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Baucau sad symbol of Jakarta failings

The Australian - March 22, 1997

Patrick Walters, Baucau – The young men in black T-shirts came in their hundreds to the centre of Baucau. With sombre faces they linked arms and formed a protective cordon for the procession of the new Bishop of Baucau, Monsignor Basilio do Nascimento, to the town's newly consecrated Cathedral of St Antonio.

The installation of Baucau's first bishop on Wednesday brought thousands of East Timorese into this sprawling hillside town, with its panoramic ocean views across the Wetar Strait.

The VIP guests dined in the colonaded old Portuguese market or 'mercado' beside the cathedral while Baucau's idle youth gathered in the streets to observe the proceedings.

Baucau is a profoundly depressing place. There are few shops and businesses and no nightlife. The church remains the only institution that offers hope and succour to a psychologically shattered population.

Its one hotel is a badly run down establishment lacking basic amenities which endeavours to discourage visitors. At night, the locals, fearing harassment by the authorities, rarely venture out of doors into the ill-lit streets.

Twenty-five years ago, before the Indonesian invasion, Baucau had a very different air. TAA flew each week from Darwin into the town's international airport carrying Australian tourists visiting Timor for a holiday break.

"In those days, Baucau was the hillside escape for the people of Darwin. It was a pretty, economically indolent village but not an unhappy place," recalled Mr James Dunn, Australian consul in Dili in the early 1960s and a frequent visitor to East Timor until December 1975.

Twenty years on, Baucau's airport is closed to civilian traffic and is closely guarded by elite Indonesian troops. The ubiquitous Indonesian military continues to dominate proceedings. No visitor in their right mind ever wants to stay in Baucau.

The town itself is the most vivid testament to the monumental failure to Indonesia's governing strategy in the territory. For the local authorities, the listless, disconsolate young men who gather on Baucau's streets are a social time bomb waiting to go off.

Strongly Catholic East Timor has one of the highest population growth rates in Indonesia. Each year, more than 15,000 young people graduate from high school and university. But with business investment in East Timor stalled, there are no jobs.

The best and brightest leave the island to study and work on Java. Only the local civil service has succeeded in hiring large numbers of graduates, many of whom find themselves with little actual work to do.

"We are going to have growing unrest because the number of jobless young people will go on increasing", said one of East Timor's leading non-government spokesmen, Mr Florentino Sarmento.

"At the moment, businessmen simply won't invest here. While the political situation remains unsolved. I think it really is too optimistic to wait for business to help the Government solve the unemployment problem."

Church sources speak of a more visible military presence in East Timor, particularly since the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo last October.

A particular worry is the current activities of the "Garda Paksi", a group of young men chosen to receive employment training in Java, sponsored by the military, that sources say sow deeper divisions among an already fractured community.

In recent months, the Garda Paksi has been accused of indiscriminately harrasing and beating up people suspected of holding anti-Indonesian views. In Viqueque last month, more than 100 people were detained after a Garda Paksi offensive which locals say created a reign of terror in the town.

Bishop Belo said this week that there had been no substantial change in the political situation. "For me, it is the same. There is no substantial change. There are demonstrations by young people. They arrest them and put them in detention without trial."

While he admitted that the award of the Nobel Prize had brought greater international attention to East Timor's plight, Bishop Belo said he was not optimistic about a political settlement.

"Timor is different culturally, historically from other parts of Indonesia. Give some concessions, let the people have their autonomy," he said.