Subject: IPS: East Timor faces difficult choices

Asia Times May 29, 2002

East Timor faces difficult choices

By Aaron Goodman (Inter Press Service)

DILI - East Timor's achievement this month of the independence it had sought for a quarter-century gave a new role not just to its former rebel leaders, but to the activist groups that campaigned for it even when most of the world seemed to have forgotten the territory.

Just last week, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao acknowledged the role of the international solidarity movement, saying it had given the guerrillas the strength to continue.

But in a unique twist of fate, many civil-society organizations are fast changing from being supporters of the "East Timorese cause" to assigning themselves as the new government's unofficial watchdog. They also say they will be monitoring international institutions operating in a country without a history of democratic governance.

Gusmao last week told activists who had supported East Timor: "You are aware of the big challenge that we will face. And I believe we can go forward in the same way as during the past 24 years."

But some activists appear to be taking on a critical role toward the government's priorities, raising questions about unresolved rights violations committed in East Timor after the 1999 referendum vote and the new country's development policies.

They have expressed concern about impunity for the Indonesian military generals and militia leaders who were responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor, and have also raised such issues as the negotiations with Australia to share resources from oil exploration in the Timor Sea as well as agreements signed with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But a candid Gusmao defended his decision to focus on poverty reduction, providing jobs, and good governance, rather than pressing for the creation of an international tribunal for East Timor. Such a tribunal would come at an estimated cost of US$600 million per year, while East Timor has received roughly $100 million a year in development assistance from the international donor community.

At the gathering on March 22, Gusmao thanked the crowd of 200, mainly members of groups that worked for East Timor, for their contribution to the 24-year independence struggle.

Gusmao recalled that for the Falintil resistance fighters in particular, the solidarity networks around the world and the journalists who kept the issue of East Timor alive through broadcasts that the guerrillas picked up on shortwave signals from the forests provided critical inspiration during the most difficult times.

"Your role was very, very important," he said. "It was important in mobilizing international public opinion, and not only mobilizing governments' attitudes and behaviors, but in mobilizing our moral and psychological state of mind. Our victory was your victory."

Yet today, Gusmao stated, civil society still had a vital role to play in helping the Timorese reduce poverty in what is now the poorest country in Asia - and that it is helping it improve East Timor's quality of life to address problems that create present forms of insecurity.

"We have between 20 [and] 25 percent of our population between 20 and 30 years old without jobs," Gusmao said. "During the next year if we don't give jobs and start to promise in concrete terms that they can [live with] hope, we will face unrest. We have 54 percent of the population under 20 years old, and we want to build a new generation. We must look forward for them."

Forty-eight percent of East Timorese are illiterate, and economists with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) say that half of its more than 700,000 people earn about a dollar a day, surviving mostly as subsistence farmers.

Many East Timorese agree that livelihood concerns rank high in their priorities as their country takes its first steps as an independent nation. "The economy still needs fixing," said Antonio Lobato, 25, who also works at a shop in Dili. "Eighty percent of people don't have jobs, and unemployment has already risen since the UNTAET [United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor] left the country. It's still easy to see children who have no parents washing cars on the street with water bottles, and selling drinks and cigarettes rather than going to school. The government should focus on education."

"The government should concentrate on stabilizing the economy before focusing on justice, because many people's standard of living is still very low," said Lucio Cardozo, 22, referring to calls by activists for an international tribunal to focus on rights violations during Indonesia's rule of East Timor. "Many people still do not have houses and many others are hungry."

According to Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, the pragmatic responsibilities of running the country and alleviating poverty have created a situation where the international solidarity movement is now better placed that the East Timorese government to lobby for the establishment of an international tribunal.

"For me the greatest justice done to East Timor is our freedom, our independence," he said. "If I were on the Security Council I would press for an international tribunal in East Timor. But I can't really force [the issue]. If it is the goal of civil society, and you are prepared to lobby for an international court for East Timor, one thing I can tell you is you are doing a very good thing for the people of East Timor."

New York-based journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, a radio program that has long focused on the plight of the Timorese, said: "The people of East Timor have won a tremendous victory, but at a very high price. In terms of those that perpetrated [rights violations], we have to find out who they are and cover their trials and see what happens to them."

Christian Ranheim, director of the Judicial System Monitoring Program in Dili, says Gusmao and foreign governments are not backing calls for an international tribunal out of fear of sparking conflict between Indonesia's civilian government and the military, which could imperil the already fragile stability in Indonesia, as well as in East Timor.

Yet he adds: "I think it's important that crimes in East Timor be tried and the international community show that we don't tolerate these crimes. And when it comes to East Timor, it's especially important because the international community has betrayed it for 25 years. So the international community should have a special commitment toward East Timor and to try those who are guilty here."

Some 200,000 East Timorese died from war-related causes under Indonesian occupation until 1999. Nearly three years ago, after a UN-sponsored referendum in which nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted for a break with Indonesia, pro-Jakarta militias backed by the Indonesian military killed 2,000 Timorese, displaced three-quarters of the population, and destroyed nearly all buildings.

Meanwhile, Charles Scheiner of La'o Hamotuk, a joint East Timorese-international group that monitors key international institutions present in East Timor, suggests that the new Timorese government be wary of engaging with organizations such as the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, despite its desperate need for financial assistance.

"The governments around the world who have engaged with these institutions, their people invariably suffer," said Scheiner. "As East Timor enters the global community, we will campaign against debt and against selling hard-won sovereignty for financial support."

Isabella Galhos, an East Timorese who spent 10 years in exile in Canada, says that in the end, the support that people need from solidarity groups lies in practical issues. "We need people to come here and share their skills, their knowledge and education with the people," she said, "so that by the time they leave this country, we know how to do things by ourselves".

In spite of rising divisions between the Timorese government and some civil-society groups, Ramos Horta said both sides should cooperate in the future because "you want the well-being of the people of East Timor, and we want the well-being of the people of East Timor".

"Sometimes we will not agree, and sometimes we will hear criticism from you. The criticism will be very welcome," Ramos Horta added. "The criticism will be very painful, and maybe it will be painful because sitting there alone in my office I probably know that they are right, but there is nothing I can do about it."

(Inter Press Service)

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