EAST TIMOR: Problems 'left behind by UN transition'

Issue 

Tomas Freitas is the director of Luta Hamutuk (Fight Together), a research and advocacy institute focusing on economic issues, including East Timor's Petroleum Fund. The Petroleum Fund is a mechanism to regulate the expenditure of East Timor's oil and gas proceeds. Freitas was involved in the Timorese clandestine movement against Indonesian occupation and more recently, the campaign for fair maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea. He was interviewed by Green Left Weekly's Vannessa Hearman.

Freitas told GLW that the proposal to establish an "inquiry" into the violence in East Timor, possibly to be conducted by the United Nations, "is a very good idea", but that "it won't resolve the problems of East Timor".

"The crisis here is not some spontaneous crisis, but is a result of the accumulation of problems left behind by the UN during the transition period [towards independence], especially the decision to change from Falintil [the national liberation army] to setting up the East Timor Defence Force [FDTL].

"The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor should not have overturned Falintil just like that. Falintil should have been allowed to continue to exist for the time being — perhaps another 3-5 years — and after the veterans of the guerrilla movement have reached pension age, they could be retired from the forces."

Freitas said that an inquiry would not be sufficient to address perceptions that "not enough has been done for those who gave up their lives for the guerrilla struggle".

According to Freitas, "kontroladu" (under control) is the term used by East Timor's leaders to describe the current situation in Dili. "But only during daylight hours. At night time, the situation is still tense, although the people try to entertain themselves by watching the World Cup. Those living on the outskirts are still afraid. Smoke from possibly burning houses can be seen at night. The arson attacks seem to be focused on houses of bureaucrats or members of the government on the edges of Dili.

"Some ministries have started to operate again during the day, but offices of the ministries for agriculture, mineral resources and energy policy and for development have been looted. Computers, desks, chairs, motorbikes and cars have all been destroyed or stolen. Schools and universities are almost totally inactive. Parliamentary sessions started being televised again, as [President] Xanana Gusmao gave his first speech to parliament about the crisis situation."

Within the FDTL, "Low wages is one complaint, as well as the lack of productive and useful activities", Freitas said. "In 2005, 300 members of the armed forces left voluntarily. One of them, Julio — an old friend of mine — had joined Falintil in 1992. He was recruited to the FDTL, but left as he felt he wasn't doing anything productive. The main activities at the Metinaro Barracks were shooting practice with a small amount of bullets, and lots of waiting around, eating and sleeping. Imagine — an ex-guerrilla who used to take on the Indonesian military in the jungle. He couldn't cope with the boredom."

Freitas told GLW that most of East Timor's political parties are saying little about the crisis. "The only ones making public statements are Xanana Gusmao, [Prime Minister] Mari Alkatiri and [foreign minister] Jose Ramos Horta. The NGOs are concentrating on distributing food and water to the refugee camps, while not paying any attention to the substantive political issue that has created the refugees in the first place."

According to Freitas, it is unclear what solutions are being offered by those political forces pressuring for Alkatiri to resign. "Some are calling for a change to a presidential system, from the current semi-presidential system. Some say that it is better if East Timor becomes part of a federation with Australia or Portugal.

"I think it would be very difficult for them to resolve our problems. It seems what they most want is for Alkatiri and [the ruling party] Fretilin to go. They are concerned that Fretilin would win the 2007 elections again, if they wait until election time. They don't wish to wait another five years, after the 2007 elections. Some of them are supported by the US and Australia, who would rather the Alkatiri government be gone.

"The US is unhappy with East Timor's close diplomatic relations with China and Cuba, and the Cuban scholarships given to Timorese medical students. Australia has long had problems with the Timorese government over the oil resources and the issue of whether the pipeline should go to Darwin or Timor."

From Green Left Weekly, June 21 2006.

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