Fri, 15 Dec 2000

East Timor at a cross-roads

By Damien Kingsbury

MELBOURNE (JP): East Timor is a place at the cross-roads. It is about half way between the removal of Indonesian authority and being granted full independence, administered by a "government" that is half East Timorese and half United Nations and is half way from almost total destruction to a functioning reconstruction.

East Timor is also at a cultural cross-roads. It is formally part of Asia but for the most part feels more like the Pacific, in terms of origins of its people, culture, flora and fauna.

It is physically connected to Indonesia, yet sits on the Australian continental shelf. Its more recent external influences indicate its juncture between having been a Portuguese and later Indonesian colony, and the contemporary influences of Indonesia and the West, not least through Australia.

This meeting point is reflected in East Timor's languages, in the use of its 16 or so local languages, the continuing use of Indonesian, the re-adoption of Portuguese, at least by some, and, increasingly, the use of English in cross-cultural communication.

Similarly, although the American dollar is the official currency, the Indonesian Rupiah and the Australian dollar dominate all but official transactions.

One very important sense in which East Timor is also at the cross-roads is the point where expectations face reality. The broad unity that opposed Indonesian rule and which helped form a culturally disparate people into a nation is being tested by traditional rivalries and suspicions.

And there is disquiet, and sometimes anger, at what is perceived to be the failure of the UN to restore to East Timor all of the conditions enjoyed under Indonesia. There are now fewer health clinics and health workers than under Indonesia, and there are fewer schools and school teachers.

Electricity supply is intermittent and telecommunications is almost exclusively through the mobile network and effectively non-existent outside Dili.

Yet with the wholesale destruction of the territory, much of which is still evident from one end of the half island to the other, the physical infrastructure established under Indonesia is still in the process of being rebuilt. If electricity supply is still not reliable, it is at least now widely available and, for the time being, free.

Teachers are being trained, the university has just been re- opened, health clinics are being re-established and, importantly, trauma councilors are being trained and included in the health network.

In one sense, some of the trauma councilors reflect a more general frustration. Most of the population has been traumatized and many continue to suffer its ill-effects. But trainee councilors are often dismayed to learn that there is no easy resolution to both recent and longer standing trauma.

Not even the highly trained professionals of the West, they are learning, have a magic cure for such complex problems.

In one sense, the public protestations about perceived or real inadequacies are the most visible sign of positive change. Having the freedom to freely express dissatisfaction was not a right afforded by the Indonesian authorities, nor the Portuguese before them.

The transitional "government", the East Timor Transitional Authority (ETTA), is not democratic, but it is effectively benign. As an emergency institution that contains half East Timorese representation, it is in structure a reasonable compromise ahead of elections which, if they are like the ballot that secured independence, will be free and fair.

In the interim, food security is largely in place, with few areas still reliant on food aid. Indeed, the markets are notable for their variety of produce and goods, with local produce and a large range of Indonesian goods now back in the stalls along with an increasing supply of goods from Australia.

As the center of the international aid program, Dili has taken on many of the characteristics of a boom town. Unemployment is still high, although with the closure and destruction of Indonesian businesses that is hardly surprising.

Added to this has been the expansion in Dili's Timorese population, by more than half from its earlier 100,000 or so.

Inflation, too, has soared since the UN arrived, although prices for local and Indonesian sourced goods have remained much closer to their original. The main impact of the UN on inflation has been on goods and services for foreigners. This is just the frantic milking of a short-term cash cow.

A little over a year ago private vehicles were dominated by non-East Timorese. Not only do East Timorese own vehicles, imported from Australia and Singapore, but downtown Dili is now the scene of traffic jams, especially near the market which is in a constant state of slow crawl.

It is unfortunate that bicycles, which are an appropriate (and sustainable) form of transport in a town of Dili's still limited size, enjoy very little status.

It is unfortunate, too, that the increase in vehicle numbers has had no impact on either driving skills or vehicle maintenance. The UN has attempted to impose some road rules, at least in Dili, but they are primarily observed in the breech.

Relatively new vehicles are also increasingly reduced to minimum functioning status in as short a time as possible. East Timor's new fleet of cars seems destined to end up like its original blue taxis, in which windows have no glass, doors have no locks or handles, shells have no headlights and windscreens no wipers.

Even brakes are considered an occasional luxury rather than an absolute necessity.

Perhaps East Timor's taxis are its signature. They are chaotic, relatively slow and fairly cheap. Only the bare minimum works but they are easy to maintain and, judging by their age and condition, run just about forever.

A popular expectation is that, with independence, there should be jobs, and hopefully cars, for everyone. But short of a Timor Gap hydrocarbon bonanza, East Timor can be expected to slide into a sort of post-colonial torpor, in which foreign income will be limited, and the pace of life slow and, in a variety of ways, less than reliable.

It is likely that in East Timor, after its long-awaited independence, it will then be a case of learning to strike the inevitable compromise between desire and a less forgiving reality.

Dr Damien Kingsbury, who recently returned from a one month visit to East Timor, was an accredited observer to the 1999 Popular Consultation in the former Indonesian province.