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East Timor struggles with freedom

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dili, East Timor

Xanana Gusmão, the hero of East Timor’s freedom struggle, hardly looks into your eyes when talking. His dark eyes swim and wander. And now it appears that Gusmão may be losing sight of his lifelong goal: peace and a future for the new Timor.

Timor, freed from 25 years of Indonesian occupation by a bloody confrontation between local residents and Indonesian-backed militias, needs direction and leadership. Because of quarrels with the U.N.-appointed transition parliament, the former poet, guerilla and prisoner of Indonesia gave up its chairmanship in March.

Furthermore, Gusmão insists that there is “no way” he will be the first president of East Timor. Welcome to the world’s youngest country, that already features the ingredients of decline after a kind of cultural revolution: the civil infrastructure has been destroyed; the people live in grinding poverty with hardly any work; the elite wrangles for power; reconciliation remains a faraway goal with Indonesia’s consistent denial of its past killing regime in East Timor. But thanks to an ambitious U.N. mission with billion-dollar donations from the world community, “Timor LoroSae” (Timor of the Rising Sun) will soon fly its own flag.

In many ways, Timor has risen phoenix-like from the ashes, literally. After the August 1999 U.N.-organized referendum showed that the vast majority of East Timorese wanted autonomy from Indonesia, a firestorm of violence was let loose on the people. In a few short days, militias backed by the Indonesian military murdered thousands. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, fleeing into Timor’s mountainous hinterland and across the border into Indonesia’s West Timor Province.

Hardly anything survived the plundering waves of August and September 1999. As the last Indonesian tank lorries drove through Dili, they sprayed houses with gasoline, and entire neighborhoods burned down. U.N. peacekeeping forces led by Australian troops and commanders restored a semblance of order in the territory and allowed people to return from the hills.

By now, the tropical sun and monsoon rains have bleached the soot-blackened ruins of Dili. Many houses have been provisionally renovated -- and Dili is going Australian. With the inflow of entrepreneurs from Darwin, Australia, and of the U.N. armada, new hotels, restaurants and supermarkets opened up, offering the lowest and highest quality selection. And world-class prices to match.

Perplexed Timorese are left to stare at full shelves. An average hotel bed costs nearly $100 a night -- the monthly salary of a Timorese.

The U.N. administration Untaet (United Nations Transitional Authority of East Timor) has a yearly budget of about $600 million, most of which is sent out of East Timor into the salary accounts of foreign U.N. staff. In contrast, East Timor’s yearly budget is $59.4 million, which includes investments.

Some observers estimate it will take a decade for East Timor to reach the economic standard it had under Indonesia. “Free we are at last, but poor,” says the Catholic bishop of Dili, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. “Now there are two kinds of society. The society constituted by the people from outside from abroad, walking around, eating in the restaurants. Every day a big fish. They have the right to do that, because they have money. But then we have another class of people, Timorese. They tell me, ‘We are suffering.’ OK, we needed international assistance, and we ask them to come -- but not only to come, but beyond giving security also to help, to give skills, to give more training, and to be on their side. Side by side. And to be integrated in the Timorese community.”

Strain beginning to show

Signs of division in society are apparent everywhere. The people have four languages (Portuguese, English, Bahasa and Tetum), three currencies (Indonesia’s rupiah and the Australian and American dollars), and even three telephone systems (Indonesian, Australian and U.N.-installed) that are not connected to each other.

In the beginning, the Timorese gazed in awe at the glittering world of the foreigners with their mobile phones, imported limousines and parties at night. But strains have begun to emerge.

Recently, Hong Kong-Chinese and Singapore-Chinese entrepreneurs have been attacked. In April, Gusmão’s Australian wife got stabbed at a beach. Says East Timor’s former governor Mario Carrascalão: “The worst [thing for East Timor] would be [bad] feelings against foreigners. It’s starting already -- mainly because of the [highly inflated] prices.”

Foreign entrepreneurs confirm that brawls among Timorese are the rule, that little things often ignite violence. Recently on the luxurious ship-hotel “Central” moored in Dili’s harbor to serve the rich, the Timorese staff threw the plates against the wall because of “bad food.” The hotel staff members have had disputes over taxes, threatening to burn down the tax office if the economy doesn’t improve.

Unrest in the countryside is setting off other alarm bells. In recent riots in Bacau and Viqueque a mosque was burnt down, 70 houses destroyed and several people killed. Gusmão says: “I am worried that even with the international community here it seems we cannot assure a peaceful situation and a feeling of security.”

