Sam de Silva, Dili – About 400 people marched Wednesday from the office of protest organsier, the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) to the gates of the UNTAET headquarters to protest for the rights of the East Timorese people. The PST are linked to and supported by the Australian-based Democratic Socialist Party.
The protesters had five demands to make to UNTAET, the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor. These were: stop the importation of labour; give East Timorese the chance to work; lower the cost of food and construction materials; lift the minimum wage; and broaden rice and other food distribution.
The protesters left the office of PST at about 9:30am and arrived at the gates of UNTAET at 10am. They made no attempt to enter the compound, but some did climb the gate to hold up the signs and placards that expressed their demands. Speeches were made by various people and at about 10:30, some representatives were allowed inside to voice their demands directly to UNTAET officials.
Another group, much smaller in size, was also present at UNTAET. These were the ex-workers of the Timor Lodge (previously known as Dili Lodge) owned by Australian business man, Wayne Thomas. The Timor Lodge was evicted by UNTAET on the 3rd January 2000, from land which once belonged to the Indonesian military. The ex- workers, accompanied by staff from the East Timor Human Rights Commission, were at UNTAET to find out directly from the source why the Timor Lodge was shut down. There was concern by some that CNRT, the umbrella organisation representing some of the different political interests in East Timor, was involved in the decision, so the ex-staff had come to hear the facts about the eviction directly from UNTAET.
It was quite a spectacle outside the gates of UNTAET. While the representatives of PST were discussing their demands with UNTAET officials inside the compound, more speeches were given outside. Many cameras were present, snapping pictures of what was probably the first major public protest in the new East Timor. The gates were closed – and no vehicles could enter or leave the compound. From inside the gates, many national (East Timorese) UNTAET staff looked on – only to be told by the foreign security chief to go back to work, that the protest was not a tourist attraction. Many of the local staff seemed pleased to see a protest aimed at their employer.
By about 11:45am, the representatives returned to their supporters, accompanied by a staff member from the UNTAET Political Office, and addressed the crowd. The following information was obtained by speaking to some Timorese who could speak some English. The complaints of the protestors were going to be taken in to consideration, said the UN. About the demands specifically, the UN claim they have no influence over how much NGOs pay their staff. The wages are dependent on the country the NGO originates. Regarding the food distribution issue, UNTAET claimed it needs to be informed with accurate evidence. And on the issue of employment, UNTAET responded by saying it recently employed 50 East Timorese to work at airport.
With that, the crowd disappeared, and normal traffic flowed in and out of the UNTAET gates – just in time for the lunch break. At this time, the situation regarding the Timor Lodge ex-workers is unknown, but no doubt, UNTAET would have addressed their concerns and clearly explained to them why Wayne Thomas's business had to be shut down.