Subject: AT: East Timor's future in the balance

Asia Times

Southeast Asia


East Timor's future in the balance

By Damien Kingsbury

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

MELBOURNE - As the United Nations winds down its presence in East Timor ahead of next May's departure, the fledgling state is still wrestling with forces that could offer it a stable future or, should matters not be well managed, tear it apart. More than ever, East Timor's future is in the balance.

Since its vote for independence from Indonesia and subsequent destruction by TNI (Indonesian military) -backed militias in 1999, East Timor has in many respects staged a remarkable recovery. In large part this has been due to United Nations and foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) assistance. A walk along the streets of Dili now reveals that most buildings have been repaired and are in use, businesses thrive and there are more cars, trucks and motorbikes than ever before. In the towns and countryside, such development is a little slower but still at impressive levels compared with two, much less three, years ago.

Most important, where until 1999 there were businesses and vehicles, most East Timorese were second-class citizens in their own homeland, and few had access to the benefits of development that the territory experienced under Indonesian rule.

Development is not just about material progress, but also social and political participation, representation, accountability and freedom. And it is upon such political development that the growth and security of material progress depends.

If East Timor's future is in the balance, then, there is much in its favor. Perhaps key among this is that, in their wisdom, the East Timorese chose to have a ceremonial rather than executive president. This means that critical state decisions are not in the hands of just one person, even if that person is Xanana Gusmao. The reality is that Gusmao will not be president forever, and his eventual replacement might be much less benign or genuinely popular.

The moral authority of the presidency, though, weighs well against the government executive, which in turn is balanced by the elected legislature from which it is drawn. An executive drawn from an elected legislature is always accountable, and must always perform at a level that would not result in a vote of no confidence.

The rule of an independent legal system, without which no state can function effectively, is also in place as a balance against legislative or executive caprice. However, with little time for training, this branch is not yet living up to its full potential.

No state can claim political development without a loyal but critically active opposition, which East Timor is developing. The Democratic Party and Social Democrats in particular provide a real, socially progressive alternative to the governing Fretilin, and may well force Fretilin into a coalition after the next elections. Indeed, the common assumption, especially about the Democrats, is that they are in reality the "reform faction" of Fretilin.

After two positive voting experiences, East Timor's people, too, have taken the democratic process to heart. For a people whose education levels were low under Indonesian rule, a situation that is improving only slowly, people from often surprisingly humble backgrounds are well able to articulate their political views and desires. This alone is perhaps the most positive sign for the future.

However, against these positive attributes, East Timor's political ledger also records some serious negatives, which together have the potential to undo the positive work that has taken place since UN intervention, and which could leave the country in chaos.

Most potentially damaging is the growing unpopularity of the Fretilin government, due to its perceived arrogance, elitism and allegations of abuses of power. Although Fretilin took about two-thirds of the seats in the new legislature and so clearly won government, it did so largely because it represented the core of the older pro-independence movement. The gloss of that victory is now long faded.

In that the Democrats and Social Democrats are a viable opposition, they are so on the basis of their members having been present during the Indonesian period (many being drawn from the East Timorese student resistance). Therefore, they have a perceived sense of connectedness with many ordinary, if still predominantly urban, East Timorese, as a consequence of being present during that time.

However, beyond a vague ideological position, neither party has developed any coherent set of policies, beyond succumbing to World Bank pressure to borrow for infrastructure projects. East Timor almost certainly cannot afford to borrow, and such projects are not likely to return an economic benefit. It is unfortunate then that the one opposition policy position that appears concrete is not especially well considered.

In that East Timor has received a lot of financial and professional assistance from the international community, international attention is now focusing elsewhere. Much has been achieved in three years, but not enough to replace the professional class that, until 1999, largely derived from the rest of Indonesia. In that respect, East Timor will most likely undergo a slump in professional expertise when the UN leaves. Given the sometimes uncooperative responses of the Fretilin government to a number of international organizations, this slump is not likely to be picked up by non-UN agencies.

In particular, elements of the former Internal Political Front, the clandestine urban wing of the armed resistance under Indonesian rule, have not accommodated post-independence civilian rule very well. There is a belief among some East Timorese that certain members of this former organization believe they remain a law unto themselves.

In an environment in which there are real grievances against the government, and in which economic development still leaves many expectations unfulfilled, there is fertile soil for planting the seeds of destabilization. This task has been admirably undertaken by the so-called Committee for the Popular Defense of the Republic of Democratic Timor L'este (CPD-RDTL).

As noted in the Jakarta Post almost two years ago, the CPD-RDTL is in essence a front organization for Indonesian irredentists who wish to see East Timor's independence fail. Not surprisingly, while the CPD-RDTL draws on some disaffected East Timorese youth and a few ex-members of the guerrilla force Falintil, it is also notable for its significant numbers of ex-militia members.

The CPD-RDTL does promote issues that are of genuine concern to ordinary East Timorese, but its tactics of violence, intimidation and extortion recall precisely those used in Europe, especially Germany and Italy, in the 1930s. Populism linked to violence is the stuff of fascism, and the CPD-RDTL is neo- Nazi in all but name. Having earlier said it did not recognize the UN in East Timor, or the outcome of the ballot for independence, the policy position of the CPD-RDTL is now quite unclear. But its actions have been, at best, malignant.

Drawing on a similar source of organization in West Timor, cross-border smuggling and continued threats by members of the Integration Struggle Troops (PPI) militia to "plant the red and white in East Timor" especially destabilizes the border districts of Bobonaro and Cova Lima. This also reflects the underlying reality of tension that exists between Indonesian and East Timor, not least among sections of the TNI, despite official Indonesian pronouncements to the contrary.

Having made a large and costly investment, the international community is unlikely to stand by and watch East Timor be overtly destabilized or fall victim to unilateral action such as a coup. If anything, the strategic location of East Timor both in the archipelago and astride a deepwater shipping and submarine channel also means that the United States in particular will want to see the place remain stable, which in turn means having an accountable government. The recent presence of US warships just off Dili, including an aircraft carrier, was a clear sign that US strategic interest remains high.

Australia, too, remains committed to East Timor, although its very wary of offending Indonesia by retaining too robust a presence along the border. Australia's army battalion is due to withdraw next year, but there are already calls from communities along the border for a military company to remain in each district after that, as a consequence of smuggling and potential militia activity. The East Timorese Border Patrol Unit is now formally in place, but it does have a limited capability.

On a balance of probabilities, East Timor is likely to bump along after next May, certainly with many problems but also with some strengths.

If the major political groups can continue to respect the rule of law, then the future of East Timor should be more rather than less positive, compared with the situation under Indonesian rule. However, abandoning the rule of law, or failing to have it properly applied, will almost certainly spell disaster for the fledgling state.

If East Timorese need any motivation to remain on the path of tolerance and respect for the law, they need only to recall their own history.

The cost in human life up to 1999 was staggering by any standard - respected Harvard genocide expert Ben Kiernan estimates 150,000 of 650,000 died between 1975 and the mid- 1980s - and the destruction and death of 1999 have left their own scars. As with Indonesia itself, the price of going back to the bad old days is too high to contemplate.

Dr Damien Kingsbury is head of philosophical, political and international studies at Deakin University, Melbourne. He recently visited East Timor.

Back to November menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu