East Timor, 2002–04: moving from relief and human rights to development and civil rights

... In which two years after the crippling independence of East Timor, local CSOs moved from fighting for human rights and independence to development interventions, and advocacy for addressing their communities’ problems with the new local government.

Following the end of my contract with the Partnership in Jakarta, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offered me a job to manage its new contract with USAID1 for a programme to support CSOs and advocacy in East Timor - the occupied territory of Indonesia, now recently independent. I stayed there for two years.

The smallest amount of briefing about East Timor (called Timor-Leste after the Declaration of Independence was achieved in May 2002) reveals the complexity and complications of this small nation situated at the end of the Indonesian archipelago. It had a strong traditional structure based on kingdoms and chieftaincies but had been invaded ver)' many times by large numbers of varied foreigners. The latest invasion was of foreigners keen to help the country develop, and I was one of them. Tetum was the traditional language of most of the country (although there were many local languages); Portuguese was the language of the colonisers, the educated and the Church; and Indonesian, after 32 years of occupation, was also very widely spoken.

To illustrate this complexity, Timor-Leste had been subject to, over time, the following invasions:

  • • The Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century to trade in sandalwood, beeswax, sea turtle shells, slaves and coffee, and established a colony in 1769. For 300 years the Portuguese used the land as a place of exile for political and criminal prisoners, but did little to develop it. They left it in 1975 following their own revolution in Portugal and their desire to divest themselves of their colonies. The Portuguese brought in substantial numbers of Catholic priests who overlaid traditional beliefs with Catholic Christianity. The Catholic Church was the only agent of education and it spread the Portuguese language among educated people. It also sent East Timorese for religious education to Portugal.
  • • The Australians went forward through East Timor to meet the Japanese in 1942. After guerrilla wars in the mountains in which Timorese fought with the Australians, the Japanese occupied the land for three years (1942-45) until the end of the Second World War.
  • • The Indonesians invaded in 1975 and stayed there until 1999. This was a bitter and destructive invasion which destroyed the lives of two-thirds of the people and killed over 100,000, either by fighting or by starvation. The fighting was between the Indonesian Army and FRETILIN, a Marxist political party supported by the people of Timor, and its military wing, FALINTIL. The Indonesians brought in their own civil service, language and government structures, and, in the fighting over independence, created internal divisions in the country. The Indonesians supported local militias who were pro-integration with Indonesia and some Timorese fought for Indonesian-supported militias. The strong Indonesian ideology of Pancasila2 forced all its people to belong to one of five recognised religions (and no traditional religions): membership of the Christian Catholic religion expanded from 20% in 1975 to 95% by 1985. Many churches were built and traditional religions went underground. After the 30 August 1999 referendum in which Timorese voted 78.5% for independence, there was huge destruction of the infrastructure of the country by pro-integration militias helped by the Indonesian army.
  • • The UN peacekeeping forces (INTERFET) came in 1999 to restore peace and handed over the management of the country to the UN Transitional Authority. INTERFET was mostly Australians, but they were joined by a range of other nations — Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, New Zealand, Portugal, Brazil, Japan and Bangladesh.
  • • The Transitional Authority handed over the governance of the country to the State of East Timor with the Declaration of Independence, and the country became known as Timor-Leste.

This was the last “invasion”: all sorts of people came through the UN, through inter-government and non-government organisations to help Timor-Leste with its development problems. There were the usual UN agencies, coordinated by UNDP; strong representation from the Philippines, linked by a common religion in Catholicism; a slow build-up of teachers and language instructors from Portugal (the new government had decided that Portuguese was the official language and the language of instruction in schools); a range of international development NGOs; and a range of foreign solidarity organisations that had been supporting East Timor politically during the Indonesian occupation and had lobbied for its independence.

Arriving in Dili in 2002, I was aware of this huge complexity — soldiers of many nations carrying what were to me alarmingly large guns around the streets, rows and rows of burned and gutted buildings, all against beautiful seas and beaches, mountains and forests, and very poor people. There were endless enthusiastic development workers, particularly those from ex-solidarity organisations still celebrating the achievement of their successful mission and, initially, ver)' few Timorese. They were still working out where they fitted into this swirl of interests.

As someone working with an international CSO (which in turn was working with many local Catholic CSOs), I found the government unfriendly and uninterested in our work. Diaspora Timorese political leaders from Mozambique who had been members of FRE-LIMO there became supporters of FRETILIN in its image back in Timor. FRETILIN was a Socialist party, evolving from a Communist party, and its leaders saw no value (in fact, they saw danger) from citizens’ organisations which were not members of their one political party. To my (initial) surprise, Timor-Leste was also festooned with images of Che Guevara - on T-shirts, on buildings via stencils, on posters. People identified hugely with Cuba. I found, ready-made, the slogans (in Spanish, not Portuguese), the images and the narrative of Che Guevara. Very few Timorese, however, knew anything about him apart from his picture and the slogans.

