East Timor Hits Potholes on the Road to Independence

by Charles Scheiner

Reprinted from Estafeta, Winter 2007

Four centuries of colonial domination, capped by 24 years of brutal military occupation, leave deep scars. Indonesian troops have been out of Timor-Leste (East Timor’s official name) for seven years, and the new country has been self-governing for more than four, but legacies of poverty, trauma, patterns of violence and criminality, injustice and isolation will take decades to overcome. Over the last year, Timor-Leste’s people have painfully learned just how difficult this process can be. National visions, shared struggles and promises of prosperity no longer suffice to unify the one million citizens of one of the world’s least developed countries.


Beginning last April, the country’s capital unraveled – regional schisms and political machinations, manipulated by ruthless individuals and mishandled by government officials, led to fighting among and between Timor-Leste’s army and police. On May 25, soldiers massacred nine unarmed police officers, the most deadly day of a week of killings. Most police went into hiding, and gangs of jobless young men, alienated by exclusion from the benefits of independence, filled the security vacuum with street fighting.

refugees at embassy

Over a thousand frightened Timorese sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy on April 29, 2006. Joseph Rees allowed them in, but Washington was upset, so President Gusmão persuaded them to leave the next day. Photo by Charles Scheiner.

Defense Minister Roque Rodriques and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato resigned on June 1, but this failed to stem the violence. President Xanana Gusmão, with Australian backing, escalated pressure on Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who had just been re-elected as head of the FRETILIN party. Alkatiri resigned on June 26, to be replaced two weeks later by Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta. FRETILIN, with a large parliamentary majority since the 2001 election, is reluctantly working with Horta’s government until the elections slated for later this year—but many resent the "coup" that ousted their Prime Minister.



The leadership shakeup did not end the disaster, which had taken 37 lives and displaced more than 150,000 people before Alkatiri resigned. Since then, dozens more Timorese have been killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of houses have been destroyed. In December, the rain began, worsening public health in refugee camps – interim shelters for about half of the 100,000 displaced East Timorese. Street fighting and house burnings by youth gangs recur almost every day, with murders about once a week.

In late May, Timor-Leste’s government invited international soldiers and police, mostly from Australia, to restore order. Three months later the UN enlarged its presence in Timor-Leste (it had been downsizing since 2002), and the country now hosts 1,600 international police and about one thousand foreign soldiers. These peacekeepers are poorly organized, don’t know much about Timorese society or politics, and are reluctant to take risks. Their limitations are compounded by the judicial system’s near impotence: many arrestees are released because no judge is available to arraign them.


In October, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry issued a report recommending criminal prosecution or investigation of dozens of police, soldiers, government officials and others. Crimes ranged from murder to illegal distribution of government weapons. Culpability is widespread, but one key figure is army major Alfredo Reinado, who deserted in early May, and two weeks later ambushed soldiers, sparking a firefight which took five lives. On July 24, Reinado was arrested for illegal weapons possession. On August 30, he and 56 others escaped from Becora Prison. Reinado frequently meets with journalists and government officials, but has not been rearrested, and additional charges have not been brought against him.

Timorese vote during the 2001 Constituent Assembly Elections. Photo by Charles Scheiner.

Ongoing violence is perpetrated by a small minority of the population, but their identities and leaders are rarely known. Although casualties are less than one-tenth of Indonesian-driven “black September” 1999 (which was itself far less devastating than the cumulative toll of the U.S.-backed Indonesian military occupation), the concealed identities of the masterminds and the intractability of restoring peace have shaken the Timorese people to the core. Many worry that the 2007 national elections—the first since Timor-Leste’s independence— may be perverted or prevented by the situation, or that the campaign will become violent.


The causes of this crisis are many and disputed, but one consequence is clear – many Timorese have lost faith in their ability to govern  themselves. Without  experience or good models in democratic self-governance, and unaware of the setbacks that plague nearly every country post-independence, it is difficult to understand what is happening. Analyses are permeated with conspiracy theories, partisan power struggles, hidden agendas and ad hominem accusations, magnified by the unlikelihood of achieving justice for past or current crimes. The UN Commission of Inquiry and others have described power struggles and personal conflicts, focusing on individual acts while downplaying more fundamental, instructive and challenging contextual, societal and institutional causes.


In this globalized era, it takes more than a referendum to achieve independence. Timor-Leste has been governed by the United Nations; its National Development Plan was largely written and enforced by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; the IMF designs fiscal and monetary policy; “development partners” decide what projects to implement. Police and military structures were mostly created and trained by international “advisors.” Ninety percent of the economy depends on foreign oil companies. The new nation has had to surrender petroleum reserves to Australia and abandon justice in deference to Indonesia, where military officers from the President on down built their careers on the illegal, brutal occupation of Timor-Leste.


International Responsibilities


Nearly every new nation in history took many years to establish peace, national unity, stable constitutional government and rule of law. The United States, for example, endured local insurrections and intermittent repression from the colonists’ victory in 1783 until the War of 1812. Nation-building requires patience, time and trial-and-error. The political priorities of UN Member States began to shift from Timor-Leste as soon as the last Indonesian soldiers had departed, but the need for international support had only begun.