Many U.N. staff are deflated, burnt out and stay in Timor only because of high salaries. Talking in a bar one evening, one says: “These Timorese think freedom means everything is free.”

The U.N.’s Peter Rimmele, head of the registration department, asks: “Where else has a people destroyed its own livelihood?”

Joachim Metzner of Germany’s aid agency GTZ notes that the violence of today is rooted in trauma from the past. Metzner knows Timor since Portugal’s colonial days. “Back then violence was not known,” he says. “Today’s aggressions are the coverage of traumas.

“Employees show me hills, crossings, where soldiers murdered. Only the ones who were aggressive got through.”

American Peter Galbraith, East Timor’s Minister of Political Affairs, says, however, “Even the American liberators were criticized by the French [in World War II]. I see no reason for pessimism. The U.N. mission ended violence, solved humanitarian suffering, the hunger and housing problems. Basically everybody was homeless. The political process with parliamentary elections in August is going forward.”

However, of late, a Popular Council for the Defense of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, CPD-RDTL, has been stirring up hate propaganda against foreigners and “mestizos,” descendants of mixed marriages with blood from Portugal, Goa and Cape Verde, many of whom lived in the safe diaspora during Indonesia’s reign of the territory. The new Timor, says the Democratic Republic of East Timor, has only replaced its old dictators with new dictators. Timorese need a government of their own instead of mestizos and the “Brazilian U.N. dictator” Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The transitional cabinet, which de Mello chose by hand, consists mainly of foreigners and mestizos. Gusmão, Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta and the powerful Carrascalão-Clan are considered mestizos as well. In the computerized Untaet-headquarters, where on the drawing table a wishful world of democracy and transparency arises, ethnic Timorese remain a rarity, because most of them have no education. They have always served under foreign masters. Places in the U.N. workforce mainly went to a small circle of people, namely old allies of Indonesia, who already worked for Jakarta’s occupation regime.

Furthermore, because most property archives were destroyed when Dili was razed, nobody knows who owns what. “That prevents foreign investors from coming into this country,” says Untaet’s de Mello, though he says an investment law is being prepared.

In the beginning, Gusmão was full of praise for the United Nations, even though the United Nations couldn’t protect the Timorese after the U.N. referendum and instead recommended that they flee into the mountains. But the U.N. mission gave life again after weeks of terror without food, without roofs, without protection.

But the Timorese “are not interested in a legacy of cars and laws,” Gusmão declared in a broadside last October. Quite often, says Gusmão in private, he is thinking about his days as a guerilla, a kind of ideal world. “It was something like a game. The struggle is all-important, and you know the capacity of the enemy but also the capacity of the population.”

No interest in presidency

The deadly game he mastered. As a politician is he doomed? “[To be president] is out of my capacity,” says Gusmão.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia’s West Timor, former militia leader Cancio Lopes de Carvalho has declared a “cooling down period” for now. After the United Nations departs Timor, though, he says his men will march again against Dili. In early April skirmishes along the East Timor-West Timor border claimed victims. U.N. peacekeeping troops increased their patrols.

Wiser after its contended nation-building missions in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia, the United Nations has an “exit strategy” for East Timor. Some foreign U.N. staff will remain, after the territory’s formal independence.

“But we can’t stay here forever,” says Untaet head de Mello. “You should never overstay your welcome.”

De Mello says he fully understands Gusmão’s retreat from politics. “Xanana is not a politician. He never was and probably never will be. In the sense that he doesn’t play games. He was beginning to feel that the people are criticizing him, telling him: ‘Where are you? You divorced yourself from reality.’ They say, ‘You don’t listen to us anymore. You don’t talk to us anymore. You are far up in the upper stratosphere of society.’ And one of these days he feels that they tell him: ‘You don’t represent us anymore.’ I am not inventing [that],” says de Mello. “He told me that.”

Bishop Belo, however, insists: “Xanana has to finish the process of the consolidation, of independence, of peace and democracy and justice. Many people have died fighting for independence. He has to take responsibility and not be afraid to present himself as a leader,” the bishop says.

Xanana declines. Quite possibly -- as has happened so often -- he will change his mind when the time comes. For now he prefers to remain a “simple Timorese,” says de Mello. “Xanana is convinced by staying outside he can have more of a moral influence.”

In T-shirt and jeans, with his Australian wife and newborn son, Gusmão often travels to villages, eats with farmers, philosophizes over beer and shakes hands. In the villages, he is still adored -- not like in Dili’s querulous world of politics, where former friends have become enemies.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001