Violence-weary E. Timor faces long row - and few hoes

Six weeks after an independence vote, little infrastructure is left for

Zito Matos, whose profitable seaside restaurant in the East Timor capital of Dili was destroyed a month ago, isn't sure he can recover the money he had saved. He had put it in the bank, and all the banks in town are in ruins.

Checking out a makeshift market near Dili's port, where people are selling vegetables, meat, and sugar to augment the rice being distributed by international relief agencies, Mr. Matos ponders the task ahead. "I have to start with a piece of string," he says.

East Timor as a whole is similarly bereft. There's no macro-economy, no justice system, no garbage collection. There are no town councils. Building a government is at the top of the national "to do" list.

That is why UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed that the United Nations act as a transitional authority in East Timor for two or three years.

As it did with moderate success in Cambodia earlier this decade, the UN will try to set up the political and administrative institutions that govern a modern society. The World Bank will offer economic advice and funding.

But in the meantime, says David Ximenes, a top official of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), an umbrella organization emerging as East Timor's de facto government, the priorities are the basics of human society: restoring public order and providing people with food, health care, clothing, and shelter.

East Timor is in dire shape mainly because Indonesia's quarter-century effort to control the territory ended in recrimination and violence. On Aug. 30, East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to break away from Indonesia, loosing a torrent of destruction from anti-independence militia groups at least partly backed by the Indonesian military.

On Sept. 6, for example, members of one militia group torched Dili's main market. It is now an empty cobblestone plaza littered with broken glass, legless chairs, and smashed display cases. A house-size heap of rubble sits off to one side.

The larger economy is in similar shape. Because militia groups and Indonesian soldiers forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, it's very unlikely that many farmers will be able to get seeds in the ground during the coming planting season; the UN and international agencies will have to feed East Timor's 850,000 people for at least a year.

There is growing uncertainty over what currency to use. The Indonesian rupiah is what most people consider money, but gasoline sellers are already demanding the security of US dollars. And the rupiah carries memories many East Timorese would prefer to forget.

Uncertain oil deposits

In the future, many East Timorese hope that offshore oil and gas deposits will generate enough revenue to make the country a viable entity, but "The oil resource question is largely unanswered," says Stephen Weaver, a Canadian diplomat who watches East Timor. "We see all kinds of reports, some of them very optimistic and some saying that development is not very feasible."

There is even some uncertainty over what language to speak. The Indonesians taught nearly everyone standard Indonesian, but there is little chance East Timorese will want to continue speaking a language many associate with repression. Other options include Tetun, the most widely spoken indigenous language; Portuguese, which many independence fighters and clergy still speak; and possibly English.

A CNRT plan would make Portuguese the official language, teach English and Indonesian as languages for trade, and establish Tetun as the liturgical language in this largely Roman Catholic country. "We are becoming polyglots," says the Rev. Basilio do Nascimento, the bishop of Baucau, East Timor's second-largest city.

Amid the indecision, the United Nations Children's Fund is planning to resume primary instruction in Tetun on Dec. 1. Stephen Woodhouse, UNICEF area representative for Indonesia and Malaysia, says he hopes East Timor's future government will choose English, despite indications that they will opt for the tongue of their erstwhile European colonizers. "Portuguese is hardly a world language," he says.

The CNRT's Mr. Ximenes says East Timor will create a "multi-party social democracy," but it may take years for an elected government to take power. A new vote will be needed, since the Aug. 30 referendum was about whether Indonesia should rule the territory, not a contest between Indonesia and the CNRT.

Some prominent East Timorese, including do Nascimento, feel a long period of UN-backed nation-building is necessary. "Political desires are one thing," he says, referring to the inclinations of some leaders to empower an East Timorese government and get on with things. "But another thing is the administration of a whole country - a new country."

A tough reconciliation

Despite promises of plurality, it now seems inconceivable that the militias and others opposed to independence will be able to reclaim their property and take part in the political process - as was once imagined. "It does not mean that we will push them aside," says Ximenes, "but [reconciliation] is one thing we still have to discuss. People are still very upset."

Finally, some East Timorese are frustrated by the wait for the territory's long-exiled top leaders, especially Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo, to arrive here. Mr. Gusmo said in Melbourne, Australia, Oct. 11 that he would return within a few weeks.

"If we wait, wait, wait we'll never do anything," says Rosa Garcia, an East Timorese journalist eager to begin disseminating information in a land that has essentially no news media. "We respect them as our leaders," she says, referring to pro-independence figures who remain in exile or in the hills, mainly for their security. But while East Timorese struggle to put their lives back together, she adds, the leaders "are still in hiding."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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