The Howard
Government needs to remember that the East Timor of 2006 is not the
East Timor of 1999, and that it has been acquiring diplomatic
sensitivity and sovereign assertiveness. Australia doesn’t always like
this, as revealed by negotiations over the Timor Sea. Australia’s biggest test in East Timor will be whether it can ensure
the necessary assistance without associated interference. The signs
aren’t good. The military troops are impressive, well-regarded and
professional, but they’re being let down by the political leaders’
regional strutting and grand-standing in ways which must be an affront
to Timorese sovereignty. Most recently on TV in Dili, we saw Brendan
Nelson revel in echoing the message of Australian regional hegemony
espoused by his Cabinet colleague, the Foreign Minister.

East Timor has also been
building technical competencies and many arms of its public service.
Not yet to a sufficient degree, but that takes us back into the
territory of the appropriate duration of the UN Mission and
international support. This also means that the UN and
international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) need to make an
honest appraisal of past practices in determining the nature of their
roles in the future. These agencies are working together well in the
present humanitarian effort but, when it comes to development
cooperation, their partnerships with Timorese agencies need to be far
less paternalistic, far more appropriate to Timorese conditions, and
more nationally than externally managed, than they are to date.

It is pretty
glaring that Timorese NGOs have been largely absent from current
cooperative effort, in part an indictment of the lack of serious
attention that’s been given to date in their institutional
strengthening. International NGOs continue to rule. Notable exceptions
are a group of national women’s NGOs. But, in general, it is tempting
to conclude that, far too often (including in East Timor), they are –
to quote Tariq Ali
– “western governmental organisations (WGOs), their cash flow
conditioned by enforced agendas: Colin Powell once referred to them as
‘our fifth column’”.

The
Timorese Government has put in place a
sound national development framework, with well-articulated priorities.
But it seems almost endemic to the international development community
and UN technocrats that external experience and global priorities be
deemed most appropriate, including to the Timorese situation. Partly,
this is to do with inevitable “turf” battles: in the development field,
competition is at least as likely as cooperation, most notably in vying
for limited donor funds. Here in Dili at present, it is hard to know
whether to feel more worried about the number of familiar faces flying
back in or the unfamiliar faces joining the fray. The hopeful solution
is for the Timorese Government to exercise greater assertiveness in
determining priorities and international partners, and for at least one
or two UN agencies to initiate more appropriate programming, to
(hopefully) lead by example.

As for the UN Mission (a separate
entity to the various UN agencies, whose presence is ongoing), its
lack of preparation for what has happened needs close scrutiny, especially
in view of the now inevitable extension and re-focusing of the
Mission. I don’t know the critical review capacity of such an agency, but I assume that the UN Secretary-General’s appointment
of a Special Envoy to separately advise him on the situation here may
be instructive in this regard.

Finally, there are two enormous
challenges. To echo Damien
Kingsbury (Monday, item 3), if and when the situation settles down
here, the Timorese President, Administration and Parliament need to
re-visit the question that was wrongly answered in 2002: what is the
actual need for a national defence force in a geo-political framework
in which Timor’s security is utterly dependent upon regional diplomacy and
a responsive UN? What has the F-FDTL achieved, apart from a drain on a
small budget, a means of jockeying among the political leadership,
the shooting of unarmed police, and durable ethnic divisions? Of
course, because of sensitivities post-1999 to
the role of Falintil in the newly independent state, a
reconsideration of this question will raise very touchy issues,
especially given the surfacing of “east”/”west” divisions. The
assigning of defence responsibilities to Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr
Ramos-Horta, should increase expectations that this might be dealt with
more objectively, but it must avoid any inference of a “victory” for the
police. I understand that such a view was presented last weekend to the
UN Special Envoy by the Timorese Human Rights Monitoring Network, a
group of national human rights NGOs, but this will especially need to
exercise the minds of the President and the Minister for Defence.

The
second challenge is what to do with those who have violated national
laws in recent weeks: the soldiers who killed and injured unarmed
police, the gangs who’ve burnt and destroyed houses, those responsible
for the spiriting away of state armaments stocks, and for widespread
looting, etc. This will be a very difficult issue, partly due to the
betrayal felt by so many Timorese by the official repudiation (notably
by President Gusmao and Dr Ramos Horta) of justice to so many Timorese
people at the hands of the Indonesians. This is going to be tough for
the Government, given that the recent (and continuing) violations
occurred under its watch (unlike 1999). A general amnesty may
eventually prove the most expedient action, but whichever way the
Government deals with this, there is a real risk of renewed tensions
from so many people feeling unduly victimised or denied their due
justice.

Peter Fray

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