Dream turns sour for East Timorese

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 12:00am

The 'I told you so' smirks must be wall-to-wall in Jakarta. East Timor, that little speck of territory that stood up to big, bad Indonesia and with international help sent its militias packing, is falling apart.

Just six months after East Timor became the world's newest country, the foreign investors are fleeing. The numbers of unemployed are swelling and people are going hungry. The doors of discontent were blown wide open by a riot on December 4 in the capital that killed two people, left two dozen injured and reduced several buildings - including foreign-owned businesses and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's home - to smouldering ruins.

East Timorese have since been deep in self-examination. What has gone wrong? President Xanana Gusmao appealed for simple logic. 'If you burn people's houses and steal their possessions, they will leave,' he said. 'If they leave, what is going to happen to us? We will be alone with our poverty, without help, forgotten.'

Who would have thought that after enduring four centuries of indifferent Portuguese rule and then 24 brutal years of Indonesian occupation, East Timor's people would be upset by a little poverty and perceived corruption?

The 1999 vote for independence was a gamble that nearly failed after Indonesian-backed militias came out with guns blazing. But the UN stepped in with troops, an action plan and plenty of money. Expectations were high. Mr Gusmao and his fellow guerilla fighters took over and with the help of grandiose pledges from the foreign community, the future looked bright.

For a while, the good times rolled and investors leaped in. From Indonesia came the assurance that 200,000 refugees in West Timor could return safely. Australia promised to help exploit oil reserves in the Timor Sea, which by 2005 would start pouring lifeblood black gold into East Timor's coffers.

The fancy clothes and gizmos of the foreigners working for the UN and other organisations helping build a new country suddenly did not seem so impossible to own for ordinary East Timorese. Now they had jobs and money and above all, peace. Dili became positively cosmopolitan with restaurants, clothing stores and the first trappings of modern culture that had been so foreign for so long.

As far as dreams go, it was a sweet one. But somewhere around the first financial quarter of this year, donor nations realised they did not have as much money as they thought they had. The battle with terrorism became a more pressing and costly matter. The world had woken up to the reality that East Timor was, after all, a small and insignificant place. Without the foreign capital for infrastructure and the promises now clearly empty, the foreign business people who had made their quick dollars packed up. Jobs dried up. Lawyer Benevides Correia Barros said that although the standard of living in Dili had improved slightly since independence, discontent was rife. 'People are very critical of Mr Alkatiri and other ministers who have promised increased development, foreign investment and employment,' he said.

Only 30 per cent of people in the capital had jobs and more were coming to the city each day from the countryside looking for work, he said. But 70 per cent of foreign investors had left and more were doing so because of the unrest.

Crunch time has come for Mr Gusmao and he needs more than just political will. He has been compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela, so perhaps now is the time for him to become more statesman-like. He could start by ensuring stability by giving the baying crowds the blood they want.

Lowering expectations may not seem like the best solution now that East Timorese have been given a taste of the outside world, but common sense says that is Mr Gusmao's best strategy until oil revenues come on stream.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor


Send to a friend

To forward this article using your default email client (e.g. Outlook), click here.

Enter multiple addresses separated by commas(,)