Subject: James Dunn: Timor's Latest Challenge Timor's Latest Challenge

Wednesday 08 August, 2007 - 17:49

The violence that followed the announcement that President Horta had chosen Xanana as prime minister was, unfortunately, to be expected, and let us hope that it is short-lived. Fretilin supporters regarded their party as the victor in the election because it emerged as the largest party - despite the fact that it won well short of a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The problem is more psychological than constitutional at this early point in East Timor’s history. We in Australia have long accepted rule by coalitions, but that is a new experience in East Timor.

The problem could perhaps have been averted if a different procedure had been followed in the formation of the government. Mari Alkatiri, the Fretilin leader could have been given first opportunity to win the confidence of the NA, and with his failure to win that confidence the baton could then have been passed to Xanana. A somewhat complicated procedure, but at least it would have been a democratic nicety that might have satisfied the electorate, heading off the violence. Now the government has the task of simmering down the angry reaction from Fretilin supporters, and that could take time.

The Timorese are hungering for a united inspired leadership, and that is a challenge facing the new government. It must meet that challenge if the lawlessness and violence undermining the developing of the new nation is to be brought to an end, bring in a new dawn of stability and social cohesion. It would be a great help if the Fretilin leadership could be persuaded to accept and participate in the new government. It would be of significant benefit to East Timor if a government of national inclusion could lead the new nation for at least two years.

Meanwhile we need to be a bit more understanding than some commentators, who now present East Timor as a basket case. The Timorese are not by nature violent and difficult to govern. The last three decades has been a tortured experience for the Timorese people, and it is hardly surprising that divisions of one kind or another have surfaced in their community, undermining their confidence in the new nation. I wonder what our Australian scene would be like today, if we had suffered two catastrophic invasions in the past seventy years, claiming the lives of some 7 million people, and resulting in the almost total destruction of our towns and villages?

The big challenge facing the new government is to provide the kind of leadership that is inspiring to all, including the many East Timorese who did not vote for it. East Timor continues to need ­ and deserve ­ our generous help and understanding. May all the political parties now reflect on their herioic past roles and now act on the basis of understanding and tolerance to shape constructively and cooperatively Timor Leste’s future.


1 comment

Wednesday 8 August, 2007 - 08:50PM

I always enjoy reading your wise and moral observations.

Regarding the argument that it would be desirable to include FRETILIN in the government, a similar issue arose in Cambodia after the 1993 elections there. The former ruling party (CPP) threatened violence, and an agreement was reached on something resembling a unity government, with Hun Sen as "Second Prime Minister". But none of the parties were really reconciled to working with each other for the good of the country, the CPP (having retained control of the military and police) ate away at the government from the inside, like a cancer, and ultimately the arrangement broke down when CPP staged a coup in 1997.

It is easy to imagine a similar scenario in Timor: ministries would be turned into fiefdoms; ministers would run interference in each other's ministries; and in the absence of a strong inter-agency coordination process, coherent implementation of policy could become almost impossible. And the whole thing would almost certainly fall apart before the next election.

If FRETILIN retains a role in government, it is unlikely to learn from its mistakes, and that would be to the long term detriment of Timorese democracy; if it is excluded from power, there is at least a chance that it will reconstitute itself in a more democratic form, to the country's long-term benefit. (And if it doesn't reform, it runs the risk of becoming a regional, backward-looking minority party, which will fade into relatively insignificance as more and more voters come of age who have no memory of the struggle.)

In the final analysis, democracy is all about being able to change government peacefully. If it's impossible, or just too risky or difficult, to displace a ruling party when a decisive majority clearly voted against it, then Timor's democracy will be a sad and stunted thing for the foreseeable future.

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