UN makes feeble Timor midwife

Starting with little infrastructure, the nation-birthing effort is running out of time and money.

Sergio Vieira de Mello watches impassively as the United Nations flag rises over a group of jungle survival experts, aware of the delicacy of his position as, effectively, the unelected president of East Timor.

Today, the lantern-jawed Brazilian isn't swearing in engineers to rebuild the devastated territory or doctors to tend to its 650,000 people.

He's taking control of Falintil, the rag-tag army that fought the Indonesian occupation for 23 years. The teary-eyed former guerrillas are - with some misgivings - swearing allegiance to the UN, becoming the first sovereign army in the UN's history.

It's the most startling of many firsts for the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, or UNTAET, and symbolizes the murky waters Mr. de Mello is being forced to navigate as the UN takes on an unprecedented role here.

Falintil field commander Falur Late Raek, whose nom de guerre means "Pigeon Without a Grave" looks like he's about to swallow his tongue. Afterward, he explains "this was hard."

Indeed. Though the UN has had nation-building missions in the past - in a Cambodia ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, in Kosovo - it has always had some vestige of local government to work with. "Never before has there been such a broad and ambitious mandate,'' says de Mello in a brief interview following the ceremony.

He describes his task as "a balancing act between the impatience for independence of some and the realization of many that this should not be rushed." Another UN official is more blunt: "Our job is to get out before we're kicked out."

But already there are signs of dissatisfaction and anger among the East Timorese, impatient with rule by another foreign power after 600 years of colonization.

Complaints of foreign arrogance are everywhere. Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, the independence hero who will probably be the first elected president and who currently heads an advisory council selected by the UN, angrily referred to the UN late last year as "the masters of independence."

The UN had little choice. Indonesia's scorched earth policy after losing the 1999 independence referendum devastated the territory.

With key infrastructure destroyed and 250,000 residents driven into Indonesian West Timor, East Timor was in no shape to hold elections.

The UN's mission is nothing less than building a nation from scratch, everything from police, to taxation and garbage collection. But the UN - famous for its bloated bureaucracy and inefficiency - isn't doing a good job.

"Is basic service delivery something the UN is good at? No it isn't,'' says a senior UNTAET official. "There are going to be more missions like this in the future, and the UN is going to have to change."

Rising poverty is beginning to play itself out in an increasing tide of gang-related violence, which many veteran East Timor watchers fear could play into political rivalries as elections, now scheduled for the end of August, near.

Gangs have battled almost nightly in some Dili neighborhoods, and rumors abound of ex-Falintil commanders setting themselves up as warlords in the hills. "The potential for political violence is one of our biggest concerns," says a UN official.

Some of the violence has turned against the UN.

When Portuguese riot police roughed up a Dili taxi driver early this month, a crowd quickly gathered to pelt them with stones, and only dispersed when shots were fired in the air.

The UN's mandate expires at the end of the year, though the UN presence will be extended beyond then in a new form.

The question is, if economic conditions aren't improving now, why would they as UN expenditures start to fall? UN officials say 50 percent of East Timor's economy is now driven by their spending.

"If you take a hard look at the numbers, you see our people are worse off now than they were before Indonesia left," says Avelino Da Silva, a member of the advisory council, and secretary general of the East Timor Socialist Party.

"Xanana is upset because he travels to the villages, and he sees that our people are still hungry,'' explains Ines Almeida, a Gusmao spokeswoman.

While the total UN mission in East Timor is costing about $700 million a year, the budget for basic government services is less than $50 million. The big money is paying for the 8,000 foreign soldiers now guarding the fragile border with Indonesian West Timor.

The UN has avoided some of the mistakes of the past - most crucially preventing the legacy of prostitution left behind by its mission in Cambodia.

But other mistakes have been repeated - perhaps worst among them the UN practice of allocating slots in the mission to dozens of different nationalities. It not only creates coordination problems, but many of the UN workers' home governments are despotic, inefficient, and corrupt.

One of the most common afflictions of UN missions - a bubble economy for the UN and foreign aid workers - has also been created.

"We hear they're spending all this money,'' says Alfredo Freitas, a trader in Dili's cramped market. "We don't see it. Maybe the UN is dividing it up with the local elite.''

Walking the streets of Dili, it's easy to empathize with his frustration.

There has been precious little benefit trickling down. Foreign carpetbaggers have flocked to the capital to sop up the money paid to UN workers, who sip $3.50 lattes, then drive away over the cavernous potholes in powerful four-wheel drives.

The public telephone office in Dili is an air-conditioned haven with Internet service, but only accepts US dollars. Outside, filthy children scavenge in the garbage piling up against its gates. Unemployment is estimated conservatively at 70 percent - monthly incomes average under $100.

Yet in late January, when the UN cut daily living allowances, which are above and beyond salaries, to $95 from $110, 200 UN employees signed a petition complaining they couldn't live on that. "You have to question their dedication,'' said one aid worker.

In the end, it is poverty that it is the greatest affliction of East Timor. That's not the UN's fault, but is the legacy of Portugal's exploitation of the country over centuries and the violence of Indonesia's three decades here.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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