The Future of East Timor: An Interview with Constancio Pinto

The Council for National East Timorese Resistance (CNRT)
The Council for National East Timorese Resistance (CNRT)

In an interview with The Asia Society on October 22, 1999, the Representative of the Council for National East Timorese Resistance (CNRT) to the United Nations and North America, Constancio Pinto, addressed a number of the problems currently facing East Timor, including the composition of the UN transitional government, the role of the Falintil, and the changes within the structure of the CNRT as it transforms itself from a liberation movement to a political party or national government.

The U.N. Secretary General is expected to name the Brazilian, Sergio Vieira de Mello, as chief administrator of East Timor, at least for an initial period of up to six months. What role, if any, is the CNRT playing in determining the makeup of the interim administration?

Well, Sergio de Mello is the person who we prefer to have. Before that, the U.N. Security Council was a bit ambiguous about who was going to be the head of the transitional government in East Timor. We prefer Sergio de Mello because of his experience in Kosovo and because of his long-time experience at the U.N. dealing with political affairs and so on. So we are very happy to hear that the U.N. Secretary General appointed him to be the head of the U.N. transitional government in East Timor, at least for six months.

We in fact suggested that the U.N. should include East Timorese in the transitional government. The CNRT will form a transitional council, I have been informed, of a number of people who will be working directly with the U.N. transitional government. But at the same time the CNRT also will have a structure. I would call it transitional government, but it will not be parallel to the U.N., but like an informal group, an informal structure which would maintain close ties with the U.N. through the transitional council.

Jose Ramos Horta said recently in an interview with The Guardian that the East Timorese would not accept an ASEAN state as leader of the U.N. transitional administration because they had been "accomplices of Indonesia." Presumably the choice of a Brazilian for this position had something to do with that - that is, with the fact that Brazil, in your estimation, in the estimation of the CNRT, is not and was not an "accomplice of Indonesia"?

Yes, this is true. At this stage, there is a lack of confidence among the East Timorese people with regard to Asian countries because of their attitudes in the past towards East Timor. They've been very supportive of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. So it would be astonishing if the U.N. chose one of the Asian countries to be head of the administrative U.N. transitional government in East Timor. So that's why we're trying to avoid having an Asian there.

But I think after the Sergio de Mello administration, which will be only for six months or so, we will accept an Asian to replace Sergio de Mello. It is important because East Timor is there, it is part of Asia. We haven't ruled out the idea of applying to ASEAN membership. So I think it is good for us to begin to build some relationship with ASEAN.

On a related note, what role do you see for the Falintil guerrillas once the transitional administration comes into force? Do you agree that they ought to be disarmed, as the U.N. has suggested?

Well, the Falintil has demonstrated their discipline throughout the year, throughout the conflict, especially when the violence erupted after the vote. They've been very disciplined. They are the ones who protected the population.

And when Interfet -- the U.N. multinational troops -- went to East Timor, the Falintil also tried to work with the U.N. multinational troops. At this moment they are still kept in their cantonment, and I don't think that there is enough reason to disarm them during the transitional period.

What the U.N. should do perhaps is to ask them to be the future East Timor police force or self-defense army. This is what the U.N. should do, because when the U.N. peacekeeping force accomplishes its mission in East Timor, it will have to withdraw from East Timor. If the Falintil are asked, then we will already have a police force that will be able to maintain law and order in East Timor.

Could you please comment on the recent decision by the CNRT to adopt a new currency tied to the Portuguese escudo?

This is in fact a very delicate issue. We discussed with the International Monetary Fund the possibility of either continuing with the rupiah or adopting a new currency. We talked about having the U.S. dollar as the currency throughout the transitional period, but also we talked about the escudo.

The only problem with the rupiah is that the currency is very weak, and the economy of Indonesia is not stable yet. Also to have the rupiah in East Timor we would have to negotiate with Indonesia. There has to be some kind of agreement between East Timor and Indonesia or between the U.N. and Indonesia about this.

But I think we opted for the escudo because Portugal has decided to fund for two years or three years of transitional period, the whole budget for East Timor. And also the Portuguese government is now willing to pay the salary of the East Timorese companies, employers, the ones who worked for Indonesia. So the Portuguese government will pay for that.

And also one of the reasons to adopt escudos is that we still have some Brazilian escudos, because in 1975 Portugal left a chunk of money, so we want to get them back so they can be used in East Timor. That's still for the transitional period. After that we might adopt new currency or continue with escudos. And you know the escudo is very powerful currency compared to Indonesian rupiah.

Now I'm just going to move on briefly to the situation in Indonesia and how you think that impacts East Timor's prospects. First, the Indonesian parliament has endorsed the independence vote in East Timor, but do you think that the election of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri could affect this decision, either adversely or favorably? And, second, what is their relationship with the military and will they be able to exercise more control over army - and militia - action in East Timor than their predecessors?

Well, we are very happy to see that the Indonesian parliament elected Abdurrahman Wahid to be the President of Indonesia, and then they also elected Megawati to be the vice president. So now we see there's a balance between the legislative and the executive body in Indonesia. Because the legislative body, the speaker is Amien Rais, also a prominent leader. And we have Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati in the executive body, people committed to democracy and so on.

So I don't think that their position will affect East Timor's independence. They already ratified the vote, they voted unanimously. There was no opposition to it. So I think we are going to have a very stable relationship with Indonesia in the future.

