Amsterdam, 4th of September 2000


East Timor one year later


On the 4th of September 1999 the results of the referendum in East Timor, held on the 30st of August that year, were proclaimed. Almost 80% of the East Timorese rejected autonomy within the state Indonesia and with that choose for independence. After the proclamation the violence of militias and Indonesian army units broke out. During those weeks I was staying in East Timor as observer on behalf of IFET (International Federation for East Timor), an international group of independent observers, especially from the world of Non-Governmental Organisations.

At the day of the referendum thousands of people went to the polling-stations at six o'clock in the morning or were already there. Young and old, blind and cripple, every Timorese went to vote. Many elder people were dressed in there Sunday suits. No joy, no noise. While standing in long queues their faces showed that they 'had to do what they had to do'. All knew what was coming, and they warned every foreigner that wanted to listen, asking them: will you protect us against violence?

Unfortunately, in 'real politics' there are other interests than those of ordinary people. The Timorese were left alone for a few weeks. UN staff and also we as international observers were evacuated.

After returnig to East Timor twice in the past year the impression I have of the acting of the international community has not become much more positive. My first visit in October 1999 was to the middle and east of East Timor, right after it was possible again to get access to the country. What I saw outside Dili was -if possible- even worse than showed in the known TV images of Dili itself. Complete villages were swept away, nothing was left that could be useful, such as furniture, electricity, telephone, trucks: everything was gone. My second visit was in April and May 2000. The difference I experienced was especcially marked in Dili.

In Dili a very rich upper-class has formed from some Timorese, Australian businessmen and UNTAET staff (United Nations Transition Administration East Timor). Opposite to that the vast majority of the population that has nothing, also no job. Prices for for example staying overnight in 'guesthouses' run by Australian businessmen are higher than in an average hotel in Amsterdam. Luxury cars of the brands Mercedes and Volvo are no longer a strange phenomenon in the streets of Dili. The problems and consequences of it for the Timorese society are plentiful and predictable: dichotomy in rich and poor, criminality and frustration. A lot of younger, prospectless, poor Timorese want to attain this visble richdom as well.


The temporary administration by UNTAET has a very bureaucratic working method. Especially in Dili (and sometimes even outside East Timor) plans are made to which the several districts have to meet. Most of the times the plans are very general and very little aimed at specific problems in districts. The result is an attitude of expectation from UNTAET in the districts. Besides, specific posts in districts are often occupied by people that are not skilled in the subject concerned. Until now also hardly any money has been transferred to the districts, what means that the attitude of expectation from UNTAET in the districts has only strengthened. In Viqueque there has been a quintuple change of the DA (district administrator, the head of the district) within one year. Because every DA has his own way of ruling and feels matters (such as human rights for example) are important or not, because of the lack of money, and because of the bureaucratic working method, a lot of the workers of UNTAET are not motivated and are trapped within the own bureaucracy. A minority of the UNTAET-workers is motivated and moved by the fate of the East Timorese, the majority is working on their own career, their own bureaucracy and their own world of 'people from outside'. Problems are approached as academic problems from behind the writing-table. The reality outside, the reality of the East Timorese population, passes most international UNTAET-workers. And so there are two completely different worlds living side by side. It does not only concern the difference between rule and those ruled, but also the difference in being part of the East Timorese society or not, the difference between the Timorese and the outsider, differences in income, residence, food etc.. The two worlds are strictly seperated. In Dili those contrasts are perceptible the most sharply.

There is only little or no transparance at all from UNTAET. No one from the population actually knows what UBTAET is doing or what it is about to do. There is no long term planning, there are no clear plans in paper. All this creates a big gap between UNTAET and the population.


There's a lack in communication between UNTAET and the East Timorese. The communication mainly goes through the National Advisory Council. It is the advisory body to the UNTAET, in which UNTAET and East Timorese take seat. There is no communication with or consultation from the population. Because of the great deal of work the CNRT-leading is hardly able to as well communicate with the population in a good way. Of course the lack of media and critical questiners is one of the problems, but beside that also little initiatives are taken to build up a good and lasting communication in another way. It also appears again and again that communication within UTAET does not go off smoothly, what makes contacts to UNTAET even more difficult for an outsider and does not contribute to the clarity. Together with the lack of transparancy this leads to a situation in which the population doesn't have the feeling it is taking part in the decision-making about her future; in fact the population is entirely out of the whole event.


Who is exactly controlling UNTAET and the companies settling in East Timor or active already? One can't withdraw from the impression that there is only little or no control or correction at all. Companies take great liberties, they don't have to keep labour rights; underpayment, unassured employees and unpaid overtime are frequent occuring things. Companies can use the misery of East Timor opposite to the top salaries of most foreigners in order to maximize their profits.

Also UNTAET itself is controlled only little, externly as well as internly. In every bureaucracy it is hard to control quality and settle with people on it. Within UNTAET this is even harder. One would really have to go too far to be dismissed. The lack of control on quality is also not very instrumental to the quick and decisive action that is needed so badly.


It appears that the international community has abandoned the East Timores for the third time: during the invasion by Indonesia in 1975, after the referendum in 1999 and now again in times of reconstruction. The UN does not have the proper apparatus to manage a job like this one in East Timor. The same inability, unwanted developments and criticism on it we have seen before in Bosnia and Cambodia. Beside a discussion on how to deal with those problems in a better way in the future, it is more than necessary that there will be a supervising body for the working methods of the UN. An analysis of how many money and time are invested and what quality is being offered is in its place. Quality that should fit in with the wishes and needs of the Timorese, by which the Timorese should not only be seen as helpless victims but also as full-fledhed partners with their own ideas on the reconstruction of their country.


Ed Hollants

Autonoom Centrum