Organising East Timor's working people

February 9, 2000


Organising East Timor's working people

By Nick Fredman

DILI — Floating in this burned-out city's harbour is the bizarre structure of the Hotel Olympia. A large squat vessel that was formerly housing for oil rig workers, it has been towed to East Timor and refurbished to service the new market of well-heeled United Nations and aid agency bureaucrats and business people.

Guarded by UN police and separated from the remains of Dili by a gangway enclosed in an iron cage, it seems to symbolise the current priorities in the reconstruction of East Timor.

Feelings of liberation and optimism, and of generosity and friendship towards those who have come to genuinely help, are palpable among the people of Dili. However, despite having rid themselves of the brutal Indonesian occupation and won the ability to organise more or less freely, the working people of East Timor are facing massive challenges.

PictureEast Timorese organisations are sidelined in a National Consultative Council, with all real power held by the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET). The jobs that are available, with the UN, aid organisations and a few new businesses, are poorly paid and available only to those with English skills.

More goods are becoming available through markets and street stalls, but prices have been driven up by the presence of well-paid western bureaucrats and soldiers. Despite the desperate need for housing and the availability of many people eager to work, virtually no rebuilding has occurred.

The struggle

The East Timorese working people are forming a range of new organisations that can continue the struggle for national liberation, democracy and social justice. At the forefront of many of these efforts is the Socialist Party of Timor (PST).

Formed in the early to mid-1990s by East Timorese workers and students living in Indonesia, many of whom radicalised after coming into contact with Indonesian left-wing organisations such as the People's Democratic Party, the PST has organised openly in East Timor since 1998 and is attracting increasing attention and support.

"We now have around 1000 members, mainly young people", Akara Lenn, the party's education director told Green Left Weekly. "There's a lack of experience, so education is very important. However older activists, some involved with Fretilin since the 1970s, are also joining the party".

The PST sees the working class as the key social force in the struggle for justice. The party necessarily takes a long view, as the working class was totally dispersed and the economy destroyed in the violence following the August referendum ballot.

Organising workers

With the gradual re-emergence of a labour market, the PST is taking the first steps to organise workers, by establishing the Socialist Workers Alliance of Timor (AOST) as an affiliate of the party. The AOST, along with other workers, organised a protest on January 5 outside the UNTAET office, demanding a reduction in prices, increased wages, and priority for East Timorese in employment. The UN administration has promised to "investigate" their demands.

I attended a meeting of the AOST and talked to Rui Lorenco, organiser for the group. AOST so far involves workers at Care Australia, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNTAET.

Basic questions were raised, such as how to secure better job security — the UNHCR has dismissed demands for better pay with the arrogant view it could dismiss recalcitrant workers and easily find replacements among the many unemployed.

AOST has found hesitation among many workers to the ideas of independent class organisation, says Lorenco, due to the Indonesian regime's incessant propaganda about communism and socialism, and the emphasis in the liberation struggle on national unity. But the realities of life on the job, such as the UNHCR's attitude, were making the need for organisation more obvious, and the presence of 600-800 people at the January 5 demonstration was a big step forward.

As organisations of workers develop, the AOST may become part of broader union structures, says Lorenco. "It's important that unions are part of the creation of democratic space in East Timor, and part of a social transformation in the interests of workers", he said.

The AOST is also opposed to discrimination in employment due to language. Language is an increasingly political question in East Timor, said Lorenco, with more conservative forces such as the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) favouring the use of Portuguese and the left arguing for a transition to the use of the indigenous language, Tetum.

To help the educational needs of working people the PST is also involved in setting up the Maubere Cultural Institute (ICM), which plans to teach Tetum but is initially concentrating on English classes as the most important immediate need. Two thousand people have already attended these classes.


The PST is also helping to set up a number of farmers' cooperatives, both to help with small and landless farmers' immediate needs and to facilitate their organisation as a class.

I visited the Lakabou cooperative in the hills above Dili, set up in November and now one of five operating in the district, where projects are most advanced. Forty-five families are involved in Lakabou, where corn is grown.

Single cooperatives have so far been established to grow rice at Manatutu and Liquica, and one also in the major coffee growing area of Ermera. The cooperatives have so far been established by the voluntary merger of small farmers' land, and are divided into family plots.

The hills on which Lakabou is perched are lushly green, though their steepness would make cultivation hard work. Cooperative members organise meetings after each workday, and weekly political discussions on topics such as the need for land reform.

At Lakabou these discussions are organised by Santiago Tilman, the PST organiser for the area, and a former Fretilin member who was involved in forming cooperatives in the area in 1975 before the Indonesian invasion.

"Fretilin believed in 'land for the Maubere' and advocated this, at least in policy", Tilman told Green Left Weekly. "However, unlike Fretilin, the PST is clearly socialist, anti-capitalist as well as anti-colonialist, adding 'equality' to the Fretilin slogan of 'unity, action and progress'".

The cooperatives are initially concerned with providing subsistence for members, as well as political education and experience in collective organisation. They also plan to market their products through the Maubere Cooperative Foundation (KOPERMAR) to help farmers become economically independent.

Land reform will become an important issue, with much of the best land monopolised by the big landowners. Members of this class are often descendants of the most powerful Portuguese colonialists, such as Joao Carrascalao, a leader of the UDT, who owns large plantations of coffee in Ermera and Liquica and coconut trees in Bacau.

Women's burden

The position of women in East Timorese society is greatly affected by the prevalence of traditional family structures, and the distortions produced by centuries of oppressive colonial rule, followed by the Indonesian military occupiers who regularly used rape and forced sterilisation as means of terror and control.

With the lack of work and high prices, and the need to care for often large families, the double burden for women in East Timor is particularly onerous. The Association of Socialist Women of Timor (ASMT) is committed to ensuring that women's liberation is part of the struggle for change.

The ASMT also plans to involve women in cooperatives, which will make and market traditional textiles, provide much needed employment and economic independence and will also be centres for political discussion and the formulation of issues.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.