  • 1 found the following kinds of CSOs on the ground:
    • • Timorese versions of Indonesian CSOs: a substantial number of Timorese activists had been to universities in Indonesia, particularly in Java;3
    • • Timorese church-based organisations often situated in (and linked to) a diocese or a congregation;
    • • Timorese clones of international NGOs, or bodies formed by such bodies;
    • • residual political/activist groups that had been supporting FRETILIN as a guerrilla army; and
    • • traditional Timorese clans or chiefdoms.

The first three were by far the most common; in fact, it took me some time to become aware of the last two — particularly the ruling families of the traditional kingdoms and clans (of which more later).

CRS was, not surprisingly, closely linked to local Catholic groups and CSOs, which were my first contact with civil society' in Timor-Leste. CRS had been one of the first outside organisations to arrive in the country as soon as access was possible, and it had been involved in relief distribution. It was also very involved in responding to the human rights abuses of the previous 30 years, which had accelerated in the last two years with the lead-up to independence. To my way of thinking, CRS, and other foreign-funded organisations, had helped inculcate a mindset among local civil society activists, through their interaction and their gifts, that the people of Timor-Leste were:

  • a) victims of human rights abuses that needed to be remembered and documented;
  • b) victims of man-made disasters, and therefore legitimately entitled to relief supplies; and
  • c) newly emergent members of the modern world, and therefore entitled to electricity and all the accoutrements electricity brought - particularly computers, printers and generators.

I remember one of the first CSOs I visited outside Dili in 2002. It had received from some foreign aid organisation a huge TV screen, a computer linked to it, a printer and a collection of DVDs documenting the bad events of the Indonesian occupation, including the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre. It also had a diesel-fired generator to make all these things work. The CSO considered that its job was to use these tools to educate and sensitise the people in its locality about the atrocities of the Indonesian period, and to encourage them to support the newly elected government. When I enquired about the problems of the people that they might want to address (such as clean water, reforestation, food crops, nutrition, cash crops and marketing), I was told that these were not their priority; moreover, they had been given all this equipment and they needed to use it. They were dismayed, however, that they had no ongoing source of diesel, which they saw as their greatest need.

This seemed to me to be retrogressive and to be ignorant of the ways in which the people, on the one hand, and the donors, on the other, would expect CSOs to work in the future. With the agreement of CRS, I wrote a series of brochures (in three languages — English, Indonesian and Tetum) to try to encourage a change in the mindset.

These became the basis of CRS’s training work with CSOs. The introduction said:

It is now 2003 - the emergency is over, and the long term development process has begun [...] During the emergency and transition period it was urgent to deliver humanitarian supplies, and to carry out civic education in connection with the elections. A lot of organisations received money with very few questions asked during that time [...] Foreign funding for handouts channelled through NGOs is not available any more. NGOs which only operate as channels for foreign funding and do not think of doing anything else are likely to die out [...] the NGOs which will continue into the future will be NGOs that work in different ways, particularly NGOs that have a very clear idea of what they want to do, and which involve villagers in their planning [...]

Many NGOs are staffed by people who came from an activist background. They were determined to gain the freedom of Timor-Leste and they worked with great commitment to do so. That battle is now won, and the present battle is against ourselves to make sure that the country develops in the best way possible.4

One of our difficulties was that there were still plenty of donor agencies that did not buy into this form of thinking and were happy to keep supplying handouts and encouraging a handout-dependent mentality.

If we succeeded in persuading local GSOs to think in these terms, there was the opportunity to train them in managing an efficient, professional and caring organisation. The booklets and the training courses we promoted covered:

  • • Being an NGO in Timor Lorosae — identity and values
  • • Mission, vision, strategy, programmes
  • • Structures and systems
  • • Skills and abilities
  • • Material and financial resources
  • • Partnerships
  • • Making a budget and reporting on it
  • • Managing a project or grant
  • • Managing people
  • • Managing a community project
  • • Working with the government
  • • Undertaking advocacy campaigns.

Each booklet contained “Questions to ask yourself (of these subjects)” and “Questions to ask yourself about your NGO” in order to encourage CSOs to think about what it meant to be a CSO in East Timor.

The CRS programme, funded by USAID, helped citizens’ organisations or associations to become competent in doing what they had identified that they wanted to do, and in general this was done with no reference to government whatsoever. There were two reasons for this: first, government offices, and government officials in general, were taking time to become established, and thus there were many vacuums in the government machinery — particularly the apparatus of local government; second, there was precious little inclination for government or CSOs to have anything to do with the other. I have already mentioned that the political ideology of the government in 2002—04 was Socialist and strongly influenced by Mozambique’s FRE-LIMO: there were plenty of government documents which talked of the value of “civil society” (produced, in my opinion, under arm twisting by UN advisers), but by 2004 (i.e. two years after independence) the government still had not passed a law giving a legal identity to non-government organisations, nor had it established a supportive and enabling legal, fiscal and institutional environment.

