Subject: East Timor ten years after the referendum

<>East Timor ten years after the referendum

Friday 02 October, 2009 - 23:07 by <>James Dunn

Just over ten years ago, the Interfet force led by Major General Cosgrove, carried out the biggest operation of its kind in our history, in effect liberating the East Timorese people from a deeply unpopular. It followed the results of the plebiscite in which 78.5 % declared their desire for independence in the face of severe intimidation. It was the celebration of that historic event which took me back to East Timor, to participate in celebrating the tenth anniversary of the referendum.

For those of us on the ground in 1999 it was an emotional experience. The Indonesian invasion had ended as it began, but this time as well as the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians, the TNI set out to destroy the towns and villages they left behind. It was an act of cruel revenge, in effect leaving the Timorese and their liberators with only ashes on which to base the construction of a new nation. Unfortunately it was a gross injustice that has never been properly aired.In judging what has been achieved in the past ten years our starting point should be that grim scene in 1999 Ė Ground Zero, those of us in the UN mission often called it. The few hundreds of thousands who had escaped the TNIís depopulation operation were milling around searching for food relief, relatives and friends in the smouldering city. It was a community without any binding infrastructure, totally dependent on aid for their very survival.

Against that bleak scene in 1999 the new nation has made quite remarkable progress, despite the problems that continue to exist. Some of those problems are undoubtedly because the UNTAET mandate was too short. The first Alkatiri government had the insurmountable task of reconstructing devastated towns and villages, at the same time developing a self-sustaining economy, with a tiny budget.

The first years of independence were thus lean years, during which East Timor had to battle with an unsympathetic Australian government to secure the fair share of the resources of oil-rich Timor Gap it so desperately needed. The first government simply did not have the means to offer jobs to its youth, most of whom soon lost their enthusiasm for independence, and joined gangs whose violent activities threatened national unity. 2006 was a low point. There was a breakdown in political leadership, when fighting broke out between police and rebellious army units, costing 37 lives and hundreds of burnt houses.

To those of our media who took little account of East Timorís tortuous journey to independence, it had become a failed state. But to those of us who were aware of its background, and who had returned to Dili to help, it was a crisis for which we all shared responsibility. The UN mandate had ended too early (thanks to pressure from donor states), leaving East Timor in a financially crippled state, which inevitably resulted in disunity and instability, as public confidence in nationhood almost collapsed.

A lot has happened since those difficult times, and the situation is now easier. The refugee camps have now been closed, their inmates having returned to re-establish their homes. Thanks to assertive leadership, international security intervention and administrative support, and to a boost to the economy from oil royalties (which now stand at over 5 billion dollars in US Treasury bonds) East Timorís economy is growing quite briskly. Indeed, this year a growth of almost 13% is expected, which would place the new nation near the top of developing countries in these difficult times. The scene in Dili is one of bustling development activity, with a heavy emphasis on infrastructure. Multi story buildings are being erected, and shops, filled with goods, most of them from Indonesia, are in abundance.

However, behind this facade there are quite serious problems, of the kind that affect most new nations. Increasing corruption is causing concern to the leadership, especially President Horta and Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao, who has the task of dealing with the problem. Then there is the growing disparity between the elite and the population at large. Although East Timorís GNP per capita is now about $3,400, for over 50% of the population it is only about $300 per annum. As for the Government itself, the problem is perhaps less about corruption than administrative weaknesses.

The democratic institutions are in place, but they are functioning imperfectly. Significant advances have been made in education and health, but these services still fall short of meeting the needs of East Timorís growing population Ė now at over 1.1 million. Also, while there is an appearance of prosperity in Dili and other major towns, the reality, in relation to trade, agricultural development, and the development of export industries, has been disappointing. In trade coffee remains the main industry but this year coffee production will probably decline, having been affected by the drought conditions. As things stand the value of total exports last year amounted to little more than $US14 million, compared with an expenditure of over $300 million on exports.

Unfortunately too little of the growing business activity is in Timorese hands. Much of it has been accounted for by an increasing number of Indonesian entrepreneurs. Most food imports come from Indonesia. Although Australia is a major aid donor, we are minor players in the new nationís trade development (re-exports aside). Germany, Indonesia, and the US account for some two thirds of East Timorís modest exports.The security situation is really much improved, and UNPOL has handed over full responsibilities to the Timorese PNTL. The latterís performance has improved, though their respect for human rights is still causing some concern in the UN mission.

For both the police and the Defence force, the FDTL, a major restructuring, just announced by Xanana, aims to integrate police, security and defence services - a kind of National Guard, which will deal with disaster situations as well as security and defence issues. This wider integrated function should overcome the rivalries that led to the disruptive events of 2006. However, I feel that both the UN mission and the ISF will be needed to help with this restructuring, at least until 2012. The predominantly Australian ISF has already been reduced in size, and it was good to see that its military profile has been eased somewhat, leading to a less formal relationship with the local population. There are those who want the troops to leave (including some Indonesians who claim that Camp Phoenix is really an Australian base) but their presence is still necessary. One way to deal with such allegations would be to allow the ISF to become a PKF, that is, formally part of the UNMIT mission.

Now with 1300 staff, and about 1600 police the UN mission is in a reduced state. While the political situation is much more stable, East Timor is encountering problems common to newly independent countries. The leadership and governing elite generally, has become rather too distant from the population at large, to some, assuming the kind of image attributed to colonial regimes. Although significant advances have been achieved in health and education, the gap between living conditions of the governing elite and the population at large has if anything widened, helped by income disparities (a proposal to dramatically increase government and parliamentary salaries is currently being considered.

While the essential democratic institutions are in place they still appear to be functioning imperfectly, with the National Assembly not yet operating as effectively as it should -as the guardian of the new democracy - leading to insufficient accountability, (a problem referred to in the latest UN Security Council Report on East Timor), and to inadequate attention to human rights issues.The Assembly appears to be too easily diverted from its essential role as the ultimate democratic authority of the electorate at large. It is perhaps too deferential to the authority of East Timorís leaders. As for the Opposition, although Fretilin has become an active critic of Government policies, it is time it ceased referring to the Xanana Government as de facto, for it did come into office with the support of the majority of Assembly members. In the circumstances the rather bitter stand-off between the Prime Minister and Mari Alkatiri is regrettable. Together with Jose Ramos Horta, these are outstanding leaders of the kind the new nation desperately needs, but their differences are unhelpful to the important task of consolidating national unity. All in all, East Timor possesses the ingredients to transform the state from the devastation left by the TNI a decade ago into an outstanding success, but more effort, circumspect leadership, and continued international support, is needed to bring that about.

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