Subject: AGE: Poor nation, rich MPs: Timor's perks

The Age

Poor nation, rich MPs: Timor's perks

Tom Hyland

February 4, 2007

EAST TIMOR'S Fretilin party, the dominant political force in one of the world's poorest nations, is pushing for lavish pensions and other benefits for former government ministers.

With East Timor racked by 10 months of violence that has displaced a tenth of the population and caused widespread food shortages, the move has triggered community anger and forced President Xanana Gusmao to use his veto powers.

It comes as Australian and other foreign peacekeepers struggle to quell continuing gang violence, killing and arson in the capital, Dili, and as the UN appeals for aid to help 100,000 people who have fled their homes.

Legislation granting every former minister a lifetime pension equal to his official salary, a government house, car, private staff, diplomatic passports, free international travel and other benefits was passed by the Fretilin-dominated parliament late last year.

President Gusmao has since vetoed the bill, sending it back to parliament. Under the constitution, he will have to approve the bill if it is passed a second time by two-thirds of the parliament, where Fretilin holds 55 of the 88 seats.

The bill, condemned by a coalition of non-government groups, was followed by separate legislation covering pensions for former MPs.

While less lavish than the bill covering ministers, the MPs' bill was still generous by local standards, where one-fifth of the population lives on much less than $US1 a day.

That bill, which also faced popular opposition, was modified after Mr Gusmao suggested amendments.

Opposition MP Joao Goncalves said both bills were "unrealistic and inappropriate" given conditions in the country.

"Our people are still facing extreme difficulties, poverty, and members of parliament and government office holders were getting these benefits while the majority of our people are in precarious conditions," he told The Sunday Age.

He said Fretilin had proposed the former ministers bill to "look after their comrades", such as former prime minister Mari Alkatiri and other ministers who were forced to step down last year.

One section of the bill, giving former ministers a personal security officer, has caused particular indignation among non-government organisations, given the lack of security in Dili despite the presence of more than 1000 foreign police and more than 1000 foreign troops, most of them Australian.

Continuing gang violence in Dili prompted the Federal Government to update its travel warning for East Timor last week, advising Australians to reconsider travelling there as violence could worsen and Australians could be specifically targeted.

East Timor's Government has asked the UN to send additional police amid fears that security could deteriorate ahead of presidential elections expected to be held in May and parliamentary elections due in July or August.

Despite Government moves to empty internal refugee camps by the end of last year, and threats to end official food relief, continuing violence in the capital forced up to 2000 people to flee their homes in recent weeks.

Last month the UN launched an appeal for $US16.6 million ($A21.4 million) to help the 100,000 people living in official camps, in church compounds or with relatives, to return to their homes.

At the height of the political crisis that erupted in May, 150,000 people were displaced.

The majority, who account for 10 per cent of the country's population, are still too afraid to leave, despite Government pressure. The United Nations and relief agencies report a rising incidence of food shortages and high levels of malnutrition in the country, ranked 142nd out of 177 countries in the UN's index that measures poverty.

In recent weeks, government and private relief agencies have given food aid to tens of thousands of displaced people. Even without the current political and security turmoil, more than 40 per cent of East Timor's people routinely face food shortages.

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