East Timor still learning democracy – The Irish Times


DILI, EAST TIMOR: “We want to go home, but our leaders will not help us.” More than a month has passed since East Timor’s first parliamentary election since independence in 2002 and the tiny nation remains without a new government.

The deadlock comes just over a year after almost half the army mutinied over alleged discrimination in favour of cadres from the eastern part of East Timor. The ensuing riots and pitched battles between police and army elements displaced more than 100,000 Timorese, most of whom remain in fetid and overcrowded camps in the capital, Dili, and the eastern city of Baucau.

Voter turnout in Timor Leste is usually high, but the unemployment is high as well. These women are on short-term labour contracts for a ILO/Government public works project in Oecusse (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

One of those, Martinho da Costa Ximines, a father of four, told The Irish Times: “We have been in this tent for almost a year and half. My home was burned down, because I am lorosae [an easterner].

“I voted for Fretilin, because they are a party for easterners. But I do not understand why we have not been helped to go home. I have not heard whether there is a government yet.”

Martinho has heard right – there is no government yet. President and Nobel peace laureate Dr José Ramos-Horta has been conducting a series of meetings with all parties to try to break the impasse, but to no avail.

Fretilin, the socialist party associated with Timor’s independence movement, plummeted from 57 per cent of votes (at the UN-directed constituent assembly poll in 2002) to just 29 per cent this year.

The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party came second with 24 per cent of the votes, but has formed a coalition with two other parties to give it a total of 48 per cent.

The CNRT is led by Xanana Gusmão, the resistance hero who spent most of the 1990s in an Indonesian jail and whose guerrilla army split from Fretilin in the 1980s over differences in strategy and the need to reach out to all sectors of Timorese society.

East Timor’s one million people have the lowest GDP per capita in Asia, not including the revenues accruing from oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea. Over $1 billion of this money is in an escrow account in New York as East Timor’s politicians debate how best the revenue can be spent.

However, as bishop of Dili Dom Alberto Ricardo da Silva told The Irish Times: “The international community must continue to help East Timor. We do not have the capacity or experience to manage on our own yet. We do not know how to use the money.”

Over 95 per cent of East Timor’s population is Catholic, and the religious fervour of this remote island is striking. A new 60-foot statue of Pope John Paul II is being erected on a headland west of Dili, to gaze across at the equally imposing Rio-style statue of Christ which stands to the east of the city.

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years. After the fall of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974, Portugal engaged in a messy withdrawal from its colonies, some of which, like Angola and Mozambique, lapsed into lengthy civil wars.

East Timor’s brief civil conflict was interrupted by a 1975 Indonesian invasion, tacitly approved by the US and Australia, which over the next 24 years brought the destruction of much of East Timor’s infrastructure and the deaths of between 150,000-250,000 people, the highest per capita death rate of any country in conflict since the second World War.

But now, an effective and dynamic government is needed to enable the world’s newest democracy – independent since 2002 – and a new oil economy deal with the challenges and problems of sovereignty. Getting displaced people home means addressing the grievances in the army and police that led to last year’s violence. But to do this, East Timor’s politicians must first agree that, after an election, there are winners and losers, and either way someone must form a government. With all sides threatening to boycott or veto an administration that does not include them, such political irresponsibility does not bode well for the stability of this tiny country.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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