DILI — Voting took place today in East Timor to choose 65 members of parliament, who Timorese hope will form a stable administration after a year of political uncertainty and the quick collapse of a short-lived minority government. “The winner is already here in front you,” said Mari Alkatiri, leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review after voting shortly after 7 a.m. at a school near Dili’s picturesque waterfront. Alkatiri was prime minister of a short-lived government formed after the last election in July 2017. But his coalition held just 30 of the 65 parliamentary seats and its minority government soon fell, after the Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition coalition declined to support Fretilin’s program for government.
DENPASAR — For the second time in less than a year, voters in East Timor will head to polling stations on May 12 to decide who will run the second smallest country in Southeast Asia. The last elections held in July 2017 left Mari Alkariri of the Fretilin party, or the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, as prime minister leading a shaky minority government. As its name suggests, Fretilin is made up of activists and fighters who opposed Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999. Fretilin won the most seats then, with 23, but the coalition it cobbled together was vulnerable, holding just 30 out of a total 65 seats in the Dili parliament. Unsurprisingly, Alkatiri’s government fell after the pointedly named Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition refused to support his proposed budget.
JAKARTA — Australia and East Timor on Wednesday signed what Canberra’s foreign minister Julie Bishop called “a milestone” agreement on a maritime boundary between the two countries. The treaty ends a long a bitter dispute between the neighbouring countries and paves the way for exploitation of billions of dollars in gas and oil under the Timor Sea – with at least 70 percent of the revenue to go to impoverished East Timor. The agreement was also historic because it marked the first successful conclusion of “conciliation” negotiations to settle maritime differences under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. How much money the country, a half-island nation of 1.3 million people who are among the poorest in the world, ends up getting depends partly on what deal is worked out to drill and pipe the underwater gas.
SINGAPORE – East Timor, also called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, wants to delineate maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea with its neighbors Indonesia and Australia in a way that Dili believes could be worth up to $40 billion in oil and gas revenues. Frustrated at perceived stonewalling by Australia, the Timorese government initiated “compulsory conciliation” on April 11 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — a move that could lead to the establishment of a commission to report on the boundary issue to the U.N. Secretary General. That document could in turn be used as a basis for any future boundary negotiations. The dispute is becoming increasingly heated on both sides. In March, around 1,000 Timorese protested outside the Australian embassy in Dili at Canberra’s perceived intransigence.”The government and the people now consider that the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries is a national priority,” Timorese Prime Minister Rui de Araujo told a conference on the issue in Dili on May 19. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Nikkei Asian Review that “the Australian Government is disappointed that Timor-Leste has decided to initiate compulsory conciliation over maritime boundaries. Australia has repeatedly made clear to Timor-Leste our preference for a full and frank discussion of all issues in the bilateral relationship.” Citing a past agreement between the two countries to shelve the boundary issue, DFAT added that “both countries agreed to a moratorium on boundary negotiations to allow joint development of the resources. We also agreed not to pursue any proceedings relating to maritime boundaries — this includes compulsory conciliation.”
DILI – Gusmao’s administration was tarnished with corruption allegations against two of his highest-profile ministers. And despite eye-popping growth, oil and gas extraction have not generated jobs for the hundreds of thousands of Timorese who eke out a living as subsistence farmers or are jobless. Moreover, the oil and gas revenue that comprises around three-quarters of GDP will run out in around a decade, meaning there is an urgent need to develop other sectors of the economy. But Araujo does not have long to implement his policies, as elections are due in 2017. Tourism and agriculture will be two priority areas, he said: “At least we could set some foundation for the next government to follow on these.”
DILI – Cornelio Gama, aka “Elle Sette” (L7), a former member of parliament in East Timor and leader of a murky clandestine group called Sagrada Familia, had just come home from a peacemaking mission at the University of Dili in the country’s capital. “There is a dispute between the rector and the students,” he says, “so I went there to try and resolve.” Peacemaker for a morning, Gama and his brother Paulino, better known as “Mauk Moruk,” are in fact at odds with the East Timor government, which they see as illegitimate.
DILI – East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, faces bleak economic prospects, amid predictions that the oil and gas that account for three-quarters of the country’s gross domestic product could run out in less than a decade. “We are aware of the risks and we working toward managing those risks,” Araujo said, discussing the vital but finite oil and gas reserves. The government has almost $17 billion saved in a petroleum fund, but estimates based on current spending and energy price forecasts suggest the fund will be depleted less than a decade after the last of the oil and gas has been extracted.
YANGON – Gusmão’s tenure saw economic growth hit double digits on the back of oil and gas revenues. New roads have been built, linking isolated mountain villages to nearby towns, and electricity has been provided to 60 per cent of the population in what remains one of Asia’s poorest countries. “He kept the peace and investment increased,” said Tony Jape, a leading Timorese businessman and founder of Dili’s largest shopping mall. But two of Gusmão’s ministers were charged with corruption during his time as prime minister, while connected cadres from the resistance era have often had the first options on juicy government contracts for new roads.
JAKARTA – Xanana Gusmao, the former leader of East Timor’s separatist revolt against Indonesian rule, resigned as the young country’s prime minister on Friday morning. The move follows a year of speculation that Gusmao would step down before the end of his term in 2017 due to ill health. At one point, he had said he would resign in September 2014. A replacement for Gusmao, 68, has not been named. Speculation centers on Rui Araujo, a former health minister. Former President Jose Ramos-Horta called Araujo “an outstanding leader – honest, experienced, humble,” in comments to the Nikkei Asian Review.
HALIDOLAR, East Timor — Three years ago, Maximiliano de Sosa had neither electricity nor basic farm machinery. Now, there is power around the clock and a tractor that de Sosa can rent to plow his small plot of land about 40 minutes’ drive from Dili, the capital. Perched on a 30cm ridge between de Sosa’s mustard crop and a neighbor’s spinach plants, an electric pump sucks water from a 12-meter borehole, making it easier to irrigate crops during the searing dry season. “If we don’t have electricity, we have to carry water half a kilometer and then water the crops by hand,” said de Sosa.