What many commentators fail to acknowledge is that despite its
current difficulties East Timor has come a long way since gaining
independence in 1999. The blueprint for Timor’s achievements is the
National Development
Plan, a detailed document developed in 2001-2 by the Planning
Commission, under the leadership of Mari Alkatiri, through a process of
national popular consultation (led by Xanana Gusmao) in the
pre-independence transitional period.

It has informed subsequent
multilateral donor efforts and national policy initiatives, most
recently through a detailed “sector investment program” analysis and
renewed priority setting, carried out through the Ministry of Planning
and Finance. Of course this may be seen by some as evidence of that
Marxist curse of “planning”; for which associated coordination of
government priorities and matching donor resources has been overseen by that other Marxist agency, the World Bank.

In fact, the
Marxist tag seems to arise from either Alkatiri’s earlier formative
years in exile in Mozambique (that is, unrelated to his actual
performance as Prime Minister) or an Australian response to his
independent and assertive style in negotiations on behalf of his
country over Timor Sea oil and gas reserves (a fairly common response
by developed country governments to non-compliant third world states).
Reference should be made to an informed recent article by East Timor scholar Helen Hill in The Age.

an ABC radio journalist said on the weekend, the current turmoil is
more difficult to understand than in 1999, when it was easy to know who
were the “bad guys”. That is not so easily understood at present, and
the Australian political leadership and media should take a cold shower
before continuing their demonising of Mari Alkatiri. (Greg Sheridan
blatantly states that a failure to remove Alkatiri “is a shocking
indictment of Australian impotence… [in] promoting the national

What is presently important is to see whether the practice
of Ministerial responsibility (witnessed by the removal last week,
either voluntarily or otherwise, of the Ministers with responsibility
for the police and the military) enables the Fretilin Government to
re-focus under Alkatiri’s leadership and re-seize the initiative in
establishing national order. Contrast this with the myriad (my computer
dictionary says, as an adjective, “so many that they cannot be
counted”) Australian failures in exercising ministerial responsibility,
arguably (in the case of AWB) at least as catastrophic in human
consequences as current Timorese turmoil.

Finally, to return to
an earlier theme of shared responsibility. It must not escape attention
that the UN and Australia alike, among many others, failed to
read the warning signs properly. Regardless of Timor, many states
attaining independence have demonstrated amply that international
assistance is required for far longer than a mere four years
(generally, apparently, at least a decade). Why has East Timor been
regarded as an exception? Especially given that it is rebuilding from
nothing rather than, as occurs in most new states, at least a basic

According to Secretary-General Kofi Annan,
in referring to East Timor in contrast to much longer UN presence in,
for example, Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo, “the UN pulled out too early
from East Timor. Why do we often try to leave other areas after two or
three years?”. Annan’s at the mercy, of course, of UN member states.
Australia and the USA opposed the UN mission extending beyond its
third, let alone fourth, year (but have belatedly changed their tune).

so, while the Howard Government has been sabre-rattling on Alkatiri,
the UN mission and Timorese Government seemed unprepared for the
situation that arose on 25 May, despite the warning signs, not the
least the outbreak of violence on 27 April

This is not a
question of hindsight, but of a collective failure to analyse
intelligence. The people will speak one way or the other on Mari
Alkatiri’s leadership in next year’s elections. In the meantime, draw a
clearer distinction between regional support and interference, and
permit East Timor the technical and development assistance it deserved
all along.

As a postscript to my comments in Thursday’s Crikey,
the second and third days of the women’s and children’s rally outside
the Prime Minister’s office were cancelled just prior to Friday’s
commencement due to well-founded security concerns about roving groups.
Improved reach into the various camps had guaranteed a larger turnout.
Alternative responses are being planned.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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