East Timor is on one half of a dagger-shaped island directly north of Australia. A former Portuguese colony, it proclaimed its independence in 1975, and was then invaded by Indonesia, which ruled the country for twenty-four brutal years. When the Indonesians pulled out, in 1999, the United Nations arrived with administrators, consultants, policemen, and soldiers. The country is small, approximately the size of Connecticut, and the internationals have had the impact of an occupying army. They are the new colonialists. Unlike the sahibs of British India, they would never use the word "native" or write poems about the white man's burden, but they nevertheless create a social order that walls them off from the people they serve.
Any UN employee arriving in Dili instantly becomes one of the wealthiest people in the country. Salaries vary, but internationals working for the UN also receive a daily "mission subsistence allowance" of up to $100, which is supposed to cover food, lodging, and local transportation. This might be subsistence-level pay in New York City, but it's a fortune in Dili. The internationals there typically rent entire houses, hire servants, and still have enough left over for vacations in Bali. And the MSA isn't taxed, so it's free money, a bonus for being an international. Not long ago, during happy hour at the Roo Bar, in Dili, a UN consultant made a triumphant and typical announcement. "Another day of MSA," he said, and ordered more beer.
George Orwell, who was once a police officer in colonial Burma, analyzed how the British obsession with the pith helmet was just one more way of emphasizing, as he put it, "the differences between the natives and yourself." The internationals in Dili have similar ways of distinguishing themselves from the locals. Few Timorese own cars, but the internationals drive expensive Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers with insignia on the doors. Air-conditioning is another symbol of the economic divide. During the wet season, from December to April, the daytime temperature in Dili regularly reaches 90¡, with 80 percent humidity. In this heat the internationals move quickly from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices, thus inhabiting a different climate zone. Then there's the issue of water. Internationals like to carry around 1.5-liter bottles of purified water, and to keep cases of it in their offices. Bottled water has become a status symbol for local drivers who work with several aid organizations in East Timor: they now demand it as part of their compensation.
The old colonialists played polo. The internationals jog. They lace up their Nikes and, just like "mad dogs and Englishmen," trot through Dili in the noonday sun. The Timorese recognize that some people are athletes, and they're proud of their boxers and martial artists. But the idea that an adult would want to put on revealing clothing and expend energy in this way is incomprehensible to them. It's even somewhat shameful. When a squad of Portuguese soldiers ran up the boulevard on the Dili waterfront one day recently, little boys laughed and pointed at them. An old woman seemed embarrassed and looked away.