Keeping the Peace and Setting the Rules

The UN Raises Hackles in East Timor, But the Troops are Staying in Line

dili, East Timor – Jose de Jesus Vaz cheered for the Australian troops who landed in Dili that September, and the flood of UN personnel that followed them.

But more than a year later, the 19-year-old Dili resident is still poor and jobless, living with a relative because the pro-Indonesia militias torched his house.

The UN is spending plenty of mo­ney, but he doesn’t know anyone getting it. More importantly, he said, the UN is running the country without asking for input from the people who spent so long fighting for their own independence.

“It’s like colonization again. But this time by the UN,” he said.

The UN brought peace, and for that the East Timorese are thankful. But the time has long passed since the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor was greeted with enthusiasm by local people. For many East Timorese, who feel po­litically alienated from the UN’s national reconstruction process and economically excluded from the thousands of high-paying UN jobs, the honeymoon is over.

But apart from embittered public opinion on this tiny island in the Indonesian archipelago, national and international observers say East Timor has still been spared some of the more damaging social consequences of which a UN mission is capable.

The UN’s 18-month, $2-billion mission to Cambodia, they cite as an ex­ample, has come to be used as a measuring stick, not so much for what can be accomplished, but what should be avoided.

The agency’s largest-ever mission at the time, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia has been blamed for fueling a staggering rise in prostitution and artificially inflating the economy, which slid back down when the UN pulled out. Most contentiously, Untac has been blamed for Cambodia’s now rampant HIV/AIDS problem. In 1998, Prime Minister Hun Sen was asked what the UN had given Cambodia.

“AIDS,” he responded

While such a charge is impossible to prove, it resonates with Cambodians who resented what they saw as licentious and undisciplined behavior, as Untac personnel caroused in the bars, nightclubs and brothels that developed alongside the international mission.

Added to this, critics say, the UN declared victory in Cambodia and left before really resolving the country’s political tensions, leaving a shattered and still divided nation to deal with the inevitable bloodshed.

The UN in East Timor said it has learned from these lessons.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of Untaet, was in charge of the UN High Commission for Ref­ugees in Cambodia from Dec 1991 to April 1993. The operation in East Timor, he said, shares definite similarities with the Cambodia mission. In both countries the UN was asked to step in and rebuild shattered social and political institutions, keep the peace, organize and hold elections and deal with a massive refugee problem.

For East Timor, a country of 800,000, the problems began in 1975. After a brief stint of independence, the former Portuguese colony was invaded by neighboring Indonesia, a country of 200 million. After 24 years of repression by the Indonesian military, East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-sponsored election in August of 1999.

Reluctant to leave peacefully, elements of the Indonesia military with the anti-independence militias they had trained and equipped embarked on a campaign of intimidation, destruction and violence before and after the landmark vote.

The destruction left more than half the buildings in East Timor smoldering wrecks. Hundreds were killed or disappeared. More than 100,000 are still living in makeshift refugee camps in West Timor.

Now the UN is picking up the pieces as some 10,000 Untaet personnel work toward rebuilding East Timor. This will culminate in an election now slated for later this year. The UN mission to Cambodia had culminated with a nearly identical event—the 1993 elections.

Judging by public opinion, the two missions also share criticisms. Untac “made mistakes but not that many,” said Vieira de Mello, who believes the Cambodian mission has been unfairly portrayed. On at least two points, though, UN officials learned from their Cambodian mistakes, Vieira de Mello said.

“One was the social consequences, particularly on women, of the presence of a large military, police and civilian international component,” he said. The other was in sparking an artificial economic boom that collapsed when Untac left the country.

In East Timor, UN personnel have not been allowed to carouse at will.

“The military have been very strict. I have tried to be as strict as I can with the civilian and civilian police. And I would say by and large…we have avoided that horrible impact the Untac foreign presence had on morals and social values in Cambodia.”

In Cambodia, Untac’s arrival sparked a massive surge in prostitution, bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Although bars and restaurants catering for expatriates have sprouted up in Dili, the small dent they’ve made on East Timorese society stands in stark contrast to the bawdy free-for-all that Untac is vividly remembered for by many Cambodians.

At the height of the Untac there were 22,000 peace keepers, including 15,700 military troops and 3,500 police officers—in addition to 60,000 electoral staff—stationed in Cambodia.

“At first UNTAC staff were highly regarded and respected for their sacrifices to go to and help the Cambodian people….In the wretched moral and physical state they had been in over the previous two decades, the Cambodians needed more civilized nations to teach them how to live,” writes democracy activist Lao Mong Hay in his 1994 book “The UNfinished Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict.”

