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Report from East Timor 10 March 2000

From Peter Watson (Peace Brigades International)

This message comes from a US contact of our team based in Kupang.

Dear Friends:

East Timor has pretty well faded from the news these days, except in West Timor, where we are still much occupied with the ongoing effects of the crisis. I have travelled to East Timor three times in the past month and a half, and thought it might be useful to share some of my observations. These are not so much a picture of conditions there, but more focused on the agenda for transition to independence.

On my most recent trip to Dili I was translating/facilitating for a workshop on conflict resolution by Robert and Alice Evans of Plowshares Institute, hosted by the Protestant Church of Timor Lorosae. The original title was "Empowerment for Reconciliation," which sells a lot better in the U.S. than it does in Timor these days. It was a good workshop with a very highly motivated group, evenly divided among Catholics and Protestants, mostly young people, and all of them involved in some way with the process of social reconstruction. UNTAET's (the UN transitional authority) human rights people were interested enough to come observe several times. I think the high point of the workshop was when we did a simulation on "The Militia's Return." We took the common problem of militias trying to negotiate whether they can safely return to their villages and used it to practice the skills learned in the workshop. It also provided a good insight into the way the participants saw the issue. One group took the role of militias, another of their victims, and the third were mediators. They didn't reach an agreement for the militia to return, but they did agree on the issue: Both sides agreed there had to be a judicial process---the victims for obvious reasons, but the "militias" also saw it as the only thing that could offer them protection from the people's wrath. The question then was whether they should be held in detention in Dili or be allowed to go home while awaiting trial. One of the victims (whose brother had been killed by militias in real life) said, "Following the example of Jesus, I can perhaps forgive you, but you still have to take responsibility for what you did. We are trying to put our lives back together and rebuild our village, and we don't want to have to look at your faces. You'd better just stay in Dili." If we were to generalize the issue, it is, "Can we build justice and peace at the same time, or do we need to see justice done before we can begin to be at peace?"

In addition to the profound issues of the heart it raises, reconciliation has become a real political battleground. Maybe I should say "testing ground." In the villages, those who are active in negotiation for the return of refugees, resolution of property issues, etc., are at the same time making their early bid for political leadership. People with a proven ability to resolve conflicts would be credible candidates in the national elections. The students have a somewhat different take on it: they don't really trust the current generation of politicians to hold a consensus together, and want to go "straight to the people" as a check against the infighting that has already begun. Several of them said they thought CNRT would benefit from the workshop. Just doing workshops is a problem, because people are going to fight over who can control the reconciliation process, and workshops "empower" people in ways not always intended by innocent "trainers." The other twist on the issue that I heard from several people is that they feel reconciliation is being seen as the last card in the hands of the pro-integration faction. They are trying to make the case that their reincorporation into the political process is a necessary precondition for a legitimate East Timorese government, and there is some concern that UNTAET might be buying in to that argument. It would be a disaster (and a great injustice) if the pro-integration faction were able to gain the legitimation from UNTAET that they clearly don't have with the people, and then use "reconciliation" to hold the whole country at ransom.

The second thing that keeps impressing itself on me is the economy. Everybody talks about the transitional government, but not much is said about the transitional economy. Australians and Chinese Indonesians and who knows who else are brokering deals with CNRT leaders, and there's a thriving carpetbagger economy that has exaggerated the inevitable inflation. There's an ASEAN-based rupiah economy for the people and a much larger U.S./Australian dollar based economy for the foreigners. It's all symbolized by the Olympia Hotel, the executive-class barge moored in the harbor from whence the gods of UNTAET descend in the morning and return in the evening. The money also sets foot on shore and immediately returns from whence it came. And the final irony is that the Olympia is said to be dumping its waste into the bay. East Timorese who work on the boat confirm this, but whether or not it is literally true, it is certainly symbolically true. People are insulted by the salary spread between ET and foreign workers: about $100-$200/mo. for ET and $6,000/mo. for foreigners (again, I don't know if the figures are correct, but this is the perception). The same extends to transportation (big Toyota land cruisers vs. feet), housing, and even language: just as anybody who wanted to deal with the Indonesians had to speak their language, now everybody has to speak English or be relegated to the status of a voiceless peasant. There are thousands of capable East Timorese who are only able to sit on their porches and watch the parade go by (need I add, "circus parade?") because they were educated in Indonesian instead of English or Portuguese. Sadly, few among the UN and international NGO staff have a clue about the talent and local knowledge they are wasting.

