GLW: The View from Dili -- Eyewitness account

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Tue Nov 16 10:29:56 MST 1999

The following article appears in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
Australia's radical newspaper.


The view from Dili

By Max Lane

DILI -- Burned-out buildings and people on foot -- these were the
immediate impressions of East Timor's capital when I arrived on
November 4 for a 36-hour visit. Jakarta-backed militias had done
enormous damage with just matches and petrol.

Many buildings were just shells and many more fire-damaged, the
timber frames, roof beams and other parts of the house destroyed.
The militias had also destroyed or stolen much of the
transportation available in Dili. Trucks, cars, motor bikes, even
bicycles had either been stolen and carried off to West Timor or
set on fire.

There were a few trucks that survived and a couple of minibuses
that were being used by the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees (UNHCR).

Enterprising Timorese had reassembled or repaired a few damaged
motorbikes and had managed to get a few taxis going. But the
streets were bare of vehicles, except for the shiny new Land
Rovers and trucks of the UN and the big charity organisations.
The whole city was on its feet, moving or milling.

[Picture]The schools have not reopened, so there are large
numbers of young people moving around the city on
foot. Some have been mobilised by community organisations or have
found work for the UN agencies or the international charity
organisations. But many have nothing to do.

Basic services like electricity and water appear to be slowly
returning. Everyone criticises the slowness of the UN operations,
and there are still reports of extreme scarcities of food and
medicines in more remote villages. Inadequate commitment of
emergency funds from the member nations of the UN, including
Australia, is the cause of this slowness.

The Dili market has reopened, farmers bringing in local
agricultural produce and some meat. More vegetables are being
sold on the footpath, but the amounts still appear inadequate.
There are fears that if seeds do not arrive from outside soon,
crops will not be planted before the wet season.

Social tensions

While basic services slowly creep back into existence, the social
tensions are growing. The UN and charity agencies are now major
employers. East Timorese cannot but help notice the huge wage
disparities between Timorese and non-Timorese staff. In almost
all cases, it is the non-East Timorese who is the boss -- the
first experience of many Timorese after their victory over the
Indonesian military was being ordered around by UN or charity

There is also tension because not everybody is able to find
employment with these agencies. In many cases, preference is
given to English speakers, which means that jobs go to Timorese
coming back from Australia. UN and charity agency employment
appears likely to change the structure of East Timorese society,
a process which is already creating resentment.

[Picture]Under Portuguese rule, a number of families, many
with ties to Portugal, had developed considerable
wealth and land-holdings, including coffee plantations.
Traditional hereditary leaders also owned land. These two
privileged layers sit on top of the mass of ordinary East
Timorese, who are small farmers, some virtually only subsistence
farmers, or waged employees in the towns.

During Jakarta's occupation, a large number of office workers
were employed by Indonesian government departments.

During the Portuguese period, the mass of ordinary people were
often referred to as “maubere” by the Portuguese as an insult,
like calling them “the rabble”. The word took on a progressive
meaning during the struggle for independence from Portugal, and
was popularised by Fretilin as a term of pride to refer to the
awakening mass of oppressed and exploited East Timorese.

East Timorese politics was very divided: the privileged provided
the leadership for the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), who
wished to maintain some form of association with Portugal.
Fretilin drew its leadership from the less well-off but still
educated -- teachers, journalists, public employees and peasant
farmers -- and wanted total independence from Portugal.

They vied for popular support. By the time of the Indonesian
invasion in December 1975, Fretilin was the largest party. Both
UDT and Fretilin are now members of the National Council of
Timorese Resistance (CNRT), headed by Xanana Gusmao.

These social layers, and frictions, continue to exist. Some of
the wealthy families also prospered during the period of
Indonesian occupation and now aim to maintain their position.
Struggle for land and property is key to this.

In the absence of established government, the overall picture is
unclear. But even in a period of 36 hours, you couldn't help but
feel this process going on.

In one instance, I was visiting an office being used by Timorese
grassroots activists. All of a sudden, a young woman dressed in
army trousers and a fashion top entered the building accompanied
by a UN police officer. She was from one of the wealthiest
families in Dili.

She told the young activists that the land they were on, and all
the surrounding land, belonged to her family and that she wanted
it back.

She then went in and out of people's houses in the neighbourhood,
still accompanied by the police officer, to tell them the same
thing. She claimed that her actions had the approval of Leandro
Isaacs, the vice-president of UDT and a spokesperson for the
CNRT. The activists were unable to verify this claim by the time
I left Dili.

There are many similar stories going around.

Maubere consciousness

It is not surprising, then, that there remains a strong sentiment
for reaffirming the November 1975 proclamation of independence
which established the Democratic Republic of East Timor (DRET),
which was inspired by the egalitarian spirit of Fretilin's

I was unable to meet with Fretilin leaders during my short stay
in Dili, but I did meet leaders and activists of the Socialist
Party of Timor (PST). The PST's secretary-general, Avelino da
Silva, has been appointed to the CNRT Transitional Council, a
kind of inner cabinet, headed by Xanana Gusmao.

The PST's activists are very much inspired by this original
spirit of commitment to the Maubere masses. In fact, some former
Fretilin leaders and guerilla fighters have joined the PST, along
with many younger people. A symbol of this commitment to the
masses has become the original red, black and yellow flag of the

Even during the Indonesian occupation, the PST began efforts to
resurrect the tradition of agricultural cooperatives among the
small coffee farmers that Fretilin pioneered in 1974-5. These
cooperatives allow the smaller farmers to cut out the middle man
and provide some extra cash for the farmers and for the cause.

With meagre material resources, the PST has also started free
English language classes for anybody who wants them. With so many
foreigners wielding influence in Dili now, English is a survival

Dealing with the UN

The formal status of the United Nations Transitional
Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) is that of a dictatorship.
The UNTAET head will be responsible only to the UN
secretary-general and UN Security Council.

East Timor's formal status is now that of a non-self-governing
territory under UN administration. There are no formal mechanisms
to make the UN accountable to the East Timorese. There have
already been reports of disputes between the UN and CNRT on the
allocation of public buildings, as well as over lack of
consultation on key policy questions.

“While ever it remains necessary to have UNTAET”, Avelino da
Silva told me, “we must have a `one table, two chairs policy'”.
He said that every major decision maker in the UN structure must
have an East Timorese counterpart appointed by the East Timorese
political leadership. “We must be in on every decision and be
able to impact on every decision.”

So far no such mechanisms or anything similar have been
established. There are supposed to be local elections in 12-18
months' time for East Timorese to work with UN district

The PST aims to build stronger popular organisations, through its
own party as well as through the establishment of rural
cooperatives and trade unions. Da Silva's view is that, whatever
consultative mechanisms may be established, only popular power
can ensure their effectiveness.

Many people are waiting to see if Fretilin, or CNRT as a whole,
takes a similar position.

With social tension and political dissatisfaction increasing, if
no mechanism is found to democratise the UN administration, it is
likely that many East Timorese will decide that it is necessary
to abandon the technical and financial aid that comes with UNTAET
and campaign for an early transition to full independence, rather
than in two to three years.



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