Subject: J. Dunn: Dream of democracy, like E. Timor's people, broken

Canberra Times

June 27, 2006 Tuesday

Dream of democracy, like E. Timor's people, broken

THE RELUCTANT resignation of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri yesterday may have eased the crisis in East Timor, but the situation will remain very unsettled until the underlying issues have been resolved. The violence on the streets of Dili may have subsided, but the outcome, if not handled circumspectly, could revive some divisive political differences that go back a long way.

The present crisis has gone well beyond disputes involving a discontented military, and has become a major political crisis that could still tear the nation apart if mishandled.

The issues are quite complex and interpreting them will test the skills of all parties involved, including our media, whose role so far has tended to be inquisitorial and partisan. The underlying political issues go back a long way. Fretilin's leading role in the armed struggle against Indonesian occupation gave that party an enormous advantage in the political run-up to the first election.

Not surprisingly it won a handsome majority (55 of the 88 seats) from a grateful electorate, a decisive victory which led to fears among Fretilin opponents that the new nation's government would lead to a one-party state.

During the 2001 election campaign such fears caused President Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, who had earlier been Fretilin leaders (Ramos Horta was one of its founders) to stress their independent status, and to encourage the development of the kind of political diversity that would ensure a balance in the new nation's political establishment.

They did not succeed.

By and large the opposition parties polled weakly and the outcome gave great power to Fretilin and its leader, Mari Alkatiri, one that caused disquiet, and not only among other party supporters. Discontent increased in the first years of independence when the weakening Timor Leste economy encouraged a wave of pessimism, and growing disenchantment with the Alkatiri Government, which, in the circumstances, was doing its best.

In fact the Alkatiri Government proved itself to be a reasonably efficient manager at a difficult time for East Timor's weakling economy.

The most explosive element was the massive unemployment in a country powerless to ease the misery of the jobless with unemployment benefits. At the time of independence unemployment stood at more than 60 per cent, and, in the circumstances of the time, to reduce it was an impossible mission.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of the Fretilin Party declined accordingly. It represents a pattern quite common in the histories of newly independent states, whose governing parties can hardly be blamed for failing in situations that would have defied the most skilful managers.

This background is generally poorly understood by our media, whose aggressive reporting can add to the tensions among a people already confused and disturbed. For the Timorese, democracy is a new experience, one that excited them during the UN tutelage, and at independence, but they are now confronted with the downside of the democratic experience - the mayhem, the social disruption, that occurs when the political balance breaks down.

Hence a key challenge before Mari Alkatiri's successor will be to restore the confidence of the electorate in a system that was supposed to lead them to national cohesion, observance of human rights and greater prosperity, but let them down.

From this point of view the next weeks will be critical for the political leaders of East Timor. It is essential that the present instability should be overcome, based on a comprehensive campaign to restore popular confidence in the institutions of democracy.

This should involve the political impartial participation of the UN and other interested parties, such as Australia. We must, however, avoid partisan positions that could exacerbate the tensions ignited by recent events. In this context, we should not regard Mari Alkatiri insensitively. His resignation was demanded for alleged misdeeds exposed by the foreign media, and not considered by the Timor Leste parliament.

It may well turn out that his main misdeed was one of omission. So far the only identified bad apple on the government side has been Rogerio Lobato, the sacked minister for the interior, who is now under house arrest. Mr Alkatiri's guilt or complicity in these serious charges still has to be established, and that presumably will be the task facing UN investigators. The most serious accusation is that a secret armed group was charged with eliminating Fretilin's political opponents.

Clearly Lobato was behind this operation, but the big question is: did the prime minister authorise, or know about it?

These questions need to be answered quickly, because of the severe damage the affair has inflicted on Timor Leste's fledgling democracy, but investigating it will inevitably take time. One solution would be an early election, but to hold an election in the present turbulent environment would be to invite unacceptable violence.

It would be preferable to wait until May, the designated time for the next election.

In the meantime it should be possible to stabilise East Timorese society, minimising the risk of violence in the campaign activities of rival political parties. This crisis has clearly distressed President Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos Horta and other leaders, whose dream of a democratic Timorese society living peacefully and harmoniously in their beautiful environment has been suddenly shattered.

Many are asking the obvious question: why did Timor Leste's democratic state, which was so tenderly put together under the tutelage of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his advisers, fail to arrest the new nation's slide into violence?

The answer has nothing to do with the legitimacy of East Timor's nationhood.

However, it reminds us that democracy is not built in a day. At the outset its essential principles need to be firmly rooted in those institutions with the capacity to endanger it.

James Dunn is a former Australian diplomat who has written extensively on East Timor.

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