The 30-month UN transitional government was less than fully successful at moving Timor-Leste toward self-reliance, peace and democracy. This failure was due to systemic flaws characteristic of UN missions: an emergency/crisis orientation; personnel responsible to the UN bureaucracy rather than to local situations and needs; few women in decision-making roles; short-term mandates, planning and hiring; under-qualified international staff; failure to use local capacity; unwillingness to displease powerful states; and excessive focus on milestones (e.g. elections).


Capacity-building, mentoring and transfer of authority to Timorese staff was rushed, half-hearted or poorly executed. Many international advisors were hired on six-month contracts, so they spent most of their time getting oriented and looking for their next posting. They had little teaching experience, and were ineffective in transferring their skills to Timorese counterparts. Given Timor-Leste’s history, many Timorese had limited education and work experience, but rapidly assumed responsibilities that usually require years of classroom and on-the-job training.


Indonesian intransigence and limited international political will have blocked accountability for the architects of the most serious crimes committed during the 24-year Indonesian occupation. Timor-Leste’s government is unable to overcome prevailing impunity, and perpetrators of crimes against humanity hold powerful positions in Indonesia. This lack of justice, felt deeply by victims (the majority of Timor-Leste’s people), set the precedent for today’s lawlessness. Timor-Leste’s judicial system is crippled by lack of experienced personnel, arbitrary language restrictions, a hodgepodge of legal codes, scarce material resources and few citizens who have lived in a society ruled by law. In the current crisis, violence has filled the justice gap. Perpetrators anticipate impunity, and victims, lacking confidence in the courts, take matters into their own hands.


Consent of the Governed


One of the most challenging tasks of a victorious anti-colonial struggle is transforming people’s relationship with government from resistance to ownership, and neither international civic educators nor Timorese political leaders have been effective in this area. Politicians and political parties attack their adversaries’ integrity, rather than propose alternative policies or look for compromises. Dissatisfied voters insult or give up on their elected representatives, rather than lobby them. Elected officials are beholden to their party or patron, rather than to their constituents, as exemplified by the exceedingly generous pensions Parliament awarded itself last fall. Media coverage amplifies charges and counter-charges, without analysis or facts to help the people decide what is true.


National unity, relatively easy to maintain while fighting a common enemy, becomes more difficult after the occupier is gone. Mistrust remains between actual or suspected collaborators and those who fought for freedom. Regional and tribal differences are magnified. Skills of returning exiles, who often had more educational opportunities, need to be utilized without generating resentment from those who stayed and struggled. Unrealistic expectations that life would improve quickly after independence are not met, resulting in social jealousy when some inevitably prosper more than others.


Decades of trauma and displacement create lasting psychological effects, which need to be addressed through public health measures. Effective, responsible, reliable media and communications systems are also essential: when people do not trust information from official or public sources, they depend on rumor, imagination and disinformation.


Men and Women with Guns


Timor-Leste’s resistance leaders had hoped to create a nation without an army. But after the 1999 terror campaign, they decided that they needed a defense force. FALINTIL-FDTL, Timor-Leste’s military, was designed by international consultants with limited understanding of Timor-Leste’s needs, history and society. Although the new defense force honored and provided employment for some veterans of the guerilla resistance, it has been used for internal security several times, in violation of Timor-Leste’s Constitution.


In addition to the unclear roles and misinterpreted mandate of the armed forces, international and Timorese leaders gave little thought to the difficulties of transforming an underground liberation army into a national defense force. During the Indonesian occupation, FALINTIL guerillas had to work secretly and independently in a decentralized structure. Distinctions between soldiers and civilians were blurred, as people moved between the armed resistance and the civilian underground, often taking clandestine roles in Indonesian civil or military structures. Although these tactics are necessary for a successful guerilla resistance, they can be disastrous in a peacetime defense force answerable to a civilian government under the rule of law.


During a quarter-century of resistance, thousands of Timorese men and women served in the guerilla forces. Although these sometimes numbered only a few hundred soldiers, and although they have had infrequent combat since the 1980s, there are too many FALINTIL veterans to include in today’s defense force. The inevitable exclusion of many former combatants, some of whom sacrificed decades to the struggle, left a pool of resentful fighters available for manipulation.


Another complexity is the makeup and role of the police, tasked with internal security. Upon independence, the only experienced Timorese police had served in the Indonesian occupation police force. Some of these had demonstrated their commitment to Timor-Leste’s people, but the loyalties of others were questioned. With many new recruits, extensive but often ineffective training, numerous weapons including automatic and assault rifles, and militarized border patrol and rapid reaction units of debatable necessity, the police are perceived by some past and current soldiers as usurpers or worse.


