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Rolling stoppages hit public transport system

Green Left Weekly - June 21, 2000

Vanya Tanaja, Dili – This city has been rocked by snap public transport stoppages since June 2 in response to a rise in the price of fuel. Small minibuses, "mikrolets", that provide cheap public transport around Dili, and private taxis have all taken part, leaving the city with only private vehicles, United Nations cars and a large number of pedestrians.

The dispute started when the price of fuel rose from 2500 rupiah (60 cents) a litre to 5000 rupiah a litre overnight. The drivers, demanding a reduction in the fuel price, blockaded the headquarters of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor at the old governor's office that morning for several hours.

The demonstrators also criticised UNTAET's seeming inability to reconstruct facilities useful to ordinary Timorese or provide employment to local people.

The protesters then drove in a convoy to Tibar, 45 minutes west of Dili – where the National Council for Timorese Resistance were holding a pre-congress meeting to prepare for its official congress in August.

But the drivers did not get the answers they were looking for – a CNRT representative told them that the organisation did not know about the price rises and that it was not a matter for it to address.

The newly formed Timor Leste Labour Union issued a statement supporting the drivers. The union demanded that prices on fuel and nine other basic commodities, including rice and cooking oil, be lowered; it also called for higher wages, increased employment opportunities for Timorese and for politicians to pay greater attention to the concerns of the people.

On June 14 the flare-up intensified when, for the first time, an organised political force took up the issue. The Socialist Party of Timor led a demonstration of 300 people outside UNTAET headquarters, demanding lower fuel prices, the importation of agricultural implements instead of luxury cars and higher wages for Timorese workers.

Farmers from Liquica, Aileu and Manatuto districts took part, as well as a smaller number of workers and unions, such as port workers, those at the coffee exporters NCBA, and the Timorese Labour Association, LASETI.

The demonstration also demanded to know what would be presented at the Lisbon donors' conference, which will be attended by CNRT and UNTAET representatives. Akara Leon, demonstration organiser and PST vice-president, told Green Left Weekly, "We want to know where the money will be spent and how much – the people still need to fulfill basic needs, so we want to know where the money is going to."

UNTAET agreed to respond in writing to the demonstrators' petition and to provide 340 tractors to rural areas, offers which were cautiously accepted. Further demonstrations are planned if no progress is made. Whilst Pertamina, the Indonesian-owned corporation supplying much of East Timor's oil and gas, blames new import taxes for the increase, there has been no explanation given of why fuel prices doubled overnight. Taxes on fuel have been in place since March 20 and have collected US$400,000. It seems likely that Pertamina has sought to pass the cost of these taxes onto Timorese consumers.

In a press conference, David Haeri from UNTAET's political affairs section said that the issue of fuel price rises was a "difficult" one. He said the Timorese were "used to having subsidised fuel" and that UNTAET had to balance this with "allowing the free market to operate and making it easier for foreign investment to enter the country". He indicated that UNTAET would "have a discussion with fuel companies" to seek some form of compromise.