded at the hip and, like Siamese twins with differing personalities and life-styles, will have to work out their differences for the sake of survival and mutual well-being. Success in East Timor depends on it.

3. Let me close with a few words on the process of reconstruction and development. East Timor cannot afford to suffer the best intentions of the international community. Aid has to be timely, adequate and coordinated. The World Bank-sponsored Joint Assessment Mission, which will report out its findings this week, is a promising start, and Bank staff are to be commended for initiating the process and involving the East Timorese at every step along the way. However, the JAM is a forward looking effort to assess needs for the medium to long term. It does not address the notorious gap between relief and development, nor has it stemmed the tide of individual donors and agencies conducting their own assessments and undertaking their own activities. USAID, DFID, AusAid, Italian Cooperation , and German assistance agencies were all present while I was there, not to mention the Portuguese, despite all of their pledges to join in the JAM. The Norwegians, Swedes and Canadians had already been through.

The East Timorese are grateful for this show of support, but the "Friends of East Timor" would be a lot more user-friendly if they would pull together within a common framework that recognizes and works side-by-side with the CNRT, the church and emergent and recovering national NGOs. Coordinated aid structures need to be urgently established in East Timor and at UN headquarters to make certain that essential recovery needs are met and that the development of East Timor begins on the right foot and proceeds effectively. The East Timorese need time. Both the CNRT and the Church leadership are urging that the reconstruction process proceed in an orderly and deliberative fashion. They have stressed that the profound dislocation of the Timorese requires time for healing and rebuilding - for normalization -- so that the Timorese can participate on an equal footing in the planning and execution of the aid regime. Let's not overwhelm them with good intentions unfulfilled or with competing and ad hoc pledges and programs. Let's establish a single fund and press for a coordinated aid response that will serve to rebuild this small and devastated land into a viable, self-sufficient democratic state for the 21st Century. Timor Loro Sae is doable. Let's do it right this time.

See also:

For more complete information, several good books are available about East Timor through ETAN. Other resources include videos, audio tapes, newspapers, and magazines. Much else is already on-line. Or, find out more face-to-face by getting involved in a local ETAN chapter.


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