With regards to the military in Indonesia, whether they're going to control the Army or not, it is still in question. As you know, the Indonesian army is the most powerful institution in Indonesia. The army has been the only solid organization throughout Indonesia since 1965 and the 1950s up to now. And the people who at one point worked for Suharto, the generals, some of them are still there. And also because of the problems within Indonesia and also the East Timor problem, there is still some sense of either humiliation or anger among the military -- no, between the military and the civilians. So I don't know whether they're going to be able to control the army.

But since Abdurrahman Wahid is one of the most moderate leaders in Indonesia, and is someone who has a very close connection with the army and with every organization within Indonesia, I think he will be able to control the army. But I'm very cautious about it.

Are you -- well, I think you've answered this question - but are you more optimistic about an independent East Timor being able to maintain good relations with Indonesia now that there's this new administration? More so now than you would have been if for example Habibie had been elected?

Yes. Even under the Habibie government, we were willing to maintain our relationship with Indonesia. But under a Habibie government it would probably be difficult because of the army. The army seemed to be very influential in the Habibie administration.

But now that Indonesia has a civilian government, a democratically elected government, I think we will have very good relationship with Indonesia. And geographically East Timor is not far from Indonesia and I think we have to be able to keep the region stable. To keep East Timor a peaceful island and country, we need to have good relationship with both Indonesia and Australia and also the small islands in the Pacific.

Could you also just comment briefly on what you think the situation in East Timor is now, both vis-à-vis the presence of the Indonesian military (as well as the pro-Jakarta militias), and the refugees returning from West Timor?

There are still some Indonesian army personnel in East Timor but not that many. They are waiting for the last order from Jakarta so they can pack and leave. So I think within three months from now all of the remaining army will leave from East Timor.

The militias, yes, they remain a threat for us, especially at the borders between East Timor and West Timor. The Indonesian army promised to disarm the militias, but they still haven't done it. There are still militias running around, in and out of East and West Timor. So they will constitute a threat for East Timor, but I don't think that they will be a major one. The militias talk about launching guerilla warfare in East Timor, but I don't think it's going to be a successful one because they have no support. The people will not support them. The reason why the Falintil army resists up to this day is because of the support of the people, the population. So if the militia wanted to launch guerilla warfare in East Timor, it would not have any great impact on security in East Timor.

The main problem in East Timor is of humanitarian aid. We received some phone calls from East Timor, I personally got calls from East Timor, saying that there is now plenty of food, but the distribution of food and medicine is not, let's say, equal… many people are still waiting for food and other goods necessary for them. They still lack it.

So I hope that by next month or so stores will reopen. People can get on with their businesses as before so that people can buy food or clothes or whatever they need.

This is the humanitarian side but at the same time we are trying to put together our ideas and our views about the future of East Timor. It's not going to be an easy task for the East Timorese. It was easy to say that we want independence, but now that we got independence we have to make sure that the process runs smoothly.

How many people are involved in the CNRT who could potentially form part of both the transitional government and then go on to, say, join the future civil administration? How many people do you think in the CNRT now are able, willing and qualified to do that?

Well, the CNRT is a coalition organization, comprised of political parties and is a non-partisan organization. So the CNRT doesn't require registration or membership, it is a coalition and is open to everyone. The structure of the organization has changed during the course of our struggle and is currently comprised of the following: (1) National Political Commission; (2) National Executive Commission; and (3) Judicial Commision. Under each of these commissions, there are departments such as foreign affairs, finance, education, etc. and the members of each commission have been elected by a plenary of participants from various organizations in East Timor and abroad. So it is very difficult for us to say now who will work for CNRT.

And because of this, the complexity of the organization, we are planning to have probably -- it's not definite -- a congress of the CNRT. So within this congress we will determine how the CNRT is going to function and how many people will be working for the CNRT.

There are many, many Timorese who studied abroad and also in Indonesia in different areas who might be able to work for the government. The only problem we have is the experience. We, most of us, are kind of academic, we have no experience in politics. So it's going to be difficult and that's why we need some training, and I hope that the U.N. will also train Timorese during the transitional period so that we can take over from the U.N. when the time comes.

Both the CNRT and the Falintil are in a process of transition now. Could you please elaborate on what you think the difficulties are in making the transition from a movement of liberation to a political party or national government? And equally for the Falintil, the problems associated with making the transition from a liberation army to a police force or army?

You know, during the struggle for liberation, the structure was very, what should I say, very simple. And we didn't have bureaucracies. Of course, we had different departments, for example, foreign affairs (and that was the most important one during the struggle), but we didn't really have a structure which reflected a government body.

Also the structure of the resistance changed all the time, depending on the situation on the ground in East Timor and also abroad. And that's why it makes it difficult for us to move from the resistance movement to government. So now we encounter all these difficulties, creating this department, that department, all the things that we didn't think of during the struggle. The main goal during the struggle was to free East Timor, to free East Timor from Indonesian oppression, and then we will see. The rest, that's our big problem. We only think of getting Indonesia out of East Timor and we can do the rest. That was the most important thing.

I think many, many movements have this same problem. Once they reach their goal, they encounter different problems. And that's why, actually, I wrote a book with a friend of mine. And the title of my book is "East Timor's Unfinished Struggle." And I said it because independence itself is not the end of the struggle. Because there is another struggle and it will also be very complicated.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.