In a similar way, ignorance about the indigenous economy threatens to send the UN down the same blind alley that Indonesia followed. 80% of East Timorese are subsistence farmers, or would be if they could live in their villages again, get seed (appropriate local seed, not commerical hybrids that deteriorate after the second or third planting), and have a way of turning the soil (in many areas the cattle that were used to prepare the ground were shot by the militias and left to rot in the fields). Instead of seeing these people as "unemployed" and "unskilled" (even though they have a wider range of skills than most urban dwellers, and are able to provide for themselves and their families with little more working capital than a machete and a digging stick), they should be seen as East Timor's main economic resource and the foundation of its future economy. Subsistence farmers are self-employed, which greatly reduces the stress on the urban economy to create jobs; the farmers will feed their urban cousins while they find their way in the city economy; and a strong agricultural base will give the country some breathing room in preparation for the baby boom that is bound to follow the restoration of peace. Right now both Dili and Baucau are swollen with people who would be in the villages if they had reliable public transport, even minimal health services, and reasonable food security until the next harvest.

(By the way, food aid will be necessary for a longer time than initially planned. Many people did not return to their villages in time to plant a crop this season, so it will mean that in some areas and for some people food aid will need to continue: until July or August for rice farmers and the south coast, and until February 2001 for corn farmers and the north coast. Assuming average rainfall and no "baby booms" among the rat population.)

The third thing that seems especially urgent to me is the establishment of mass communications. Right now there is only UNTAET radio and the Catholic church's radio station. These are important, but they don't reach everybody and they aren't exactly an open forum for public dialogue. No newspapers are yet published, even though some unemployed ET journalists have tried and been turned down by UNTAET. There are indications that UNTAET wants to control mass communication in order to reduce conflict. This is very short-sighted if true. Rumors float around on the wind and there is no way to counter them; people in the regional towns and villages hear nothing of the outside world for weeks at a time and regionalism becomes more and more entrenched. The UN should be distributing shortwave radios along with food, and providing paper and presses so people can begin an open dialogue about their future. The need to say in public what has happened to them, to express their grief and their hope, is still being stifled by the lack of mass communications. And as Ben Anderson argued in "Imagined Communities," the awareness of a multiplicity of simultaneous activities throughout a bounded geographic space, commonly experienced through mass media, is an important part of developing the idea of a nation. Let a thousand newspapers blossom, let Tetun establish itself as a print language, let the people speak and read and write and debate their future.

What else? Just a few short notes:

1. Rumors again: that the US wants Baucau to be the new Subic Bay, and that's why USAID is throwing tons of money around. Terrrible idea.

2. Many people in ET are supportive of the effort to try war criminals in Indonesia, because they know that much is at stake for Indonesian pro-reformation forces. It is a chance to get control of the military and clean up the judicial system. They are at the same time determined that an international tribunal is also essential. It should not be seen as an alternative in case the Indonesian process isn't "good enough." Sydney Jones reportedly said that the Indonesian investigative team came up with better evidence than the UN had. If so, that is pathetic. As one friend told her, "Well, if you don't have the evidence, then you'd better get it, or the people will exact their own justice."

3. A very small note. UNTAET has given prominence to the Catholic Bishops in state receptions, but has not invited representatives of other religious traditions. This is a questionable precedent, as there is some concern about the political role of the Catholic church in the future, and not just among Protestants. UNTAET should either involve all religious communities or none in public receptions.

4. People are really eager to begin putting together a nation, not just sweeping the streets and patching their roofs. The only thing clear at the moment is that they want a democracy and they have a president by acclamation (Xanana Gusmao). But just what a democracy is remains a bit vague, even among the students. There needs to be a process whereby people have a chance to say what kind of governance they want, and what part they want to play in it. People should be consulted, then a trial constitution put together, and then they should be consulted again. This will give them the sense that they are moving toward independence, and will at the same time give them a picture of how much work remains to be done--it should help them retain their patience.

At present, the UN is modeling the worst kind of political communication. Decisions are made, but only the officials themselves know why, and they aren't saying. They control the mass media and make sure only the news that serves their purposes gets out. This may be defensible for security reasons, but does the UN intend to promote a security state?

5. Another big question is, how will the decision be made that it is time for self-governance? Along with point 4. above, I think they should set up a process where it will be clearly perceived that the people themselves have a way of saying, "We're ready to begin." That would relieve a lot of the feeling of being recolonized by the UN.

Every time I go to East Timor, there are visible signs that things are getting better. Building materials have finally come in, and many people could be seen raising the roofbeams over their once-ruined homes. Locally grown vegetables have appeared in the markets, and a few buses have begun to run outside of Dili. In West Timor, a tide of refugees has at last begun to flow out of the camps to begin the journey home.


John Campbell-Nelson.

Link to main page on East Timor.

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