Alternative Law Journal
CATIE PARSONS[*] experiences life in the world's newest nation and gets credit for it towards her law degree
Arriving in the oppressive heat at Comoro airport in Dili, East Timor, you are greeted by a banner that proclaims We/come to East Timor. The World's Newest Nation -not an experience I'm ever likely to have again.
I travelled to East Timor for two one-month stints in July 2000 and January 2001 as part of the Edmund Rice Centre's East Timor Immersion Program. These were the first and second trips eve-r run by the Centre, which is based at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle and aims to promote social responsibility through experience, action and reflection (http://erc.nd.edu.au). The East Timor Program was the first immersion experience to be organised by the Centre, which has since established similar immersion experiences in India, the Philippines, Tanzania and the East Kimberley.
Immersion experiences are available to students of any discipline and several options are available in coding the experience and associated coursework for academic credit As I was in my second year of law, I was able to count the program as the practical component of the 'Law in Context' unit which usually involves a placement in a community legal organisation. The coursework component of the program was uniform for students of all disciplines, but a staff member from the law school coordinated assessment tasks.
The East Timor immersion lasts for one month, during which participants live in small, rural communities and participate in English language tutoring. English teaching was a need identified by the local communities themselves and while the program aims to provide some grassroots humanitarian relief, it is also largely focused on participants experiencing the political and cultural aspects of life in the new nation.
Participants are hosted by 'Leeuwin Care' -a small non government organisation established by three East Timorese-Australian friends. Eddie, Robert and John all came to Perth as young refugees following the 1975 Indonesian invasion, and in September 1999, they regularly visited the East Timorese refugees who were hosted by Australia at Leeuwin Barracks in Fremantle. When the refugees returned, so did they and with a donated truck, they began distributing supplies to remote villages -an important task, given the treacherous state of most East Timorese roads. With most 'malai' (foreigners) in the employ of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor(UNTAET), being hosted by an East Timorese organisation put us in a different position to most other visitors. and in all the places we visited the local people knew Leeuwin Care and welcomed us with them. I don't know if it would ever be possible i:o 'blend in' as a foreigner in East Timor, but I think it was a change for local people to see one of their own driving a truck with a bunch of 'malai' riding in the tray in the heat and the rain, as opposed to the other way around which was the more common sight
My first visit to East Timor was within one year of the independence referendum of August 1999 and the aftermath of the violence and destruction that followed was still harshly apparent The town I was living in, Ainaro, had been a regional centre with a large hospital, school and water reservoir-yet it was also home to a prominent militia leader. All the community facilities were destroyed -every window and tile in the hospital smashed or defaced, the school burnt and the reservoir contaminated -and the once thriving centre was largely deserted. Large areas of the capital, Dili, were equally as devastated and the tropical climate seemed to have hastened the deterioration process, as paint peeled in the humidity and vegetation quickly overgrew the debris. After the Indonesian government invested heavily in infrastructure for East Timor during its 25-year occupation, the motto of the militia was 'Let them eat stone'. If East Timor wanted independence, they could have it-but they couldn't expect to be left with anything else.
The human toll of the violence was evident and equally widespread. Despite the inherent shyness of East Timorese people, everyone we met could tell us of hiding from militia in the jungle and of family either killed or displaced. In Ainaro, International Organisation for Migration trucks would roll into the town regularly from West Timor, bursting at the seams with refugees. Amongst those being repatriated were local men who had joined militia groups and their return would spark community retribution. We visited the border town of Suai that, for this very reason, maintained a huge military presence long after those in other areas began to dwindle.
Given the speed with which UNTAET established its administration, local people expressed some dismay as to why it took three weeks of violence before someone intervened and the Australian-led INTERFET was deployed, particularly given that the UN was, or at least should have been, on virtual stand-by for the violence that would surely follow a 'yes' vote. Although local people understood that the transition to independence wasn't going to be immediate, there was certainly a sense of longing to finally and truly self determine. During the Indonesian occupation, FRETILIN soldiers didn't cut their hair or shave as a sign that their struggle was still continuing. Despite over a year having passed since the 78.5% vote in favour of independence, many beards and hair remained intact in January 2001, as UNTAET was viewed by some as just another occupying force.
East Timor has been independent and self-administered for over two years now and I'm curious to know if the freedom fighters have cut their hair yet In terms of my legal education, the most valuable part ofthe experience was being in a United Nations administered territory and seeing international law in action in everything from the workings of international diplomacy and the Security Council in intervening, to the broad-ranging mandate of UNTAET, and the sheer administrative enormity of establishing a new nation. Immersion groups still travel to East Timor twice a year and past participants have formed a group to provide ongoing support to Leeuwin Care and maintain an involvement in East Timorese issues and development The group's current focus is the Timor Gap negotiation -and you can check out the wider campaign at <http://www.saveeasttimor.org>.
Since this brief was written, the Edmund Rice Centre has split from the University of Notre Dame, Australia. East Timor immersion experiences will continue to be run through the College of Arts, for which students will be able to receive academic credit, although it is uncertain whether these will still be hosted by Leeuwin Care. The Edmund Rice Centre also plans to continue running its own immersion experiences.
[*] CATIE PARSONS is Associate to the Hon. Justice Roberts-Smith at the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
© 2004 Catie Parsons