East Timorese have been slow to check the UN on its failures in the most fundamental areas of Transitional Administration, including justice, infrastructure and education. Many foreigners are puzzled by this. Perhaps, they posit, the UN is actually winning the propaganda war, that the East Timorese are won over by cartoon-posters and the few high-profile UN figures who have learned their language.

But the real answer is much simpler: the UN never really penetrated the East Timorese consciousness enough to create an expectation in the first place. Sure, people here know that a lot of foreign money is being spent in their name, what amounts to about $750 million a year. Many see the peacekeeping forces, which take up only 40% of that number, as the UN’s single contribution to East Timor in the past two years. After all, the border with West Timor, and its former occupier, is secured.

Yet the notion that the UN could reconstruct East Timor, without better coordination with the East Timorese, seems absurd to the man on the street. The actions of the UN here have been mysterious from the very beginning; many people were asking months after UNTAET had started when it would arrive. Few people know somebody with a position higher than secretary, interpreter or security for the UN.

The Timorese gave the UN a full year to merely begin some of its most crucial work, after finally realizing it had arrived. Consultation with qualified Timorese did not noticeably increase. Now the UN has entered some kind of Warp-9 emergency-shutdown mode, with legions of UN professional staff and volunteers poised to return home before the ink of the new constitution has dried.

Some Timorese people feel outraged. Especially those who have access to the figures, who know how much money boomeranged out of here in international salaries as opposed to reconstruction of their country. But many take a long view, seeing the UN’s role here as minimal, but crucial. A bureaucratic UN presence here prevented violent political infighting between old rivals. That is about all. But it provided the oxygen the East Timorese people needed to return to their rubble-filled homes and face the ashen disappointments and indignities of the reconstruction period without fear.

The East Timorese reaction to the UN falls largely along the urban-rural divide. In areas outside of Dili, a city of around 150,000, most people have little to no idea what the UN is doing in East Timor except “keeping the peace.” Only in the 13 district administrative offices does the UN show any significant bureaucratic presence outside of Dili.

The layer below the district offices, added halfway into the two year mission, is a network of District Field Officers, or DFOs. Sent to small offices in remote villages, many DFOs feel confused about what their work for UNTAET actually is, besides paperwork and basic emergency aid. The most successful DFOs take initiative much like Peace Corps volunteers, creating their own projects like aiding craft cooperatives or starting up libraries in their offices.

But most rural areas are out of the reach of the DFOs. In fact, in some remote mountain areas, Timorese friends have reported meeting village chiefs who were unaware of the UN presence in East Timor. Another story, coming from a western mountain district, goes that villagers greeted a UN helicopter as if it was Portuguese, as if the Portuguese had finally returned after their departure 25 years ago.

Many of these rural people did vote in the UN’s constituent assembly. But did they know who or what they were voting for? The names of 5 or 6 key political figures rattled around Dili for the months preceding the elections. Parties used their leaders’ clandestine names in the newspapers. Yet outside of Dili, there was little to no recognition for politicians beyond the once-imprisoned guerilla leader Xanana Gusmão, who was widely believed to be on the ballot for FRETILIN, the revolutionary party that led the struggle against Indonesia. The actual leaders of FRETILIN, many of whom are returnees from the post-1975 diaspora, are actually quite personally and politically opposed to Gusmão.

East Timor will not share South Africa’s experience of negotiated transference of power to a resistance hero. Instead, the country can expect unscripted palace intrigues and political maneuvering in the capitol preceding independence.

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