Subject: PST: The people are paying the price

From Green Left Weekly, July 19, 2006.

EAST TIMOR: The people are paying the price

Avelino Coelho da Silva, Dili

The conflict that arose recently in Timor Leste has caused more suffering for the nation’s poor people, confronting them with an uncertain economic and political future.

This conflict need not have happened if all the country’s politicians had put the interests of the people first and not their own desire for power. Their attitudes have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes, other possessions or their livelihoods. Now they must live in tents provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The conflict developed in the first instance around the issue of Loro Sae versus Loron Monu, or east versus west. Yet this ethnic issue has never been a serious problem in this country. During the last few weeks, it has grown so quickly, resulting in the breakdown of the good neighbourly relations that had existed here among East Timorese people of different ethnicity and religion.

This is truly a tragedy! But it has happened.

In the current reality, we see so much irony, as is often the case as history and revolutions unfold. If we read some of the placards and banners that appeared during the recent demonstrations, we might laugh or we might get seriously stressed. For example, there were banners reading “Viva capitalism! Out with the communists!” So our question is; are Timor Leste’s politicians that ignorant? Did the people who wrote those banners know what they really wanted?

We can answer here both yes and no. Yes, because those behind the demonstrations were indeed trying to paint former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri [who was pressured to resign on June 26] as a communist ­ that there was a communist governing the country. And we can answer also “no” because the young people carrying those banners were from poor village and town families that have no familiarity at all with ideas such as capitalism versus communism. It is actually some very non-communist policies ­ policies with no left character at all ­ that have created this poorest class of young men and women.

For somebody to be accurately classified as a communist, his/her policies should show some similarity to communist ideas. Yet Alkatiri, and the Fretilin government he has led, have not the slightest communist colouring. The social system that has been fostered is one based on the existence of rich and poor classes. The Alkatiri government has implemented no policies aimed at ending this gap. Worse still, the Alkatiri government’s policies have worsened the situation, with the phenomenon of cronyism exacerbating the rich-poor gap. It is a public secret that senior officials have tended to facilitate cronyism.

The economic policies of Alkatiri and Fretilin have tended to promote privatisation. There have been no indications that the Alkatiri government is interested in nationalising any private firms. There have been no signs of a left orientation towards land reform. The gap between rich and poor has grown. Agriculture has been abandoned so that the country as a whole is dominated by trade and by private traders. The peasant farmers have grown poorer under these capitalist policies. You can see the irony of them carrying banners stating “Viva capitalism! Down with communism!”

Public utilities such as electricity, telephone, land and air transportation are all controlled by foreign private firms. All the needs of the government are also supplied by private firms, not public companies or cooperatives.

Alkatiri and Fretilin have not organised the people in the way you would expect from a left-wing party. Fretilin has tended to turn itself into a party of the elite, which will mobilise the people from time to time to defend the party’s interests, while ignoring the actual interests of the people. Fretilin under Alkatiri has divorced itself from the people and its leaders have adopted the lifestyle of the petty bourgeoisie.

In the cultural field, the Fretilin membership and its cabinet are religious in orientation. They show no signs of wanting to fight against the culture and religion of East Timor. The state radio and television gives more time to religious programming than to political education for the people.

The hostility towards Alkatiri flows from the struggle for power among the elite politicians. Several parties and their leaders are afraid of elections because they know that they cannot defeat Fretilin. At the last local elections, at the suco (village) and aldeia (sub-village) level, Fretilin won 80% of the positions. These results indicate that the country will remain dominated by Fretilin until the people’s political consciousness develops further and they decide to support parties based on their political program and ideology and not based on the fictional history of a movement or party.

It was these political factors, supplemented by the interests of neighbouring countries vis-a-vis oil and gas, that the process developed to paint Alkatiri as a “communist”. There was the hope that this could be used to mobilise the masses to defeat Alkatiri and Fretilin at the coming elections.

Another factor contributing to this situation has been Alkatiri’s own leadership style. He takes a confrontational approach towards everybody and appears as arrogant.

What has happened in East Timor is not the case of a left-wing Alkatiri and Fretilin government being forced out of power by mass mobilisations. Alkatiri fell because he was disliked by some other elite politicians and because Fretilin was not able to bring forward another person capable of being a prime minister and of forming a new government. So some still hope that Fretilin can be destroyed at the next elections. That is what this is about: right-wing against right-wing.

After Alkatiri stepped down from his throne, speculation spread as to who might be his replacement. The newspaper Suara Timor Loro Sae reported that leaders of the various demonstrations started to promote Mario Carrascalao, a leader of the Social Democratic Party. They started to say that Jose Ramos Horta no longer had the support of the people. Why were they saying this?

Initially, it was stated [in a speech by President Xanana Gusmao] that the Fretilin leadership was not legitimate, because the Fretilin congress used a vote by show of hands and not a secret ballot to elect it. Yet negotiations went ahead with the Fretilin leadership and a compromise was reached. Out of this compromise, Horta emerged as the new prime minister. This was the result of a compromise among the political elite. The opposition politicians were outraged and again began to raise criticisms.

The policies outlined by Horta in his swearing-in speech indicate that there will be no substantial changes in policy. Working closely with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank has become a part of the reality here. The promises of building housing, of building an “academic town” and of distributing motorbikes to suco heads fosters false hopes. There are no signs of policies that can take the Timorese people out of their economic misery.

Alkatiri has fallen, but Horta’s government is a Fretilin government. The president of Fretilin, Lu’olo, has made it clear that Horta must meet every week with the president and secretary-general of Fretilin and every month with Fretilin’s national political commission. Horta has been steadily distancing himself from the opposition parties. Horta hopes to remain prime minister after the election by gaining Fretilin’s support.

Who has won and who has been defeated? The people again are the losers.

[Avelino Coelho da Silva is the secretary-general and national political commissioner of the Socialist Party of Timor.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 19, 2006.

Timor’s crisis analysed

Emma Brown & Marcus Greville, Melbourne

Alex Tilman, a representative of Fretlin, the largest political party in East Timor, and Vannessa Hearman, an Asia-Pacific journalist and solidarity activist, addressed a July 13 Green Left Weekly-organised public meeting on East Timor’s crisis.

The 40 people in attendance heard an up-to-the-minute account of events in East Timor and a strong critique of the role of Australia and the UN in holding back East Timor’s reconstruction ­ the real cause of the country’s current problems.

Tilman gave a speech on the military crisis that forced the elected prime minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, to resign, and which precipitated the present crisis. Tilman highlighted the role the international media has played in polarising opinion both within East Timor and in Australia. He characterised the charges that have been levelled against Alkatiri as a “trial by media”.

Hearman’s presentation compared the role Australia played in 1999 after East Timor’s independence referendum, when its military intervention halted a wave of violence sponsored by the Indonesian military, with its interference in national reconstruction over the last few years. East Timor has received worthless financial advice from the Australian government, along with the Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund, on how the East Timorese should manage their affairs.

In one case, such “advice” resulted in an expensive study on electricity provision that led to poor households having to install pre-paid electricity meters.

Finally both speakers highlighted the politicised role the Australian forces are now playing, including reports of soldiers approaching East Timorese, telling them not to support Alkatiri.

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