Yesterday, East Timor (the official name is ‘Timor-Leste’) marked a decade since it voted to end Indonesia’s long, brutal and illegal occupation. It is sure to be an emotional occasion – a time for celebration certainly, and maybe for somber reflection.
After all, an estimated 150,000 people died during the 24 years Jakarta put its jackboot to the Timorese throat. Out of a population of around 700,000 in 1974, when Portuguese colonial rule ended, this is perhaps the highest death-toll per capita of any conflict anywhere, since World War II. It is hard to find any Timorese person who has not been touched, one way or another, by such large-scale tragedy.
The 10th anniversary of Independence
With the anniversary looming, many activists and NGOs jumped at the opportunity to lobby again for some form of justice for past crimes perpetrated in East Timor. The government in Dili does not want this, preferring instead to maintain good relations with Indonesia, the now-amicable ex-invader to the north (and east, and west).
Both sides of this debate have merit, though perhaps not equal merit. However, dealing with the past should not mean future progress must be neglected, or international relationships compromised.
Therefore, given the retrospective theme of much of the 10th anniversary coverage so far, it is worth looking into the country’s future – through a dark glass though, rather than any crystal ball clarity.
East Timor moving forward
When I interviewed President Jose Ramos-Horta in the country’s capital Dili recently, he was upbeat about the future:
“We will celebrate August 30 in a booming economy. Dili and the rest of country are at peace; the police and Army are reconciled; and we are celebrating at a time when cooperation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is at its best — no two countries on the planet have a better bilateral relationship.”
Indeed East Timor has seen double-digit economic growth in the last two years, pretty spectacular given the downward global trend.
However, much of this is down to a doubling of government spending – itself a controversial move – as the Timorese have been cautious about spending oil revenues, seeking to avoid the financial ‘oil curse’ that has destabilised countries all over Africa.
Another issue that needs tackling is the perception that the country is an obscure, impoverished backwater – that’s even if people know it exists. The government needs to better-market the country’s amazing beaches, scenery and nature – all of which are unspoiled.
The recent Tour de Timor bike race is a good start. President Ramos-Horta knows this, saying they plan to kill two birds with one stone in the coming years by putting thousands of the country’s unemployed to work on road projects to upgrade the ramshackle infrastructure which currently hinders any dynamic tourism potential. The World Bank agrees, and so do I after losing my car bumper to a pot hole.
Ramos-Horta and other senior administration officials agree that corruption – regarded by many development experts as the biggest hindrance to countries becoming prosperous and stable – is a major problem in East Timor.
Independence icon and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was caught up in a corruption allegation recently – though the case has not been proven.
Still, the opposition has jumped on it, despite the fact that corruption, according to watchdog NGOs such as Transparency International, was just as bad when they (Fretilin) were in power. At least, that’s a sign that the country now has a thriving democracy, with vigorous public debate.
All in all, it is difficult to give a mark on progress in East Timor, now ten years free. There is no quantitative benchmark by which a country coming out of 500 years of colonial rule and 24 years of violent occupation can measure itself, a decade into state-building.
It can be argued that the country remains over-reliant on international support, and that nobody knows what would happen if the UN and ISF left tomorrow, given that the country almost fell into civil war 3 years ago.
As Fernanda Borges, leader of the opposition PUN party, told me in Dili, “sometimes the UN gives good advice, sometimes not. But then, sometimes we have not heeded or acted on the good advice. At the end of the day, it is up to us Timorese.”
Ramos-Horta himself has said the international babysitting has not always been positive. An estimated US$3-5bn in aid has been spent on Timor in its first ten years, but nobody knows how much has actually gone on improving the lives of ordinary Timorese.
The UN mission will perhaps leave in 2012 or 2013, as Timor hits adolescence. So, like the steep, winding byways leading out of Dili, maybe all we can say for sure is that Timor-Leste faces many twists on its climb to prosperity and stability.
– shortened version of this article also published by ISN
A quick background
In December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, annexing it as part of their country. The invasion was silently supported by many western countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, who had business interests in the country and wanted to stay onside with President Suharto.
The reason for the invasion was Indonesia’s fear of East Timor becoming communist, to prevent a domino effect of break-away provinces, and to get control of its oil and gas wealth. The occupation lasted for almost 24 years.
http://www.laohamutuk.org/ – Dili-based non-government organization publishing brief reports on the past 10 years
http://www.timor-leste-violence.org/ – project looking at violence and security issues
http://www.cavr-timorleste.org/en/chegaReport.htm – broad, definitive account of East Timor’s troubled past