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Aug 20, 2012

Timor’s road still rocky despite peaceful poll

The conduct of the Timorese elections last July was exemplary but it's not all motherhood statements and sunshine, writes Warwick Fry, a Dili-based freelance writer and producer for a community radio program

There has been plenty of warm inner glow around East Timor about the exemplary conduct of the general elections in July. But it’s not all motherhood and sunshine — the country is far from stable, and basic infrastructure and social programs are missing.

Nowhere were the challenges more apparent than with the swearing in of the new government and the cabinet by the President Taun Matan Ruak on August 8. TMR slammed the incoming government (which is essentially the same as the former government) for its failure, despite the influx of oil revenues, to deliver on essential infrastructure and social programs. He said:

“State institutions contribute to the unbalanced development of the territory. Our centralised public administration has large, heavy structures in the capital, often providing poor quality services, and is almost absent from the districts where most of the population lives and social and economic deprivation is greatest. The state is not serving the vast majority of the Timorese people as yet.”

Electoral stability is one thing. Socio-economic inequality another. The divide in Timor is growing, and glaringly evident in the capital Dili, with villas and five-star hotels overlooking unrepaired roads.

As for the election, it quickly became apparent that a swing to Fretilin (the biggest single party, forced into opposition by the CNRT coalition in 2007) was not happening. A gain of two seats and a 3% growth in the 30%-plus overall vote was not enough for Fretilin to form a government. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT on the other hand, surged ahead as it picked up an extra eight seats when four of the smaller parties dropped out by failing to make the 3% quota. Again, this was not enough for the CNRT to form a government in its own right, but with the two remaining small parties (the PD — the Democratic Party and the Frenti-Mudanca — with just over a combined 13% of the vote), it could form a coalition.

Then the problems started. Xanana and his team have been the subject of a stinging editorial by Jose Belo, of the independent weekly Tempo Semanal. An additional 11 vice-ministries (with 25 secretariats), six of which would be family teams, was described by Belo as “the creation of a new oligarchy”.

On July 15 there were outbreaks of violence after a nationwide broadcast of the CNRT assembly to decide on the composition of the new government. The decision to exclude Fretilin was couched in inflammatory language, some spoken by delegates who had favoured East Timor’s integration into Indonesia. President Taur Matan Ruak seemed to be in accord with the Fretilin leadership’s claims that the violence (cars were stoned and tyres burnt) was deplorable and inexcusable. It was indeed terrifying to some of those caught up in it. The President held that it was less about Fretilin’s exclusion (anticipated by the leadership) than the provocative way it was presented in the CNRT Assembly broadcast.

The violence was indeed sad, and reflected in the faces of the Timorese around me. Working at a desk a few yards away from me was a young Timorese journalist and translator who is a cousin of the young man fatally shot during the July 15 incidents by overzealous police investigating the “disturbances”. Armindo Alves Pereira was dragged out of his home and shot twice while being pushed into the police van. My only glimpse of what might be interpreted as anger from my discussions with his cousin related to erroneous reports that more than 50 cars had been burnt and destroyed (since refuted by the UN Police) during the outbreak of violence. “If Fretilin had wanted to go out and burn cars, they would have burnt 500,” the man told me.

And nowhere was this attitude more resonant than in the dignity of the funeral of Armindo Pereira Alves, the son of a Falintil commander killed in the mountains while fighting the Indonesian occupation. The police officer who shot Armindo on July 16 was a former member of the Indonesian militia. It was a potential flashpoint. A young Timorese waiter (a Fretilin supporter), visibly nervous, physically held back my companion when we walked towards a contingent of police in riot gear and armoured vehicles to where a crowd of people were lining the route of the funeral march.

But the dignity of the peaceful march bore witness to a growth and development in the political maturity of the people of Timor Leste that could be an example to the less stressed societies of more “developed” nations such as Australia.

How this will bear up under current economic and fiscal policies is another question. Most Timorese in Dili live from day to day. Taxi drivers will take you almost anywhere in the capital for $2 (which I find embarrassing after Australian bus fares), yet they pay Australian prices for petrol, and pay a foreign company to lease their taxis at $35 a day. Many Timorese live on a basic wage of $20 a week. Many of the drivers I speak to are students who have dropped out of university.

Much of the service economy is propped up by the UN presence. One weekend I counted eight UN vehicles parked outside a bar. I haven’t heard of any contingency plans for the waiters and waitresses working in the beachside bars and restaurants when the UN leaves, slated for later this year. But meanwhile the next generation of Timorese crave further education and skills. In any restaurant many of the staff can be seen spending the “quiet time” bent over books.

The direction of the economic policy of the new government will be apparent in the next budget, to be handed down soon. It will deserve keen scrutiny as Timorese face an uncertain future.

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4 thoughts on “Timor’s road still rocky despite peaceful poll

  1. John Bennetts

    Thank you, Crikey and Warwick Fry. Four stars.

  2. Ari Sharp

    Great piece. Will be interesting to see when the next generation of East Timor leaders, those who didn’t cut their teeth in the independence movement, rise up and take the country’s leadership. Looks like it might be a while away yet.

  3. Kate

    While Timor has a long way to go in addressing the needs of its population, this report seems to lack any real understanding of just how far the country has come since the violence of 1999 and the years preceding it, along with the setbacks of The Crisis in 2006/2007. Yes, it is a still fragile post-conflict society, but overcoming deeply entrenched problems takes time; look at any comparable country. The country has lacked the capacity (skilled Timorese) to spend the dollars required to rebuild infrastructure. It is vital for Timor’s independence that such infrastructure is not simply constructed by outsiders, but employs and trains people within. Australia has not contributed very significantly to up-skilling the population- we still offer a paltry 30 scholarships a year to Australian universities in marked contrast to the heavy investment in the health workforce by the Cubans (contributing to the training of almost 1000 medical staff over five years). Problems with lack of education and skills is one reason why some families feature strongly amongst the ministerial lineup- educated expatriates who have returned to Timor. Timor’s desire for onshore processing of its resources has much to do with developing a petroleum industry locally, with the capacity to benefit directly from its resources. Australians would do well to support that. No sign that Woodside is prepared to agree to this.

  4. warwick fry

    My reference to the dignity of the funeral of Armindo Alves was intended to represent of the positive progress in Timor Leste compared with the destabilising disturbances of 2006 and 2007. I have been strongly criticised elsewhere for questioning the wildly exaggerated and erroneous accounts of over 50 vehicles being burned and destroyed in July this year – accounts which I believe, whether intentionally or otherwise, unnecessarily and indeed cruelly revived the disturbing memories of 2006/2007.

    I have just been re-reading John Martinkus powerful account of the militia violence of 1999, and I am indeed aware of the suffering endured by the Timorese people, and recall meetings I have had with refugees in the 1970s and 1980s with their own accounts of the horrors of the Indonesian occupation.

    Regarding my perhaps ‘pessimistic’ view of the economic outlook – my view is very close to the analysis made by Professor Michael Leach (, and in fact he draws upon the same source that influenced my own view of the situation.

    (ie: “As one of Timor-Leste’s leading NGOs, La’o Hamutuk, argues, unless spending is made more sustainable, the incoming government may be the last to have access to the substantial capital wealth from the oil fields”)