A Bid To Win Hearts And Minds...Where One War Staves Off Another

Over nearly 20 years of Indonesian occupation, East Timor has come a long way in purely material terms since Portugal abandoned the colony. The parched eastern half of Timor now has a modern infrastructure in much better shape than that of many of Indonesia's 26 other provinces. The miracles of economic development include an immaculate network of tarmac roads, a public school system, and an airport.

When the Portuguese landed on Timor in the early 16th century in their quest to control spice-shipping routes, the 450-kilometer-long island was divided into warring tribal kingdoms that spoke at least 14 known languages. Four months after the Portuguese were driven out by the fierce Fretilin (a Portuguese acronym for the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) in 1975, Indonesia invaded, razing the capital of Dili and causing as many as 100,000 deaths from fighting. Many of East Timor's 750,000 inhabitants can't forget.

So instead of development, they see political oppression and an inherent loss of dignity. At least 20 political prisoners are still in jail on vague charges of subversion, subjected, like almost all prisoners behind bars in Indonesia, to routine beatings and other forms of ill treatment. And, in accordance with the colonial legal system Indonesia inherited from the Dutch, the political prisoners were arrested without being charged and without warrants.

MONOPOLY. Occupied by a regime that has kept Indonesian President Suharto in power for 29 years, the locals resent being denied the right to hold a referendum on whether East Timor should be part of Indonesia. The United Nations still recognizes Portugal's sovereignty over East Timor. Portugal does not want East Timor back but plays along with the U.N. resolution to save face from the humiliating manner in which it abandoned the territory to an orgy of bloodshed.

The East Timorese see the new infrastructure as an attempt to win their hearts and minds. One retired official of the Indonesian administration's local tax office says she would accept development aid only in the form of war reparations: "The Indonesians act like they're giving us a gift, but actually they owe it to us."

The infrastructure program is neither charity nor reparations. If anything, it's an investment. The new roads, for example, make it possible to transport the province's coffee and fragrant sandalwood to the port in Dili. Those cash crops rake in about $8 million a year, over 90% of the province's export earnings. In an economy valued at $129 million, a chief beneficiary is the Indonesian army, which, through two large companies, enjoys a monopoly on the coffee and sandalwood concessions. But these figures pale in comparison with the income anticipated from recently explored offshore oil deposits once foreign contractors, mainly BHP Petroleum Inc. and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. of Australia, begin production next year.

But Jakarta's construction of 559 elementary schools, 47 senior high schools, and a university had an unintended consequence: Education has outpaced job growth, spilling 4,000 graduates onto the streets every year who have little more than the occasional pro-independence riot to occupy their time. Dili's young people may be educated, but they're polarized by an absence of open political debate.

Battle and bloodshed are nothing new to East Timor. The prevailing view among independence activists--that East Timor is at war simply because of the Indonesian military presence--ignores the island's violent history. A recently recorded 19-generation-old story of a tribe's first encounter with a Portuguese landing party ends with the limbs and organs of the Portuguese being thrown to the pigs, with their heads on stakes set in front of the king's hut. Foreigners from anywhere--across the river, the island of Java, or Western countries--were deemed less than human, and their gifts worthless.

Many observers in East Timor fear that if Indonesia's 5,300 troops withdraw, the result would make Bosnia look civilized. Fewer than 200 armed Fretilin rebels remain active in the jungle, but they still harass patrols. "This is a time of war; the Indonesians must be here," says Pastor Eduardo Brito, a 78-year-old Portuguese who has been in East Timor for 45 years and has exhumed Fretilin's victims. The army has no wish to leave, either, for that would mean relinquishing coffee, sandalwood, and oil.