“However, many sophisticated elements of Cambodian society were disappointed with and, in the end, lost respect for UNTAC when some of its staff engaged in such vices as patronizing brothels, womanizing or excessive public drunkenness at bars and nightclubs.”

But Untac Head Yasushi Akashi dismissed complaints regarding UN conduct, telling a newspaper such behavior could be expected “from men returning from battle.”

Seeing the behavior of UN personnel, Lao Mong Hay wrote, Cambodian leaders “questioned [Untac’s] seriousness in its operations and began to wonder whether Cambodians needed its help at all.”

But Untac’s failings were small compared to its achievements in organizing national elections and thousands of Cambodians benefited economically from the UN presence, Lao Mong Hay said.

If people are to criticize Untac they must also criticize Cambodian officials who shared equal responsibility to ensure the success of the mission, he said.

The political difficulties and problems Untac faced in executing their mandate to disarm the warring sides and organize fair elections were created by members of the competing Cambodian factions. Rather than cooperate for the good of the country, Cambodian officials either created obstacles or took no interest in matters that did not directly bolster their own party’s position, he said.

Lao Mong Hay apportions equal blame on the social level, noting that the UN was not solely to blame for the explosion in prostitution—it was also the fault of Cambodians who allowed it to happen.

“We could have prevented this by our own efforts. I feel ashamed that [Cambodians] did not do this themselves,” Lao Mong Hay said.

Prostitution already existed at the village level in Cambodia when the UN arrived and the first cases of HIV were already documented before the mission arrived he said.

“Thailand had a massive HIV problem but did not have the UN. The same is true of many countries in Africa,” he said. “I was just a matter of time before it happened in Cambodia.”

Cambodia’s HIV/Aids legacy from the Untac mission is still —nine years later—a strongly contested theory. Before Untac’s arrived in1992 HIV/Aids was virtually undetected in Cambodia. 1n 1994, the year after the mission departed, there were an estimated 44,700 cases of infection. Now the figures stands at about 3.7 percent, the highest rate of infection in Asia, according to the World Health Organization. However AIDS came to Cambodia, the blame has fallen on the shoulders of the UN.

East Timor has seen a reversal of the Cambodia situation as local women in this mainly Catholic country shun foreigners. On several occasions street gangs have stepped in to discourage fraternization. Late last year a group of young girls were accosted by men in the market areas of the city for wearing “inappropriate” clothing. The men accused them of being prostitutes and beat them, a local journalist said.

In a second incident in the same area a few days later, an off-duty peace keeper and his Thai girlfriend were attacked when the woman was mistaken as Timorese.

While some see the attacks as the first expressions of seething anger against the UN, Vieira de Mello dismisses the attacks as cultural misunderstandings.

Or, as some residents say, they may just be street gangs flexing their muscles to show they control Dili’s central market area.


On the walls of the NGO Forum in Dili, a Cambodian krama and postcards remind forum director Arsenio Bano of the two weeks he and other East Timorese spent in Cambodia talking with Cambodian NGOs about their approach to rebuilding a country—and their dealings with the UN.

Cambodian NGO workers told Bano that the Untac was in such a hurrying to complete its work that it did not adequately consult Cambodian nationals.

The East Timorese see similar trends today, he said.

“Many of the international staff, or most of them, come to tell Timorese what to do with [our] country,“ he said.

The East Timorese say they know all about that kind of patronizing attitude from years of Indonesian domination, and they resent it.

“Because they tell us how to do and they prepare everything, I think people [have] decided they will not [cooperate],” Bano said.

“We are talking about giving responsibility to Timorese. I understand that the lack of communication makes it difficult for people to work together. But they cannot say that Timorese are lazy,” he added.

If Untaet wants to succeed, it must work more closely with the Timorese, he said; if programs are developed jointly, they will work better and Timorese will be more truly committed to the effort.

Untaet Chief Vieria de Mello is quick to rebuke criticism that the East Timorese have been left out of picture.

“That’s easy to say when your not in charge of the damn thing and when you are not assuming responsibility for a new East Timorese administration in this country [starting] from scratch.”

He said the process of transferring responsibilities and powers from Untaet to the Timorese themselves—called “Timorization” by the UN—is moving as fast as possible

“I would like to know how we could have done it faster,” Vieria de Mello said. “I don’t have a magic stick here that produces doctors or senior civil servants or experienced judges or prosecutors. So the Timorization process is one that is proceeding much faster now than was possible in the first six months.”

