October 30-November 5, 2001
Dollars Flowing from Passports
Disparity between the lifestyles of UNTAET personnel and the people of Timor Loro Sa’e is sowing the seeds of social envy.
The brothers Soares, 32-year-old Abe Barreto and Mica Barreto, 29, are staff members of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET)’s press office. They have the same daily tasks: to interact with journalists and provide them with the necessary information needed for publication. They were both educated in Java: the older brother is a dropout from Gajah Mada University’s Faculty of Letters, while Mica completed his graduate studies at the Soegiyopranoto University’s Faculty of Psychology in Semarang.
Mica may be better educated, but when it comes to salaries, the dropout Abe is way ahead with a monthly paycheck of US$4,000, while Mica gets only US$340 a month, just a little more than the US$200 paid to house servants caring for UNTAET personnel. What differentiates the incomes of these Soares brothers is neither intelligence nor achievement, but simply their passports. Abe is lucky he held on to his Portuguese passport when Timor Loro Sa’e came under UNTAET’s administration. Mica, on the other hand, kept his Timor Loro Sa’e passport. So their paychecks are determined by the classification set out by UNTAET—those of local and international staff.
The contrasting incomes and lifestyles between the expatriates and nationals in Timor Loro Sa’, particularly in Dili, has caused deep envy and anger among the local population. That’s why rock attacks still happen occasionally, even if the war has ended. Those rocks are being thrown at UNTAET cars during night time, smashing window screens. This outpouring of anger is triggered by the flagrant display of wealth amidst the widespread poverty around the local people.
In the past two years, the international staff of UNTAET have become Timor Loro Sa’e’s elite society. Almost every night they can be found partying in Dili. One of the most diligent partygoers is no other than UNTAET head Sergio Vieira de Mello. This flamboyant father of three is an ever-present feature at diplomatic functions and parties hosted by NGOs. “I do attend a lot of parties, but only in my capacity as a UNTAET representative,” De Mello told TEMPO.
He also hosts his own parties. Located by Dili’s scenic beach, De Mello’s official residence is the best house in town, a 600-square meter building on land three times that size. The UNTAET chief is a generous host. His favorite red wine often flows until three in the morning to keep guests entertained. After all, security is guaranteed by fully armed UN troops keeping round-the-clock vigil around the residence. As a result, he curious and potential intruders are kept at a distance.
These lavish parties teeming with wine and food wouldn’t make a dent in De Mello’s salary. As UNTAET’ number one man, he is listed as receiving US$15,000 a month, which can buy him anything in Dili. If he wants additional security around his home, it won’t cost him much. The monthly salary of each of Dili’s 150 local policemen is only US$100. What if needs transportation? A Toyota Land Cruiser with special number plates “UNTAET 1” is always fuelled up and ready to take him anywhere in Timor Loro Sa’e whenever duty calls. If he tires of driving around, a helicopter stands ready to fly him and two bodyguards, anytime.
De Mello admitted to TEMPO he is aware of the serious social envy caused by the disparity of incomes between the local and international staff. “We cannot do it for the local staff,” he said, adding that one of factor in the disparity was the difference in capabilities. If so, how does he explain the case of the Soares brothers? “That’s a special case,” he replied. De Mello says he tries to keep the peace between the international and local staff on this issue of salaries. But he says he cannot do anything about the rising crime rate arising out of such social jealousies. “We are unlikely to change overnight such a serious situation,” he said.
The social envy De Mello refers to has cut deep in all corners of Dili since the UN took over in 1999. Stonings of UNTAET cars are now common occurrences. “This is an expression of anger towards the inequalities they are experiencing. No Timorese owns cars, let alone drive them,” says Abe Soares. Although he’s a native son of Timor Loro Sa’e, Abe’s economic status got a boost because of his Portuguese passport. But he does hide the fact he earns the equivalent of Rp40 million a month. More than once, he’s had to bear people sneering at him, “Hey, colonizing your own people, are you?” Abe says, imitating the taunts of local acquaintances.
With an average monthly salary of US$7,800 (see table Foreign Pie in a Local Kitchen) UNTAET personnel can easily pay their domestic staff Rp2 million a month, what with the rupiah continuing to weaken against the greenback. For their daily needs, they just need to spend US$500 to US$1,000 a month. The rest goes straight to savings accounts or is spent for pleasure. It’s become a public secret that some 200 UNTAET personnel fly out to Bali from Dili on the Merpati weekly flights. Those who stay party at home or at the floating hotels and restaurants off the Dili coast. Other forms of entertainment are scarce. There is not one decent cinema in the entire country.
Without a doubt, there is a widening gap between expatriates and locals. Mica Soares says, with his salary, he can’t keep up with the high living costs in Dili. Although with his monthly Rp3.4 million paycheck, Mica is clearly a lot better off than many of his fellow Timorese. Still, he can’t afford the food at Singaporean and Portuguese restaurants currently mushrooming in Dili. Even the ordinary nasi bungkus (rice with mixed meats and vegetables to go) in Padang diners, which in Jakarta costs Rp10,000, can cost him up to US$7 or about Rp70,000 in Dili.
Apart from the high cost of living, the Timorese are also suffering from high unemployment. No definite figures are currently available, however about 18,000 former Falintil guerillas are jobless. “They have no other skills except fighting,” says Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, a commander in Timor Loro Sa’e’s military (FDTL). It seems the new government prefers smaller, more manageable and professional military units. So it’s no wonder there’s explosive resentment against the dollar-rich international staff of UNTAET. Life in Dili is so profitably enjoyable that many UN officials in Geneva have opted to move to Dili, where salaries are high, taxes are low and cost of living is cheap.
A number of foreign and local companies have already started to invest in Dili and other regions of Timor Loro Sa’e. However, they remain small-scale investments. There are presently only three local companies operating with capital flows larger than Rp200 million. So the livelihood of the 800,000 people of Timor Loro Sa’e still depends on the incomes of UNTAET staff and various international and local NGOs operating there. There are, nevertheless, residents with education who are hopeful of working off their own land.
After all, for hundreds of years the people
of Timor Loro Sa’e made a living from farming and fishing hauls from the
sea. So the leaders of Timor Loro Sa’e and UNTAET officials don’t have
to be too concerned with and waste time on the differences between salaries
and social class. A much more important task facing them is to ensure that
the pattern of village economy that has sustained the people for hundreds
of years will not be undermined by dollars flowing out of foreign passports
Raihul Fadjri (Yogyakarta), Setiyardi (Timor Loro Sa’e).
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Foreign Pie in a Local Kitchen
(UNTAET’s Budget for 2000)
Salaries of military personnel US$220 millon
Salaries of civilian personnel US$199 million
Salaries of international staff US$112 million (monthly average of US$7,800 per head)
Dental care for military personnel US$7 million
Laundry cost of military personnel US$2.1 million
Drinking water for military personnel US$3.65 million
Salaries of local staff US$5.5 million (monthly average of US$240 per head)
Total Budget 2000 US$549.15 million
BD: Financing Reconstruction in East Timor / Fundu Ba Rekonstrusaun Timor Loro Sa’e / Bantu uang: Rékonstruksi - A collection of recent reports and articles