Subject: SMH: Local leaders key in Timor handover

Sydney Morning Herald Thursday, November 25, 1999

Local leaders key in Timor handover


Last week's changing of the guard in Dili, with Sergio Vieira de Mello succeeding Ian Martin as United Nations chief, opened a new chapter in East Timor's history.

Unamet becomes Untaet, the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor. While Unamet was primarily concerned with facilitating the holding of the plebiscite, Untaet's mandate is more ambitious.

The new body will function as an interim administration for a transition period of more than two years. Untaet will be responsible to the UN Secretary-General for East Timor's transition from a devastated colony to full independence.

The UN mandate for Untaet is not specific about the role of the Timorese in the administration, other than saying that they should be consulted. This has raised some questions about the authority of their leaders in the early stages of the government of the territory.

Some in the National Committee for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) are very sensitive to the danger of being sidelined, especially by some non-governmental organisations operating in East Timor. One agency seemed to dismiss the CNRT as only one of the political groups, interestingly a contention also used by Indonesia's Co-ordinating Minister for Defence and Security, General Wiranto, to reject their application for official representation in Jakarta.

In these circumstances it is essential that Untaet act quickly to formalise the status of the CNRT leaders. A responsible and responsive Timorese leadership is essential to the daunting task of restoring social order in East Timor. The leadership role of Xanana Gusmao is essential to the promotion of community understanding of, and support for, UNTAET policies.

This mission will be a learning experience for the UN. It is rather more complicated than the UN's operation in Namibia, which had not suffered a devastated infrastructure and mass deportations.

In Namibia, the question of what status to give the South-West Africa People's Organisation was resolved early. It was decided that until elections could be arranged SWAPO would be recognised as ''the authentic representative of the Namibian people''.

Vieira de Mello has made it clear that Gusmao and his colleagues will be closely consulted, but just what the formal arrangements will be is unclear.

The CNRT has earned the right to be regarded as the ''authentic representative'' of the Timorese people until elections can be held. This broadly based umbrella group brings together the leaders of all the main Timorese parties, including Fretilin and the UDT (Timorese Democratic Union), which in August 1975 were briefly in conflict. Even members of Apodeti, once the champions of integration with Indonesia, have joined.

The CNRT is endowed with leaders of distinction. Xanana Gusmao is internationally recognised as an outstanding leader, a man of vision and moderation. Jose Ramos Horta, even before he became a Nobel peace laureate, was a very experienced diplomat, having argued East Timor's case in international forums for more than two decades. Other talented leaders include Mario Carrascalao, who, as East Timor's governor in the 1980s, struggled to protect his people against abuses by the armed forces.

Timor is also fortunate in having a spiritual leader of the calibre of Bishop Carlos Belo, a fearless champion of the rights of his people.

Even at this early state, therefore, the high calibre of the Timorese leaders qualifies them to play the central role in the interim government. Their presence at this level is important if Untaet is to maintain the full confidence of the Timorese people.

It is also very important to the shaping of the new nation's international and regional role, which must begin without delay. This President Abdurrahman Wahid acknowledged by offering Gusmao a welcome befitting a head of state when he visits Jakarta.

However, there is a warning note in remarks by Wiranto, who this week declared that the CNRT was only one of the political forces in East Timor. Who are the others? In fact the only other political group is the pro-autonomy movement, Timorese who cast their lot with the militia, and fled to Indonesia with them.

Wiranto's remarks suggest that at least some generals may be alert for opportunities to fracture the political unity the CNRT leaders have worked hard to achieve. The early formation of an interim government would help counter any attempts to create divisions.

Whatever arrangement emerges, the CNRT leaders seem likely to play decisive and visible roles in the reconstruction and development of East Timor for nationhood. Of course, as has already occurred, tensions are bound to arise between Timorese impatient for change, and for full self-government, and UN officials, some of whom may have their own preferences for East Timor's political and economic outcomes.

But it is the destiny of the Timorese that is most at stake, and it is therefore to the advantage of Untaet, and important to the Timorese, that from the very outset their respected leaders play a decisive role in rebuilding East Timor and redefining its identity.

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in Portuguese East Timor. He is the author of Timor: A People Betrayed.

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