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Peacing East Timor back together

The Australian - June 27, 2000

Peter Alford – "The criticism of us has been varied and I would say only partly justified ... at no time in history has a country been totally rebuilt in six months or a year," so Jean Cady, deputy chief of the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET), dryly notes.

It has been a punishing three months for the UN administration, with Cady and other senior officials, accused of arrogance, ignoring Timorese priorities and general laxity in responding to the urgent reconstruction needs of the territory's south-west and eastern districts.

At closed meetings, they've been flailed by frustrated CNRT (National Council for Timorese Resistance) president Xanana Gusmao and criticised carefully, but pungently elsewhere by other senior CNRT people.

UNTAET has suffered wildcat strikes among its 1400 locally engaged staff over pay and conditions, repeated demonstrations outside its Dili headquarters, and in late April a riot by unemployed Timorese after a social soccer game in Dili.

"The mood of the people is disappointment and frustration," says former Fretilin resistance movement president Fransisco Xavier do Amaral. "This is far away from what we expected. People are saying that after the long suffering, we are now being colonised by the UN. Personally, I think we are better to have the UN here than not, but they must do concrete things for the Timorese."

One fundamental problem shared by the Timorese and the UNTAET staff working under Brazilian transitional administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello is that neither has experienced a mission like this before. The UN Security Council has given UNTAET an unprecedented mandate for a peacekeeping operation: governing East Timor until independence, while rebuilding its shattered physical infrastructure and establishing administrative, judicial, legal, health, education and policing systems.

"The Timorese have no familiarity with any of these roles. All that experience left with the Indonesians," says an UNTAET official. "We, the donors and the international agencies, are having to train them virtually from zero for these new systems at the same time we're building them" it is a very novel mission." And it has been stressful for internal morale.

UN district administrators have complained about a reluctance by the UN headquarters in Dili to promote local administrators to take over their positions and excessive delays in rebuilding towns, villages and roads. One UN official, based within half a day's drive of the capital, recently told The Australian he had started local programs without authorisation after waiting weeks for approvals to arrive from Dili.

Junior staff can be scathing about the attitude of UN veterans, especially headquarters staff from New York. "I came in with one New York guy, with first-class stickers all over his luggage, and he looked around the airport and bellowed 'You call this a capital city'," said a young New Zealander.

Chatting at the top deck bar of the Hotel Olympia, he forecasts a big turnover when six-month contracts for UNTAET staff come up for renewal next month. The Dili rumour mill now treats almost as established fact that de Mello, a polished and ambitious UN high-flyer, won't be in East Timor by the end of the year, even though he has signed up for a second term.

The Hotel Olympia is often cited as a symbol of UN aloofness from the Timorese. Refurbished in Poland's Solidarity stronghold of Gdansk, the floating hotel is moored in Dili Harbour, a short walk from UNTAET's headquarters in the old Government House, to house about half the 800 UN staff.

In fairness, the UN reasonably decided it shouldn't compete for the sparse useable housing remaining in Dili after the militia and departing Indonesian troops had reduced most of it to ashes. In fairness also, many staffers loathe the Olympia and are queuing patiently for repaired houses as they become available for rent.

More importantly, the UNTAET mission has undergone huge changes in direction over the past two months. The first major switch followed the April disturbances. Having initially planned to rely on the main reconstruction phase of the mission, the $US165 million World Bank-administered Trust Fund for East Timor, for job creation, UNTAET and the US Government relief agency, USAID, hastily implemented a slew of short-term, make-work schemes that now employ 31,000 people across all 13 districts.

This has eased the immediate social pressure and Cady says the mission is now fast-tracking the reconstruction phase. "The 'transition initiative' (make-work) programs will last until the end of August and by then we hope our own capital investment projects" $US15 million from the UNTAET Trust Fund and $US65 million from the World Bank fund will have taken hold," he says. They better have, comments an Australian non-governmental organisation co-ordinator: "The World Bank projects have been unbelievably slow in coming through so far and the big worry is that if there's even a brief gap between the short-term schemes finishing and the capital works projects starting, we'll be seeing far worse outbreaks of unrest than before."

However, two far more fundamental changes to the mission will take place next month: "accelerated Timorisation" at all levels of the administration and the introduction of a "co-equal government".

Until now, in the words of one staffer, "de Mello has administered East Timor as a benign dictatorship", consulting formally on major matters with a National Consultative Council, dominated by CNRT and UNTAET officials, and informally with Gusmao.

From July 15, de Mello will operate a cabinet system that divides UNTAET's responsibilities into eight portfolio groups, four controlled by UNTAET officials and the others by CNRT political officials, although chosen by de Mello.

This "political option", which has been accepted by Gusmao and approved by the UN Security Council, is the more radical of two models de Mello put to a CNRT conference earlier this month. "This means that under the first model, UNTAET and myself will continue to be the punching bag," de Mello told the conference with a sharp smile. "And that under the 'political model', we will share the punches with you."

Whether or not they do join de Mello in the punching bag he still has overriding authority in all areas of the administration the CNRT leadership has embarked on a steep learning curve. None, apart from deputy chairman Mario Carrascalao, who was an Indonesian-appointed governor of the territory for a decade, has any real administrative or policy experience. Most have spent the past 25 years abroad, in jail or fighting in the hills. They had a first taste of the painful responsibilities of government earlier this month when presented with UNTAET's operational budget for the next 12 months, which imposed harsh limits on expenditure on what will form the core of the new Timorese civil service.

The budget allows for just 9035 employees, where once the Indonesians employed more than 25,000 people, although without ceding them any real authority. CNRT also had to accept two bitterly resented tax imposts, on petrol and coffee exports.

What further aggravated the process was having the International Monetary Fund riding shotgun on the process, on behalf of the donor nations. "Xanana Gusmao was quite forthright in telling the IMF they were imposing the model for economies in crises which were at least partly their own fault on a country that has been ruined by outsiders and is trying to build rebuild itself," said one insider.