Both sides played unhelpful and childish games — the government called for meetings with insufficient publicity and then complained when the CSOs did not attend in sufficient numbers; CSOs called for meetings and then complained that only low-level government officials who did not have decision-making powers attended them. High-level government officials would speak only Portuguese, which NGO people did not speak, and CSOs would speak only Indonesian, which high-level government officials very probably knew but would affect not to speak. I attended one such meeting in the brand-new government buildings, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. With icy politeness, each side would denigrate the work of the other. There was no populist group or individual who was able or interested to shake people out of these prejudices and seek to get some collaboration between government and CSOs, with the intention of bettering the lives of the people of Timor-Leste.

Towards the end of my time in Timor-Leste, the government had started to set up local government offices and place officials in them, and we started to teach CSOs about advocacy, to lobby for a change in law or practice, or for the provision of services. We wrote more brochures about how CSOs could lobby local government, this time in four languages, adding Portuguese. In many ways government wasnot sure of itself or what it was meant to provide, and so there was plenty of room for CSOs to mould government in the shapes that it would like to see. For instance, one of the exercises we suggested was as follows:

In one part of Timor-Leste, parents were complaining that the teachers were always arriving late to school, so their children were not learning. Investigation proved that the government had given the teachers housing that was a long way away from the school, or no housing at all. The parents decided that the District Education Secretary had the power over this issue and decided to approach him in a group, to lobby him to try and get the teachers’ accommodation changed.5

By 2004, very few citizens knew what a District Education Secretary was, and they would be apprehensive about approaching government offices in a group to ask for anything. In turn, it was quite possible that a District Education Secretary was unclear what his or her powers and responsibility allowed him or her to do.

Another aspect of establishing a local government structure was that it clashed with the traditional hierarchy of powerful people in local communities. Was the government going to diminish the power of the local liurai or headman, or the local priest, in favour of a government official? The World Bank introduced its model for local government: CEP — Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project. This was a model that the World Bank had used in Indonesia, then Afghanistan and finally Myanmar. FRETILIN did not like this structure and wanted something that reflected the “regiao”, which were the organisational structures in the resistance. CEP was rejected.

In the first part of our work we had tried to help people understand what a developmental CSO was and could be, and then set about building its capacity to undertake the development interventions it had decided on. Now, in this second part of our work, we helped people to understand advocacy: i.e. a systematic and organised effort by CSOs to create helpful laws, policies, practices or behaviour, or to change those which were not helpful. We were then able to teach them the skills of how to do this — carrying out local research, suggesting alternatives, using media and other methods of communication, networking and coalition building, negotiation and diplomacy.

Wherever possible, given the delicacy of demanding services from government, we would urge the greatest use of self-help and voluntarism.

There were many existing traditional governance structures for rules and decision making of which foreigners were ignorant but that local people knew well. For the most part, sadly, we did not bring these into discussions about governance. An example is Tara-bandu (taboo or ritual practices). It was accepted that a liurai had the power to designate a piece of land to be out of bounds to ordinary people and animals. This could be land whose water sources or whose grazing needed protection, or land connected with sacred sites that needed to be reserved in some way. What was very clear was that once such land had been identified by a liurai — usually by a bundle of grasses and branches tied to a tree — its authority was very strong. Everyone knew what was meant and obeyed the indigenous law.

Learning about Tarabandu persuaded me to find out more about traditional society and I started to understand a whole subculture of CSOs based on Lia Naiu (sacred houses). The limited anthropological research in Timor had informed a few academics about the rich and important cultural heritage of Timorese people — the clans and lineage groups, the sacred houses where the clans’ sacred objects are kept (often helmets and armour plating from old Portuguese days) and those who guard them. What was not so well known was how pervasive these cultural associations are, and how powerful.

I persuaded Timorese friends to take me to see their sacred houses, which are massive, cathedral-like buildings made of huge timbers in the remote countryside, all of which were erected by the voluntary labour of clan members. They are very impressive. I was complimented on my interest in them - there was no feeling that I was transgressing into something forbidden from which foreigners should be excluded. I found that every Timorese belongs to a clan and is ver)' aware of this belonging and the duties involved. They are aware of their chiefs and their office-bearers and their responsibilities within the clan — as well as the design of their clan’s woven cloth and their clan’s songs and dances. Members of the clan can be called upon to do voluntary work or to give livestock or money in lieu of voluntary work, when this is demanded of them. They also acknowledge traditional arbitration and justice systems for infringements of traditional laws and accept the authority of traditional leaders. The kind of CSOs with which CRS worked could have benefited greatly from collaboration with Lia Naiu.

One aspect of traditional beliefs and structures came to the fore in the work to reconcile people who had supported the Indonesian militia with their original communities. Many of them had left the country with independence and now wanted to return. Many such people had been involved in extreme violence, but now they wanted to be accepted back into their communities. This was possible, but there were traditional ceremonies to undergo, often involving communal betel nut chewing and public apologies. There was something similar in Rwanda following the genocide called the Gacaca courts.

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