Letter From East Timor

Letter From East Timor


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.

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