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Wilson da Silva | The Nation

Wilson da Silva

Author Bios

Wilson da Silva

Wilson da Silva, an Australian journalist, has reported on East Timor
for Reuters and the Australian Financial Review Magazine. He was
writer and producer of The Diplomat, an award-winning documentary
on East Timor's turbulent history.

Articles

News and Features

Inside an old courthouse in the dusty tropical town of Dili, an
exhibition documents the history of East Timor's resistance to
Indonesian occupation. Next to a grainy black-and-white photo of a
youthful man in a beard, a large inscription reads, "Our victory is
merely a question of time."

They were the words of Nicolau Lobato, East Timor's leader in the first
terrible years of war against the Indonesian invasion of December 7,
1975. Ill equipped and abandoned by all, including their Portuguese
colonial masters, the Timorese nevertheless held their ground, creating
large losses on both sides. That is, until May 1978, when Jakarta made a
successful plea to the Carter Administration for a squadron of attack
bombers and more parts and ammunition for its counterinsurgency
aircraft. Britain, under a Labour government, similarly authorized a
request for sixteen Hawk ground-attack aircraft. Used to bomb and napalm
the Timorese into submission, the escalation left 200,000 dead from war
and famine, including Lobato and most of his fellow leaders.

But in the end, Lobato was right. This May, East Timor became the
world's newest nation, the first country born in the twenty-first
century. Lobato could not have foreseen the twenty-four years of
despair, massacre, torture and disappearances that would follow the
Indonesian invasion. Or the betrayal of friends, the connivance of
wealthy nations and the paralysis of well-meaning institutions like the
United Nations. His faith in a righteous outcome is common among
Timorese: They believe that in the end, justice prevails. You just have
to give it time.

And time is something the Timorese now have: time to build a society in
their image, time to argue the minutiae of democracy, something they do
with delight--sixteen parties contested elections last year, and 91
percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. It's hard to walk the streets
of Dili and not be affected by this euphoria for openness, for
democracy, for freedom. It's everywhere: in the light of a newly
graduating teacher's eyes, the laughter of an expectant mother. And
while people are clearly poor (according to the World Bank, East Timor
is Asia's poorest country and the world's twentieth poorest), the
capital of this half-island territory, on the southeastern fringe of the
Indonesian archipelago, seems today alive with possibilities.

The danger is that this enthusiasm will be dashed against the rocks of
reality once the Timorese see how slowly grind the wheels of
development. This nation of 760,000 has a mortality rate for children
under 5 of 200 per 1,000, while malaria, tuberculosis and dengue are
endemic. More than half of the 2,400 villages have no wells or piped
water, and only one in four schools can fully accommodate students or
even functions at all. "We must have patience," says Paulo da Costa
Amaral, a onetime guerrilla fighter now running a Timorese charity in
the country's impoverished highlands. "Independence is the beginning....
there are many steps for us to climb."

Amaral is doing his share. With the help of the Australian aid
organization Austcare, his Halarae Foundation is training scores of
highland Timorese as teachers, offering microcredit to village
cooperatives and helping establish community gardens where crops can be
grown for both self-sufficiency and supplementary income. On a visit to
the impoverished but immaculately kept mountain village of Belola, near
the border with Indonesia, he is received with great ceremony, and a
village meeting is called in his honor. After daintily dressed children
complete a welcome dance, and after formalities are exchanged, people in
their Sunday best wait for a turn to speak. He hears old men lamenting
the village's lack of potable water and young women requesting sewing
machines so they can set up a garment cooperative.

A grizzled old man asks for help to rebuild the school--destroyed by
Indonesian-backed militias in the mayhem following the UN-supervised
independence referendum in 1999--and receives popular acclamation. The
village's 189 children are attending school in nearby Balibo, but they
have to walk for hours in the hot sun or in the pouring rain to get
there, dodging the perilously overloaded trucks that rumble up and down
the narrow mountain roads.

Amaral nods in understanding. He speaks eloquently of the promise of the
future and the difficulty of the present. Patience, he urges; we will do
what we can. Later, as we talk on the journey back in the foundation's
only vehicle, he shakes his head. Rebuilding a school is not the only
problem; the fledgling government would also need to commit funds for
teachers, books and other materials. There are many such villages in
East Timor, not all of them within walking distance of a school.

History has not been kind to the Timorese. After a bloodless coup in
Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began to decolonize and political parties met
openly in East Timor. But soon, tensions between largely well-off
Timorese and firebrand students who had returned from exile erupted into
open conflict. Now known to have been fomented by Indonesian military
intelligence, a civil war broke out and thousands died over a three-week
period. Portugal withdrew, and the victors--the leftist Fretilin
party--governed temporarily, while calling for Lisbon to reassert
control and complete decolonization. But Portugal appeared unwilling,
and into this vacuum stepped Indonesia. Sensing an invasion, Fretilin
declared independence on November 28, 1975. Two days later, leaders of
the defeated Timorese factions requested Indonesian intervention. The
Democratic Republic of East Timor existed for all of nine days before a
large-scale Indonesian invasion began, killing thousands and driving
hundreds of thousands into the mountains.

Luckily for the Timorese, the UN had never accepted Indonesia's
annexation of their country, a fact that was to prove crucial when, in
1997, the Asian financial crisis brought Jakarta to its knees. President
Suharto--who had ordered Indonesia's invasion--was toppled, and his
successor, in desperate need of economic aid, yielded to pressure for a
UN referendum on East Timor's future. And so it was that on August 30,
1999, 78.5 percent of the Timorese voted for independence, despite a
violent campaign of intimidation. So humiliated were the Indonesian
military and its proxy militias by the result that, over three weeks,
they laid waste to most of East Timor, destroying 80 percent of
buildings and butchering thousands of unarmed civilians. In the end,
this televised bloodbath prompted the world to act: An Australian-led
multinational force landed on September 20 and put an end to the
violence.

