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The article by Alfred Deakin and the reply from Geoffrey Hull deserve comment

By Sean Foley - posted Thursday, 10 October 2002

Deakin's general points about the character and energy of the new bureaucracy are harsh but, I'm sorry to say, broadly accurate - this was apparent well before Independence. On the other hand, there are enough valid exceptions to this characterisation to warrant some hesitation in accepting his judgment completely. The exceptions are important, as they show two things.

First, many Timorese in the civil service are capable of and committed to their work, despite all kinds of difficulties; second, 'lethargy and confusion' are common responses when power is centralised, as it is in East Timor, and when top political appointees of often doubtful capacity rule the roost. During the quarter century of Indonesian occupation Timorese, with few exceptions, were kept out of any position above middle management in minor government agencies, and the nation-wide pattern of officials from Java and Sumatra holding virtually all senior positions also prevailed in East Timor.

Moreover, their access to education and training was limited. The education system itself has been described by knowledgeable Indonesians as a 'stupid making system' (sistem pembodohan) - designed not to develop people's skills in analytic or strategic thinking. The consequence is that, relatively, the Timorese gained little education or experience in technical matters and administrative affairs. This is a sad legacy that Timor, and the whole archipelago, will take decades to recover from. Yes, there is a lack of law on virtually all aspects of commerce and, critically, land tenure. The reasons for this are complex.


First, virtually none of the previous laws from Indonesia are appropriate, for reasons of underlying philosophy and administrative structures and systems - so they have had to start from scratch. It is disorientating, I speak literally, to be without a functioning legal framework and system. Likewise it is extremely difficult to imagine how much time and effort is required to create one ab initio. We too easily forget how many hundreds of years have been required to establish our legal systems. No one, and I really do mean no one including the UN and Deakin, has much in the way of worthwhile experience to offer on how to go about it.

Second, until you have a constitution there is no basis for making new laws - hence the initial focus on the constitution and related issues. The constitution was only finalised at the beginning of 2002 - a few months before independence. In the interim, and until now, left-over Indonesian laws were supplemented by ad hoc UNTAET regulations.

Third, on the issue of land laws, the present Minister for Justice, on being presented with draft policy and regulations for land tenure and dispute resolution in mid 2001, explicitly instructed senior UN advisors to stop work on them! This was a decision by a Timorese, not the UN - and this is not the only instance of basic legal work being halted for unknown reasons.

Fourth, Deakin (and Dennis Shoesmith) is simply badly uninformed about the amount of time and resources that were devoted by UNTAET (and other donors) to developing administrative (and technical) skills and structures. As a manager, maintaining day-to-day operations in the environment sector was often problematic because so many staff members needed to frequently attend management and technical training courses - we all knew the training was essential, and beneficial, but it required substantial time; colleagues in many other areas reported similar problems. Almost all the comments about the UN removing equipment are true, but they do require some background.

First, UNTAET had only a limited mandate, now taken over by a new UN mission. There was never any suggestion, in official circles at least, that the all of the goodies the UN had supplied would remain after Independence. In early 2002 it took monumental efforts on the part of senior UNTAET staff to get the newly constituted Timorese cabinet to belatedly pay any attention to transitional issues in the run up to Independence - one consequence of which is that they lost any chance to negotiate a more phased withdrawal of facilities.

Second, after September 11, 2001, the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent flood of refugees, East Timor simply disappeared from the international 'radar screen' - as the Chief Minister and the head of UNTAET discovered when they went to the UN Security Council in January 2002. As a consequence, the already thinly stretched UN resources simply dried up, and they were redeployed to other, now more important, places.


Third, the facilities we are discussing are those used, on the whole, by the urbanised elite in East Timor. The 80-90% of the population who are semi-subsistence rural farmers are unlikely to notice the lack of an Internet connection! Finally, the cold hard truth is that there are multiple millions of people in direr straits than the East Timorese, despite their current difficulties. More generally, in East Timor the UN mission (and the other donors) was faced with a task that simply could not be completed in the time available - from October 1999 (when a humanitarian emergency existed and chaos prevailed) to May 2001 (independence) - less than three years. The Timorese, understandably, wanted to be fully independent as soon as possible; the UN's mandate and resources were limited.

Anyone who expects to find a fully functioning modern state, complete with all necessary laws and a fully trained administration, simply doesn't understand what time, effort and skills it takes to achieve this. The consensus, among those who worked in East Timor and who have in-depth experience of the real Third World, i.e. they are not fly-in, fly-out experts - is that if all goes reasonably well (i.e. no civil strife, not too much corruption and nepotism, a truly patriotic government, etc.) it will take East Timor a minimum of some 5-10 years to be more or less fully functioning - that is, to the point where there are Timorese who can capably handle just about all that is required without more than minimal external assistance. If all does not go reasonably well, this period will stretch out for decades; there are more pessimistic opinions abroad.

On the issue of language and the elite Deakin has it pretty right, some minor points aside, which is where I take issue with Geoffrey Hull. Taking up Hull's challenge, it's pretty easy to identify one member of the new government who doesn't speak Tetum - the Minister for Justice. For over a year she has required all her staff, including expatriates, to speak and write Portuguese! Speaking Portuguese was a job requirement for a while in 2001-02, until they discovered they couldn't find nearly enough adequately qualified people. Hull is correct when he refutes Deakin's claim that Indonesian is used in most ordinary dealings, but neither is Tetum the only language used. The language used depends on the location - there are some 30 languages to choose from! My own experience in traveling widely through the countryside during a year is that one can get by quite well, and hold detailed, complex discussions, in Indonesian with almost everyone, excepting older people.

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About the Author

Dr Sean Foley was the senior environmental advisor with UNTAET. He speaks Indonesian fluently and has more than 20 years experience in the archipelago.

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