In practical terms “Timorization” means the recruitment of around 10,500 Timorese as civil servants to staff the forthcoming East Timorese government’s new administration. So far, 60 per cent of that number has been recruited, said Vieria de Mello.

“If the Timorese feel it is still slow, I understand that. If I were Timorese I would want the whole mission to be Timorese. But one has to be realistic. I will accelerate whenever I can,” said Vieria de Mello.

Jose Xanana Gusmao is the one-time military commander of the East Timorese resistance against Jakarta and the man who is likely to lead the country as its first president.

Flanked by four Brazilian military police bodyguards, Xanana rushes to another meeting at the Dili governor’s palace, now Untaet headquarters.

It’s late in the evening and a closed session of the newly-formed national council, which he heads, has just ended. But Xanana, who has traded his military fatigues for trousers and cut his Che-Guevera style hair, has another late-evening meeting with the UN authority to attend.

Although the UN mission has its problems, Xanana said that the focus must remain on rebuilding the country and preparing for the general elections slated for later this year.

“We are trying to work together,” Xanana said in an interview snatched between appointments. (There is a two-month wait for official interviews with Xanana, aides said.)

“I don’t say that the relationship between the East Timorese and Untaet is going bad. We are very aware of the difficulties. But what we want essentially is to push the process of Timorization,” he said.

On the streets of Dili and among a number of local and international observers, the Timorization effort is seen as too little, too late. But Xanana does not entirely agree with this harsh criticism of the world body. He said that the important thing is to make the most of the UN operation.

“What we want is to contribute to the success of this mission. We have no other intentions,” he said. “The success of this mission is the success of the United Nations and of course the success of the East Timorese.”


Of the $592 million slated for Untaet’s 2000-2001 budget the majority will leave East Timor in foreign salaries and profits for foreign-owned companies catering to the UN mission’s needs. About $230 million of the budget figure will go directly to the UN military component. A further $230 million is destined for civilian administration and salaries while the remaining $100 will go toward the mission’s operating costs.

These figures dwarf East Timor’s first approved budget of around $59 million, $15 million of which is set for capital reconstruction and development projects. The government’s budget has been conservatively set to drive home the importance to East Timor’s future leaders of financial discipline in running the country, UN officials say.

Critics are not convinced, and say the UN’s sizable budget is going in the wrong direction.

Sieneke Martin of the British NGO Oxfam said the East Timorese government’s budget is nowhere near enough for the work that must be done to rebuild the country.

And yet most of Untaet’s money is being spent on items that do little to benefit East Timor or its people, she said.

“A lot of money is being spent in Dili on foreigners,” she said. “And very little is helping in the districts on health, education and agriculture.”

One international observer based in Dili branded the present situation in East Timor a form of “economic apartheid” that has alienated a local population that has seen little change in everyday conditions since security was stabilized in the country following the arrival of Australian troops.

“Some of the local staff are on as little as $120 per month while the UN staff are on huge salaries,” said the observer, noting that UN staff receive almost that amount daily.

“[The Timorese] are bemused by the mission,” he said. “Given the lack of jobs [and] the extremely slow trickle down benefits that are coming to the Timorese.”

A point of serious contention is the employment rate of East Timorese by Untaet, Martin said.

For everyone international civilian staffer, two Timorese are employed in the UN. Alternatively, international NGO staffing ratios stand at around 12 Timorese for every one expatriate employed.

“It is those sorts of differences [that must be considered] if you talk about capacity building and technical knowledge transfers,” Martin said.


After nearly a year in Dili, a senior representative for an international organization dealing with labor issues in East Timor thinks that Untaet took care of its own first.

He said a significant number of Untaet’s high-paid expatriate positions could have been filled with Timorese staff. In the past six months, Untaet has hired more Timorese—but mostly as security guards, drivers and translators, he said.

“They feel they fought for the revolution, but are being overlooked.”

He also worked in Cambodia during the Untac period, and said  much less UN money is filtering into the local Timorese economy than in Cambodia.

Untac money entered Cambodia’s economy through wages, the service industry, and enterprising locals who opened businesses catering to the needs of thousands of expatriates.

But the Timorese have largely lost out on the small business spin-off from the UN presence as everything from bars, restaurants, supermarkets and most hotels have been set up by foreigners, predominately Australians, he said.