The territory was then ruled by the United Nations Transitional
Administration in East Timor, the first time in history the
international body has actually run a country. Led by Brazilian career
diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, it was both welcomed and cursed by the
Timorese. Welcomed for bringing peace and stability to a people who had
known little of it; for restoring burned-out homes and buildings,
repairing badly damaged infrastructure and reopening hundreds of
schools. For creating an impartial police force (a third of whom are
women), an independent justice system, for training 11,000 civil
servants (less than half the size of the bloated local administration
under Indonesian rule) and for establishing a modest but well-trained
defense force that has--along with a token contingent of international
troops--created a sense of security among a people who still recall the
unpredictable brutality of the Indonesian military and its militias.

But it's also been cursed for its mind-numbing bureaucracy, which sees
so many initiatives repeatedly delayed or never completed. For the
incongruence of air-conditioned Range Rovers roaring past dirt-poor
households, or senior officials on fat pay-packets bickering loudly with
Timorese waitresses about their restaurant bills. Or the sight of a
young UN worker thundering down the streets on an imported
Harley-Davidson motorbike, earning in one year more than a Timorese
family might hope to see in a lifetime. "There have been many, many lost
opportunities," admitted one senior French-speaking UN official who was
heading home. "The waste has been phenomenal, the bureaucracy is at
times unbelievable. There's so much more we could have done. But I have
to keep telling myself, there's so much we've achieved, too. You've got
to understand, the UN has never done this before."

For the Timorese, it will be a challenge to run their own affairs: Many
basic skills are lacking, and their only role models are a lackadaisical
Portuguese administration, a corrupt and bloated Indonesian bureaucracy,
followed by a process-obsessed and expensive UN technocracy. "We've
certainly seen how not to do it," joked one young Timorese official in
the new government. Luckily, many of the estimated 20,000 Timorese in
the diaspora for a quarter of a century--largely in Australia and
Portugal--have returned, bringing not only Western degrees but Western
sensibilities. This not only means a taste for cafe latte and cable
television but expectations of impartial justice, an intolerance of
corruption and an understanding of individual rights and responsible
governance.

Exiles are certainly well represented in the power structure: Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri was a high-ranking Fretilin official who escaped
to Mozambique, where Justice Minister Ana Pessoa Pinto--an exiled law
student--became a judge. Agriculture Minister Estanislau da Silva was a
research agronomist in Australia, and Foreign Minister José Ramos
Horta--a Nobel laureate and for many years East Timor's resistance
spokesman abroad--taught international relations in Sydney.

Time has also mellowed the leftist fervor of Fretilin (Revolutionary
Front of an Independent East Timor), which emerged from a UN-supervised
election last year with fifty-five of the eighty-eight seats in the new
Parliament. Despite Fretilin's dominance, Alkatiri has formed a cabinet
with members from minor parties as well as independents. And the onetime
radical is now often seen networking with potential investors or
officials of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Seventies-era talk of nationalization is gone. The US dollar is the
national currency, and revenue from the new offshore oil and gas fields
in the Timor Gap will (for the first few years) be banked rather than
spent, and the government plans to run deficit-free budgets.

But it would be a mistake to see East Timor as a client state of
neoliberal think tanks: In the first years of independence, education
and healthcare will consume 48 percent of spending. Thanks to a cleverly
negotiated aid program that is top-heavy at the start (until the big
offshore oil revenues kick in), East Timor will begin life
debt-free--something few nations can claim. It's as if the government is
determined to leverage its oil and gas windfall--estimated at $6 billion
over twenty years--to create a self-sustaining economy.

What is remarkable is how priorities were set. The government's National
Development Plan is a laudable manifesto stretching twenty years, aimed
at lifting the nation out of poverty and creating a sustainable economy
based on crops like organic coffee and services like ecotourism. It was
drafted after consultations involving 40,000 people in more than 500
towns and villages across the country. Asked to name the top priorities,
respondents listed education (70 percent), health (49 percent) and
agriculture (32 percent) as the top three, followed by the economy,
roads, poverty, water and electricity.

Launching the plan, former resistance leader Xanana
Gusmão--elected the country's first president in April--said that
no other nation "has had the wisdom or faith in its people to ask these
questions. No other nation has consulted the people so widely and so
systematically. This is something unique that we all, as Timorese,
should be proud of." Alkatiri called it "a common vision for development
and the eradication of poverty."

Not all is rosy: Political leaders worry about Fretilin's dominance in
Parliament, accusing it of bulldozing initiatives and paying lip service
to democracy. The World Bank, while supportive of the National
Development Plan, is critical of the lack of a timetable. Activists
criticize the new government's unwillingness to push for the prosecution
of Indonesian military officers guilty of atrocities in East Timor
during the mayhem of 1999. But both Gusmão and Alkatiri prefer to
focus on rebuilding bridges with Jakarta and its new president, Megawati
Sukarnoputri. They even convinced her to attend the independence
celebrations, despite the fact that wounds over the loss of East Timor
have yet to heal.

All in all, it is easy for visiting Westerners to find fault. One
foreign journalist criticized the new nation for bankrolling its $1.3
million independence celebrations with corporate donations. Others saw
it as a master stroke; instead of diverting much-needed money from
health or education, the government chose to lean on corporations and
wealthy nations keen for good relations. It seems East Timor really is a
twenty-first-century nation.