EAST TIMOR: Testing time for East Timor

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BY JON LAND

Two-and-a half years after East Timor's referendum on independence, the effect of the Indonesian military and militia's post-ballot destructive rampage are painfully apparent. Burnt out shells of buildings stand dotted around the suburbs of Dili, which remains a place, for most, of daily hardship and poverty. Green Left Weekly spoke to Tomas Freitas, a researcher with East Timorese non-government organisation La'o Hamutuk, which monitors the reconstruction process, about the situation leading up to the May 20 transfer to self-governance.

A recent survey on poverty, conducted jointly by the National Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the United Nations Development Program and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, found that 41% of the population was living in poverty. The survey has not yet been fully released.

Some 49% of East Timorese are unable to read and write. The figures for poverty and illiteracy are higher in the rural districts, where the majority of people live. Twice as many women die in childbirth in East Timor than anywhere else in South East Asia or the Western Pacific. Less than a quarter of East Timor's women have ready access to a health facility or a qualified midwife. Picture

"Where is the infrastructure and development that we were promised by the United Nations and the World Bank?" asks Freitas.

Nestled behind high security walls and a tropical garden bordering Dili harbour are the offices of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the ADB. All three have been in East Timor from the start of the UN-administered transitional period and have been instrumental in shaping East Timor's economic policies and institutions.

The World Bank and the ADB, its junior partner, have responsibility over the two main trust funds that finance the UN administration and the reconstruction process. These funds are not loans, but donations made by a range of countries to assist East Timor.

With the transition period coming to an end, the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the UN administration and exorbitant consultancy fees paid to foreign "experts" have severely sapped these funds. The result is that the new East Timorese government will have major problems in balancing the budget. Rather than starting self-rule as a debt-free country, East Timor faces the prospect of being forced into debt from day one.

Freitas, who was a delegate at the recent Porto Alegre World Social Forum, has fears about where East Timor is headed. "I'm very worried about East Timor given the experiences in Argentina. The government here says we will still use the US dollar after the transition, maybe for at least five or six years. If we continue to use the US dollar, I think there will be many problems relating to balance of payments.

"What can East Timor export? We have rice but we cannot export it because of problems with its production and quality and because the government keeps importing rice. This is a big problem", he told Green Left Weekly.

"I'm also confused about why the National Planning Commission says we need US$63 million for the 2002 budget. How did they calculate this?", Freitas added.

It is unclear whether the commission has accounted for all the services provided by the UN administration. On March 12, administration chief Sergio de Mello informed the East Timor Council of Ministers that after the May 20 transfer to independence, legal and legislative support, internet access, telecommunications, photocopying and vehicle maintenance would no longer be provided.

De Mello also said that international interpreters would cease to provide simultaneous translation services in the Constituent Assembly and current TV and radio services could also end if a "substitution mechanism is not implemented". That is, unless funds can be borrowed to keep things running.

"The situation for us in East Timor is very complicated at the moment" Freitas commented. "We are not properly informed about many government decisions. We are soon to become independent and it is unclear where we stand in relation to the international financial institutions. After May 20, we don't know whether the government will listen to the NGOs and civil society or whether it will be more influenced and interested in dealing with the World Bank."

Through his experience in community radio, Freitas believes that most East Timorese "feel detached from the whole political process ... it is just political leaders and elite that discuss politics. This is a bad situation and very little information about decisions made in Dili make it to the villages".

"They don't know about, or only understand a little about, the transition and how it is going. 'Do you know about the constitution?', I would ask and they would say no", Freitas explained. "They are just thinking about tomorrow ... how are they going to live, how are they going to eat, where will the food come from? How will they send their children to school or how can they work their land? They don't have much time to think about politics, but they are very concerned about the future."

Freitas appealed for ongoing solidarity and support during this crucial time for East Timor. "This is especially so as far as justice is concerned. We don't believe that the ad hoc human rights tribunal run by the Indonesian government on the killings in 1999 will bring justice. It is important for there to be a strong campaign abroad for an international human rights tribunal for East Timor.

"We need economic justice as well. How is East Timor to survive globalisation and the impact and dominance of the international financial institutions and the large nations in the region ... we need your ongoing support and solidarity during this period."

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
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