'Free' East Timor
plf13 at SPAMit.canterbury.ac.nz
Sun Nov 26 00:12:31 MST 2000
The following article appeared in the Australian magazine 'Socialist
Alternative' #45, September 2000.
John Howard and the media haven't let up about how wonderfully East Timor
is progressing as an independent country and how proud we should all be of
Australian troops in East Timor. According to their logic, the struggles of
East Timorese people are all over, and the United Nations transitional
government is to be congratulated. This report from Kate Habgood, working
with students in East Timor, demonstrates how far these claims are from the
After fighting off 500 years of Portuguese colonialism and 25 years of
Indonesian colonialism, East Timorese are once again second-class citizens
in their own country.
Nine months after the arrival of the United Nations Transitional
Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), East Timor is widely regarded here
as the UN's greatest failure yet. A colossal, top-heavy bureaucracy sits on
the harbour in Dili.
The head of the administration, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has sweeping powers
which effectively make him an autocrat.
It wasn't long before students re-named one branch of the UN's tentacles,
the National Consultative Council, "Nepotisme, Collusi, Corrupsi",
recognising that the NCC's job was to approve every decision made by the UN
and that it worked only in the interests of its members.
Protests against UNTAET came to a head in April. The central focus was the
lack of job opportunities for Timorese, but also about the fact that, six
months after UNTAET's arrival, Dili still consisted of piles of rubble and
The UN responded with reams of propaganda about how only private and
foreign investment could rebuild the nation, and the biggest danger was of
producing a civil service on the scale of Indonesia's.
One particularly lovely example was an article in their newspaper about a
good bloke called Eddie Taylor, who out of the goodness of his heart came
from Bali to assist with the rebuilding. Eddie employs dozens of local
staff in his construction company, restaurant and god knows what else.
His restaurant, phil's grill, sits near the airport. International staff
can drink $4 beers and eat $12 meals while groups of unemployed East
Timorese sit on the embankment above the restaurant, watching them. Most,
if not all, of Eddie's local staff would be receiving less than a main meal
These cockroach capitalists are not willing to share more than a tiny
fraction of their quickly accumulating wealth with the Timorese.
The notorious Timor Lodge is run by Wayne Thomas and a consortium of
Australians, including Liberal Party president Shane Stone. The hotel is
situated on a former Indonesian army barracks, officially the property of
UNTAET. Thomas has been credited with introducing prostitution to East
Timor and was most recently rumoured to be caught importing bullets.
Staff receiving 25,000 rupiah ($A5) a week at the Timor Lodge earlier this
year struck for higher wages and won 40,000 rupiah. However, a week later
they were handed a lump of money and told never to show their faces on the
In other areas, local Timorese staff are often treated with contempt,
ordered around as photocopy dogsbodies and denied higher wages because of
"lack of skills". The UN still has a general practice of hiring only
The disparity between local and international salaries is emerging as one
of the biggest issues. Local wages have been set in accordance with the
current price of goods. The NGOs (Non Goverment Organisations) have drafted
an agreement with "an explicit understanding between employing agencies
that they will adhere
to these salaries in order to minimise the poaching of employees." These
salaries start at $A4.36 a day for unskilled labour.
Many goods for sale in the Dili markets are more expensive than in
Australia. Bus fares before the ballot were Rp100 (2 cents), now they are
Rp1,000. Kerosene has doubled in price while petrol, which is now brought
to East Timor exclusively by an Australian company, has quadrupled.
One Timorese student estimates that an adequate wage to feed, clothe and
support a family of eight or nine people is around $A30-$35 a day.
A "bottom of the pile" wage for international staff is around $US40,000 a
year, while for Timorese it's $US360. For example, an apprentice carpenter
in Maliana gets $US1.50 a day - plus rice.
The UN justifies this in an internal document (written to respond to sticky
questions from locals) stating: "National staff's remuneration is set
according to local salary conditions. International staff are paid
according to international salary scales, based on the cost of living
The UN argues that it is legitimate to invest more money in the maintenance
of UNTAET rather than in rebuilding the country because UNTAET receives its
finances from member nation tithes. But why should all the UN funds
received by member countries be channelled towards maintaining bureaucrats
Donor countries have a vested interest in giving money to countries like
Cambodia and East Timor. It gives them a stake in the future of the country
- and a share of the money pie for both government and business.
As far back as last September, Australia was holding forums in Canberra on
"opportunities for Australian businesses in East Timor" - giving a hint as
to the real agenda behind sending troops there.
NGOs are constantly grandstanding about how much they are contributing to
Timor, yet their projects could often be realised for a fraction of the
price if the bureaucracy was cut out. For example, some Timorese say it
would be simpler to provide a machete to build a house straight away than
wait months for a shelter kit while endless investigations and needs
analyses are carried out.
NGO workers are not averse to making a quick buck for themselves while they
indulge in a little aid work. NCBA, a coffee "NGO" from America, "helps"
East Timor sell its coffee overseas. However, this company has been in East
Timor for many years and apparently worked in collaboration with Indonesian
companies. Timorese coffee farmers struggle on the less than $A1 which NCBA
gives them for each kilo of coffee. NCBA said on Radio UNTAET recently that
part of their work was to help East Timorese workers understand the
stockmarket and why coffee prices fluctuated!
Taxes are also being imposed, "focusing on revenue generation with an
emphasis on business activities and on products marketed to those with
higher purchasing power."
Imports attract a duty of five per cent of their value, while tobacco and
alcohol are subject to a higher excise duty. This doesn't worry UN staff,
however, as they enjoy tax-free incomes, daily $US100 expense accounts and
exclusive access to a duty-free shop in Dili. In the new East Timor, the
richest get access to the cheapest beer.
With its fractured political nature and lack of resources, CNRT (the uneasy
coalition of pro-independence organisations) lost faith with the people of
East Timor long ago, and the UN seems to have replaced Indonesia as the
UNTAET's ideology is summed up by Jaret Chopra, a disillusioned ex-staff
member: "Rather than trying to render itself obsolete as swiftly as
possibleUNTAET resisted Timorese participation in order to safeguard the
Widespread unemployment, intermittent food distribution and the absence of
reconstruction indicated that the UN had no operational plan; there were no
timetables or milestones of achievement that might have driven a transfer
of power. The dispute over the Community Empowerment Project (where local
communities elected representatives who considered funding proposals at a
village level) confirmed the worst suspicions of the East Timorese: that
the UN had no inclination to share power with them during the transition,
include them in any decision-making beyond perfunctory consultation.
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