Opinion

East Timor after 10 years:
A rotten fruit of independence

Ten years have passed since East Timor's people elected to rid themselves of occupation by the Indonesian military through a popular consultation on Aug. 30, 1999.

As soon as the result of the ballot was announced by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, on Sept. 4, the Indonesian military and its proxy militias played the swan song of their reign of terror over the battered society. The forced relocation of almost 100,000 people and a "burning down" operation throughout East Timor was added to the price that East Timorese people were forced to pay for their freedom.

Gross human rights violations and destruction of property were common place. The total death toll, according to figures from the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights, was at least 3,000; the financial losses were countless.

East Timor came under the auspices of the UN after the Indonesian military left the country. Rich in oil and gas, East Timor has now become "the land of disputes" between different political and economic interests.

Even though the previous government, led by Fretilin, the party born out of the independence movement, was able to negotiate and win some revenue from the oil fields, the problems of serious poverty, the unequal distribution of wealth and the concentration of capital in few hands planted another time bomb which exploded in political turmoil in 2006 and finally toppled the Fretilin government, under the leadership of Mari Alkatiri.

In the 2007 elections, Xanana Gusmao - former guerrilla commander and political prisoner during the Soeharto regime and Gus Dur's tenure - was able to unify five small political parties to create the Parliamentary Majority Alliance and form a government, with himself as prime minister.

Two years after Xanana took power, surrounding himself with his close allies, corruption, collusion and nepotism became endemic and the already wide gap between rich and poor was only exacerbated. In 2008, the parliament passed a US$700 million state budget, which included funds for reconstruction.

However, conditions in Dili -the capital of East Timor - are worse than at any time since independence.

The roads are terrible, rubbish is scattered in every corner of the city, water is scarce, and migration from the countryside to the capital has seen a tremendous surge in the number of unemployed, beggars and prostitutes.

Contrasting with this gloomy picture are images of the blossoming of new governmental and parliamentary buildings. Some government officials are building their own "kingdoms" at the summit of hills and apartments for the new rich are strung along the seaside as a middle class, comprised of an unholy alliance of bureaucrats and businessmen (and their families), spend their holidays in this "paradise."

It seems the fruits of independence have rotten. The poor management of state budgets and the lack of authority and coordination among ministries is worsened by the infighting of the political parties that make up the coalition.

Each party is more concerned with grinding its own axe than serving the people. This political jigsaw has so far benefited Fretilin, the core opposition group and "government in waiting."

PM Xanana Gusmao has himself stated on various occasions that he was capable of leading a government up to 2012. However, his popularity has declined sharply since the politico-military crisis of 2006.

The rise in unemployment, social polarization, downward mobility and poor quality of living contrasted by the spectacular growth of the multi-million dollar fortunes obtained by "insiders" and "outsiders" with access to the public treasury and the prime minister's inner circle have led to widespread public discontent and a slump in the popularity of "Mr. Special One".

The alternatives for overcoming this political and economic uncertainty are few and far between. Discussion of the possibility of an early election has become mainstream, along with the idea of a possible political consensus or coalition between the Xanana allied parties and Fretilin.

However it happens, something must be done to break the chain of political disputes, restore justice and build a prosperous and equal East Timor.

The writer is historian and is currently mapping social transformation in Latin America and South East Asia. He is based in Dili.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.

From Our Networks