Some misleading and unhelpful themes persist in mainstream media reporting on East Timor, most notably “failed state” rhetoric (most recently fanned along by Dr Nelson), the peculiarly Australian demonising of Mari Alkatiri, and the notion that the Timorese are worse off under their own government than they were under the Indonesians (presumably the persisting legacy of the Jakarta lobby). For example, at least for the latter two points, Greg Sheridan says in the Weekend Australian: “East Timor today is poorer than it was under the Indonesians” and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is “a disastrous Marxist Prime Minister” (the conjunction of the two adjectives is presumably pejorative in the latter instance).

It’s merely necessary to look at the record: Indonesia left East Timor with much poorer education and health standards and higher levels of poverty than any other province of Indonesia (no mean achievement), even after 24 years of occupation. It was incredibly neglected, despite the Indonesians building many schools and services and roads which, it should be noted, the Portuguese never did. But service quality was appalling and there was negligible development of Timorese technical capacity (when the Indonesians left so did most of the skilled workforce).

Just in the short period of independence, the Timorese Government has raised literacy by at least 25% (from around 40% to over 50% and rising), put in place a new primary school curriculum and national network of health clinics, and paved the way for local self-governance via regional administrations, on top of tackling the utter destruction by the retreating Indonesians and absence of a skilled Timorese administration. National poverty research and household surveys by the UN have verified that Timorese families are already both better off and believe themselves to be better off than under Indonesian rule.

National development has been quite remarkable and focused in the past four years (mistakes notwithstanding, notably continuing food insecurity and a very weak judicial system), with education and health being prioritised in budget-setting. Timor’s petroleum legislation and management system has been globally praised and even (as in the case of Belize in Central America, given its recent discovery of oil) looked to as a “best practice” model (shaped as it is on the Norwegian model).

Of course, the international community – including the Australian Government – is quick to point out that this is because of a lot of donor assistance, which is true. But it is also small compensation for past neglect, to put it mildly. According to the recent report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, such support is still far short of what is warranted.

Peter Fray

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