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Panic and Reality in Dili

From La'o Hamutuk, 6 May 2006

Dear east-timor list readers,

Few of the articles and opinions circulated on this list address the context which has caused many people to flee Dili in this week. Some people writing from far away seem almost eager to spread rumors and gossip about what is happening here, while many of us here understand that the exodus from Dili is more about post-traumatic stress and rumors than about anything real. Other institutions, including several national governments, issue statements for their own purposes, which reflect reality to varying degrees.

In fact, there has been no violence here for the last seven days, and many people travel freely around Dili with no problems.  I drove across the whole city at 9 pm Thursday night and several times since then, and all was quiet. Electricity and water are functioning normally (much better than during most of the past six years). Timor Telecom, on the other hand, is not capable of handling peak phone and SMS loads and has become dysfunctional several times, a problem which will hopefully be addressed in coming weeks.  But for last few days it has worked OK.

Most people's fears are based on their past experiences -- not just 1999 but 24 years of Indonesian military atrocities -- rather than on actual evidence or current realities. It's true that this fledgling government should have handled things better, and that several years of training by international advisors have failed to impart basic principles about rumor control, community policing, military-community relations, inappropriate display of big guns, prioritizing public concerns, and using the media to maintain calm. Nothing has been done to teach people in the wider population about post-traumatic stress. But we should realize that panic does not mean there's a rational basis for fear, especially among traumatized people with few psychological or material reserves.

Many commentaries on the current situation refer to December 4, 2002 or to 1999, two recent times when groups of violent men spread panic in Dili.  January 2, 2005 is equally relevant. On that day, a week after the tsunami in Aceh, a few people spread rumors in Dili and nearby coastal areas that a tsunami was about to strike and kill everybody. After large numbers of people fled to the mountains (disbelieving police assurances that there was no impending tsunami), many houses were robbed.

Over the last few days, I've been interviewed by several foreign journalists who asked what was happening here and who was behind the violence. I said that I didn't know, that I have heard many rumors but haven't been able to verify them. I also told them that anyone who claimed to know and told them a juicy story probably couldn't verify their story either, and that responsible reporters would not publish unverified rumors.  Of course that makes their jobs harder and may mean they have nothing easy to write about. Long-standing social, economic, psychological and governance problems are not as sexy as conspiracies, riots and wars, even if they are more real (albeit much harder to solve).

Propagation of sensationalist rumors, especially by international media or people outside Timor-Leste, only adds to the panic. Many Timorese here have received phone calls from friends and relatives overseas, saying they heard about some massive or impending violent event on the media or by email, and are calling to see if their families are OK.  The natural reaction of some Dili residents (although some have the judgement to understand the reality) is "what do they know that I don't?" or "if it's in the foreign media it must be true," which only increases their terror. But if you ask people what they are afraid of, who they are running from, or even where they are running to, they don't know. In many cases, an hour of rational discussion has persuaded families not to flee, keeping the option open to shelter in a nearby church or school if violence begins. But in most families this discussion never happens.

In the last few days, public officials and the local media have shown a better understanding of people's perceptions and fears, and of what should be done (in addition to leaders' televised appeals for calm) to reduce the level of panic. This will hopefully continue in the following week, assuming that recent initiatives are followed through.

In the mean time, life in Dili continues peacefully, while we wait for clear facts -- and for our neighbors to return home.

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