Text Box: Petroleum dependency. For the next two generations, Timor-Leste will depend on its petroleum reserves to escape from its position as the second poorest country in Asia. By 2009, 94% of government revenues and 90% of GDP will come from offshore oil and gas. Although this money can improve people’s lives, the experience of other countries dependent on non-renewable resources is not encouraging. Difficult tradeoffs abound: current demands versus saving for future generations, investing in people or infrastructure versus operational spending, satisfying constituencies versus national needs. The country’s petroleum reserves will be exhausted within 50 years, and other sectors must be developed to make the economy sustainable. Corruption, ubiquitous in the oil industry among both companies and politicians, must be minimized.  Timor Leste’s oil prospects are complicated by a border dispute with Australia over oil fields in the Timor Sea. In the 1980s, Australia and Indonesia divided these spoils, with Australia taking far more than its normal share under international law in return for accepting Indonesia’s illegal occupation. After the 1999 referendum, UN and Timor-Leste negotiators gradually increased the fraction of its own resources Timor-Leste receives from 0% (pre-1999) to 24% (2000) and 42% (2003). Australia then dug in its heels, but the Timorese government, supported by activists in the US and around the world, was able to increase its share to 60% in the January 2006 CMATS Treaty. The crisis delayed ratification of this agreement and complicated hopes to use prospective onshore petroleum development to create jobs, infrastructure and secondary economic benefits. Given the often-horrendous consequences of petroleum development in other Third World countries, this is, however, a dubious disappointment.         East Timorese launch three days of protest in April 2004 in front of Australian embassy in Dili in lead up to boundary talks. Photos by Charles Scheiner. See ETAN's Timor Sea & Oil Boundaries pages: <a href=http://www.etan.org/issues/tsea.htm " width="504" height="362" hspace="12" border="0" align="left">Timor-Leste needs broad, public discussion about the future role and structure of its military, and to unlearn bad models and habits. Indonesia’s dwi fungsi (dual function) system uses the military to drive national development, which allowed Suharto’s military regime to control the economy through monopolies, extortion and graft. UNTAET, with 8,200 soldiers, 1,350 police, and 2,000 civilian staff was one of the most military-heavy governments in history, yet it had almost no skirmishes after 2000. Peacekeepers built roads, repaired bridges and did other jobs normally done better by civilians. Timor-Leste’s new government, emulating these bad examples, has proposed to enact universal military service regardless of the country’s security needs.



Ending Poverty


At the start of 2006, Timor-Leste’s per capita yearly income was $370. Fertility is the highest in the world; mothers and babies die faster than anywhere else in Asia. The average Timorese mother will have eight children (one will die before age five), and the population will double in seventeen years. Urban unemployment was around 40%, and the country’s Human Development Index ranks 142nd of 177 countries in the world.


Since 2000, transitional economic development has been led by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IMF and UNDP, who have emphasized “Washington consensus” policies. This includes fees for school and other public services, minimal public sector employment, few restrictions on foreign investment, public services contracted out to private (often foreign) companies, and plans to privatize public infrastructure. Components of this “free trade” agenda are now being modified in response to popular demand and the unemployment disaster, but local rice continues to be crowded out by cheaper imports, and electricity, telephone service and potable water remain unavailable or unaffordable to most people. Local industry remains negligible, and food imports have increased due to this year’s crisis disrupting domestic market channels and making displaced people dependent on foreign-supplied humanitarian assistance.


Highly paid international consultants and advisors decry corruption, but Timor-Leste’s most experienced civil servants learned these habits in Indonesian times, when it was patriotic to steal from the occupation government. Add a remnant of Portuguese inefficiency and overzealous new safeguards for accountability, and the result is paralysis – most government departments cannot spend their budget allocations, resulting in public services even more limited than poverty requires. The new government is beginning to address economic issues, even as they simplify the bureaucracy for foreign investors.


From 2000 to 2005, UN missions made up most of Timor-Leste’s economic activity, expending nearly two billion dollars, with another billion spent in foreign aid to Timor-Leste. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of this entered the local economy; the bulk of it paid for foreign consultants, soldiers or imported goods and services. Money that could have built a potable water system and electric power grid for Dili, residents was spent on imported bottled water and generators for UN buildings. Self-serving UN policies like these sacrificed opportunities to rebuild  destroyed infrastructure, which could have jump-started Timorese small businesses and provided employment, income and training for Timorese workers and managers. Timor-Leste might have avoided its current astronomical levels of joblessness and  alienation, at the root of today’s gang violence.


When Timor-Leste achieved independence, many resistance activists became government officials. Although the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and other solidarity activists still count many of these officials as friends, our international movement has developed new relationships with Timorese civil society, trying to hold all of our governments accountable. Self-determination and independence means that the people of Timor-Leste are responsible for their own destiny. However, solidarity activists, giving personal reparations for our governments’ complicity in their past oppression, continue to stand with the Timorese people. We can offer perspectives and information, advice and support, and work with them in challenging violations of human and political rights.


Timor-Leste’s people will overcome the current crisis, but it will take hard work and time. As we have for fifteen years, ETAN will continue to accompany them during the next phase of their journey. n


Charles Scheiner is a co-founder of the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and also works with La’o Hamutuk, an East Timorese non-governmental organization that monitors the principal international institutions present in Timor-Leste. This article was originally published in Estafeta (www.etan.org/estafeta), the newsletter of ETAN, Winter 2007, and is reprinted with permission.



 

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