At the same time, the East Timorese should not expect Untaet to permanently solve what are deep, intractable economic problems, he said.

The East Timor economy is almost entirely agricultural, and before independence received a majority of its GNP from Jakarta via a massive civil service in East Timor.

The country’s coffee production, touted by some as a possible growth area, remains small and underdeveloped, as do the country’s fisheries and manufacturing sector, he said.

Oil and gas reserves in the Timor Gap (in the Timor Sea between Northern Australia and East Timor) will be the single biggest revenue earner for the new country and if managed effectively, probably the most important source of employment.

The East Timorese government should plan to capitalize on this by stipulating that oil companies hire local people, the labor official said.

“There are not enough wage opportunities in East Timor. Not with the UN and definitely not when the UN goes,” he said. “Untaet is here for a short time. The Timorese should look beyond it.”


Antonio Soares, manager of the Timor Lorosa Real Estate Company, tried to ride the Untaet boom.

But his company was pushed out of the real estate business by better-funded and more experienced Australian competitors.

Soares’ plan was to lease damaged buildings from their owners, renovate them and then rent the refurbished houses, at a profit, to UN personnel.

But he didn’t have enough money to pay for the high-quality renovations demanded by foreign tenants and the three months’ rent demanded by the home owners. He could not compete with the better-funded foreign companies.

Soares said he is not bitter at the foreign real estate companies because they are providing a service to the country by repairing damaged buildings which will remain after the UN leaves.

“It would take East Timorese 10 years to do the same work. This is good for the country. East Timor will be beautiful again,” he said.

Untaet Chief Sergio Vieria de Mello said that just as his operation has not created a false boom in the East Timorese economy, it will not leave a painful bust behind when it leaves.

“Many journalists focus on that. The bars, the restaurants and the white vehicles…. The artificial-economy phenomenon, which I remember so vividly from my days in Cambodia and which you also see here,” said Vieira de Mello.

“Yes, many of the small businesses might disappear the day we start scaling down. But, we will not scale down here [as quickly as] we scaled down in Cambodia,” said Vieira de Mello.

He said the UN will likely remain engaged in a number of areas, particularly as a security presence.

Similarly, the local economy should be helped by large reconstruction programs, he said.

“In other words, the loss of employment or loss of income for the limited number of Timorese that live off the internationals here will not leave a major social or economic impact,” he said.


Behind the Untaet offices in Dili, the Wai-Haco Restaurant  occupies what looks like a gutted building, apart from the trendy tables, chairs, bar and kitchen serving western food.

The Australian-owned Wai-Haco caters to UN personnel and other expatriates. Italian-Australian cook Stefan, 47, said the restaurant makes between $150-$250 during lunch time alone.

Anti-Indonesian graffiti daubed on the restaurant’s stone walls contrasts sharply with the pricey western menus sitting on chrome-and-pine tables.

“People like it like this,” Stefan said, pointing at the graffiti.

Local staff at the Wai-Haco, like cashier Virgina Noelia de Asanyo, 22, and barman Thomas de Almeida, 17, are glad the UN and the restaurant came to Dili. Wages are higher at foreign-owned businesses, and for the time being, foreign-owned companies offer the only jobs available.

But their jobs won’t last forever.

“I will stay one more year,” Stefan said. “When Untaet goes, the business will go.”

Working as an administration support officer for UN Volunteers in East Timor, Nary Tith voices a complaint common among UN personnel here: The work is interesting but there is almost nothing to do when work is over.

The job is also made more difficult by public animosity which has mounted toward the UN operation, said Nary Tith, who came to Dili from Phnom Penh, where she had worked for the UN Development Program.

Around a dozen other Cambodians she knows are working for the UN operation. But only three are stationed in Dili and although the weather in East Timor and the tropical vegetation resembles Cambodia, Nary Tith said she is still homesick.

One year in East Timor exacts a high toll, a number of UN workers said.

A high burnout rate and a significant turnover in UN staff is making the East Timor mission one of the less popular assignments to land, UN staffers said.

A number of them said they are eyeing possible re-assignment to the newly initiated UN operation in Eritrea, blaming the lack of entertainment as the reason they are not renewing contracts to work with Untaet.

But. Nary Tith said she’s familiar with how the East Timorese feel.

Frustration with the UN was also common in Cambodian in the early 1990s when tens of thousands of UN staff poured into the country as part of UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

“[Cambodian people] were not aware of what Untac’s purpose was….They did not understand well Untac’s mandate,” she said. “The same here also.”




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