DILI – Land, corruption and poverty are all on the table as Timor-Leste gets into political mode ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2012, with one controversial figure already throwing his hat into the ring.
Convicted of arming gunmen during Timor-Leste’s 2006 crisis, which threatened to destabilize the then four-year-old state, Rogerio Lobato told Asia Times Online that he will run for president, contesting a largely-ceremonial position now held by a fellow former Timorese exile activist, Jose Ramos-Horta.
It is not clear yet whether the incumbent – who commuted Lobato’s sentence soon after the apparent assassination attempts against himself and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in 2008 – will compete again, but Lobato, a brother of former resistance hero Nicolau (after whom Dili’s small international airport is named), is confident he can win.
“The charges against me were clearly political,” he says, dismissing any notion they could count against him in the vote. “Others were accused of arming people too,” he says, “how come they never came to trial?”
It is unclear yet whether Lobato will have party backing for his campaign, but he was part of the Fretilin administration that was eventually ousted in the 2007 elections, ceding control of the government to Xanana Gusmao’s multiparty coalition despite winning more seats than any other party.
Asia Times Online witnessed Fretilin’s internal party vote in Dili and in villages in Baucau district, close to the party’s eastern stronghold, on August 20. More than 150,000 party members voted in direct elections for who will head up the party in the next elections. Incumbents Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres and former prime minister Mari Alkatiri were the sole candidates.
Party spokesman and member of parliament Jose Teixeira said that graft will be a key campaign issue for the party, which is confident it can win enough votes to govern independently after the next election. Asked what the election will center on, he said, “Corruption, collusion and nepotism is what is on everyone’s lips; because massive budgets, massive claims have simply resulted in no improvement in people’s lives.”
After centuries of colonial rule by Portugal and a quarter-century of harsh Indonesian occupation, Timor-Leste voted to secede in 1999, and became formally independent in 2002. Despite a hefty United Nations presence since 1999, the country nearly lapsed into civil war in 2006, when one-tenth of the population was displaced as part of the police and army fought each other on the streets.
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, has earned about US$8 billion in oil and gas revenues since 2005, around the same amount it has received in overseas aid since 1999. Most of the energy earnings are being banked to ensure there are funds once the wells run dry, in an initiative that has won widespread international praise. That said, the resources are “a one generation window to build the country”, according to a newly-leaked United States diplomatic cable from the embassy in Dili, dated August 21, 2009.
The current government has spent much of the budget increase allowed by the revenue on “recurrent expenditures such as wages and salaries”, according to the cable, but has offered “one-time buyouts” to people made homeless by the 2006 violence and has increased spending on development projects.
Fretilin and opponents allege that these projects have only enriched the current government and their cronies, with Teixeira saying that the spending so far has “only made a few of the Dili political elite rich”. According to the US cable, “petroleum revenue has boosted nominal statistics like gross national income, making Timor-Leste look more prosperous on paper, but that stimulative demand effect has yet to filter into the real domestic economy”.
Resentment over slow development amid apparent graft could be exacerbated by a looming crisis over land rights and ownership. While Fretilin has yet to state its position on the country’s proposed land law, the issue could be an election game-breaker should anyone run with a populist program.
After 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation followed by post-independence upheavals, along with overlapping Portuguese- and Indonesian-era land claims, means there is more heat than light in Timor-Leste’s land debate.
Some claims of ownership date to Indonesian times – an apparent contradiction given that Jakarta’s occupation was deemed illegal under international law – while the Timor-Leste state is likely to claim much of the land that is not covered by the few Portuguese or Indonesian-era papers.
The code could – if applied to the letter – entitle the state to evict tens of thousands of Timorese in Dili, and more elsewhere. Many Timorese settled on available land after 1999’s independence referendum, which sparked chaos as Indonesia’s army and affiliated Timorese militias wreaked havoc as they withdrew.
While it is unclear if there is any direct link with a nearby Indonesian commercial project slated for the area, the details of which have not been made public, gang-related violence in Zumalai in the south of the country saw 100 houses torched.
According to one Timorese media personality who asked to remain anonymous, the PNTL – Timor-Leste’s national police force – asked for assistance from the army to deal with the fallout from the attacks. While this might signal better relations after rivalries between the police and army played a part in the 2006 near-cataclysm, it raises questions about the strength and reliability of the police.
While the UN maintains a contingent of 1,280 foreign police in Timor-Leste, full control of policing was handed to the Timorese in a step-by-step process starting in 2009. In Zumalai, the arson is said to have been triggered by the stabbing of a gang member who was also a police officer. Many of the country’s police are thought to be members of Timor-Leste’s martial arts groups and street gangs, some of which also have links to political figures.
The land law has yet to be settled in parliament, but nonetheless the Timorese authorities are already pushing ahead with clearances to make way for projects, not only in rural areas but in the heart of the capital.
At a derelict backstreet building once occupied by some of the “petitioners” – the army cadres whose dismissal in 2006 helped trigger the street fighting that year – Asia Times Online spoke with Eufrajio Fernandes, part of a group of 175 families who were driven from their homes in Bairo Pite in Dili on January 20, to make way for a police housing project.
“They came at 4am, they did not give us any warning,” he recalls. “They just came in the dark of night and kicked us out.” The group was given $2,000 per household as compensation, money which came from the police rather than the Ministry for Land and Property.
“We cannot do much with this amount,” he says, adding that he purchased land for $1,700 on the rock-strewn slopes of the mountains surrounding Dili. Whether he will be entitled to keep the plot is open to question, given the country’s legal limbo over land, but he has already spent the remaining $300 on living costs since January.
His friend Alberto Soares Gama puts the group’s anger in context. “In Zumalai there was burning and fighting, so the government acts to intervene. Here, we have been peaceful, but they ignore us,” he says, referring to letters addressed to various government ministries. “They just fobbed us off with excuses.”Show