After the terror...

Down to Earth No. 43, November 1999

East Timor has gained its freedom at a terrible cost. Now a traumatised population must start to rebuild their country. Substantial amounts of overseas aid may be needed, but East Timor's government-in-waiting should keep a cautious distance from some of those who are eager to offer funds.

The full extent of the killings, torture, rape and 'disappearances' in East Timor which followed August's vote for independence will not be known for a long time, but the impacts of the appalling violence unleashed by the military and the militias they created will remain with the population for many years to come. Even now, for tens of thousands of Timorese, the suffering has not ended. In early October there were an estimated 250,000 refugees - almost one third of the pre-referendum population - stranded outside East Timor who wanted to return. Most of them were living in poorly provided camps in West Timor where they were vulnerable to the campaign of terror waged by the army-backed militias. The first refugees from West Timor were airlifted to Dili on October 8th, but one month later over a hundred thousand people were thought to be still trapped in camps near the border with East Timor. These camps are closed to outside observers. East Timor's leaders are demanding that the international pressure on Indonesia must be kept up until the refugees have returned safely and until those responsible for orchestrating the violence have been brought to justice.

The East Timorese who have been able to return home are starting to piece their lives together again, in a country devastated by the scorched earth campaign of the departing Indonesian forces. In some towns, hardly any buildings have been left standing; anything worth anything has been looted and there is no food other than emergency relief from the humanitarian agencies. Crops have not been tended and cattle have been slaughtered or starved to death. Humanitarian agencies have appealed for 199 million dollars for immediate needs.

The period of United Nations administration begins this month under the acronym UNTAED. It will include up to 8,950 troops, 200 military observers and 1,640 police, as well as civilian officials and will administer East Timor for an undetermined length of time, until it hands over to an independent East Timorese government. In October East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao said he thought it would take three years for the country to become fully independent, and a whole year to deal with the emergency situation, such was the devastation left behind by the Indonesians.

The East Timorese leaders also have some concerns about the nature of the UN administration, specifically that it may run East Timor as a "UN colony". They plan to put in place a "shadow" administration - from centre to village level - to liase with the UN as well as to prepare for government.


Tethering East Timor to the world economy

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have wasted no time staking a claim in East Timor's economic development. Even before the independence vote Bank and Fund staff had started their courtship of East Timorese leaders with the aim of securing future co-operation. These efforts include meetings in Washington with East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta and a three week crash course in international economics to a small group of Timorese economists. The Bank's strategy of including East Timorese in its plans and engaging with the Timorese leadership contrasts with the UN's less inclusive approach.

The Bank's aim is to play the leading role in economic assistance for East Timor. In October it organised a meeting of prospective donor institutions and countries in Washington. It also led a mission including experts from the IMF and other donors to East Timor with the aim of mapping out a course for reconstruction in the territory.

A recent Dow Jones article on the Bank's enthusiasm for East Timor paints an alarming picture of the country serving as a "once -in-a-career opportunity" for Washington-based economists and development planners to "draft a policy blue-print that's entirely in line with the Bank's and the Fund's fundamental free-market prescriptions for sustainable development." "We don't have any excuses this time," said Klaus Rohland, who has been put in charge of the Bank's involvement with East Timor, "if we don't get things right, we cannot blame our predecessors' or someone else's mistakes".

However, Portugal, which has offered to fund most of Timor's development needs, is also putting itself at the centre of efforts to co-ordinate development aid to its former colony. In October it formed a liaison group to co-ordinate technical, financial and political co-operation with East Timorese leaders. Portuguese involvement is warmly welcomed by the East Timorese leadership. On a visit to London Xanana warned British prime minister Tony Blair against any attempt to dilute the Portuguese role. "If there is any country in the world East Timor trusts, it is Portugal," he said.

What should be stressed at all such meetings of future creditors is that it is up to the East Timorese themselves to decide their own development priorities, not the Washington-based economists. The IMF and World Bank's record in the region - especially their long-term involvement in Indonesia - does little to inspire confidence in these institutions' ability to build sustainable economic growth while addressing the needs of the majority of the population. Experience here and elsewhere suggests that their agenda in East Timor might have more to do with tethering East Timor firmly into the world economy and reconfirming faith in the global free market system rather than serving the needs of a shattered country and its war-torn population. Year after year, the World Bank and the IMF ignored the calls by East Timorese resistance leaders to suspend aid to Indonesia while its troops were massacring the population. Now the Bank and the IMF appear so eager to help, the East Timorese people would do well to treat their motives with cautious scepticism.

(Sources: Independent 7/10/99; 6/10/99; Dow Jones in Jakarta Post 6/10/99; AFP 29/10/99)