FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Why Australia needs to stay in East Timor
, October 30, 2010
Australia should respond positively to East Timorese requests to expand its security and economic presence in East Timor.
CEPAD's executive director.
This is the recommendation of a recently-released report produced by and for the people of East Timor by the Timorese development agency CEPAD (Centre of Studies for Peace and Development), giving an up-to-date account of the major issues facing East Timor today.
In 1999, Australia led an international intervention force in East Timor, which lies just off the coast of Western Australia, after the people voted for independence from Indonesia which had run East Timor since occupying the territory in 1975.
This force saved hundreds - possibly thousands - of lives after pro-Indonesia militias ran amok, terrorising the people and conducting a scorched-earth policy which destroyed much of the country's infrastructure.
A few years later, the international force was withdrawn at the request of the Marxist Fretilin Government after East Timor was given independence in 2002, but Australian and New Zealand troops were invited back in 2006, after an outbreak of fighting among East Timor's army and police led to a collapse of law and order.
Since then, the Fretilin Government was defeated in elections in 2007, and a coalition government led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's CNRT, together with three pro-democracy parties, now forms government.
The 109-page report, Priorities for Peace
, is an independent and forthright analysis of the issues facing East Timor 10 years after Indonesia's withdrawal, and about eight years after East Timor became independent in 2002.
It is based on a national consultation involving not just politicians and political parties, but also ordinary Timorese from each of the country's 13 districts.
It identified 33 separate issues which need to be addressed if East Timor is to achieve development and peace.
These issues include the politicisation of government functions, a vast difference in expectations between the political leadership and the people, grievances felt by veterans of the resistance war against Indonesia (which the present government has tried to address by giving war veterans a modest pension), and the widely-held perception that politicians act in their own interests, not those of the people.
Other major concerns were with the language divisions, where the constitution defines the national languages as Portuguese and Tetum (the major local language), but most people speak Tetum (the local language which is not used for legal and official purposes) and Indonesian.
The effect of this is that the small minority of fluent Portuguese speakers have preferential access to employment, higher education and political influence.
The report also highlighted problems with the legal system. People believe that the legal system is subject to constant political interference, and is mistrusted because its proceedings are in Portuguese, a language most people do not understand. There is also a severe backlog of cases before the courts.
The lack of confidence in the legal system has also encouraged both civil disobedience and people to take the law into their own hands, further reducing respect for the law and increasing criminal activity.
There is also a perception that traditional justice systems, used for hundreds of years, have been overlooked by the present legal system, and that crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation have not been addressed.
The report also found that "increasing land disputes are proving to be a serious stumbling block to the country's development", and identified high unemployment levels as a cause of violence, drug abuse and political instability.
Participants warned that the foreign presence had a damaging effect on society, with an increase in the circulation and consumption of pornography.
It emerges clearly from the report that East Timor continues to suffer seriously as a result of its lack of development during colonial times and the Indonesian occupation.
It concluded that democratic aspirations are high but there is little experience in the workings of the democratic system.
Further, the country faces serious problems of corruption, collusion and nepotism, as a result of the weakness of government institutions and the politicisation of government functions, which was a characteristic of the Fretilin government, but has continued since its defeat in 2007.
Despite its forthright honesty, the report does not give much attention to the problems which arise from the lack of development during the 450 years of Portuguese rule, which left most of the people illiterate in an economy still dominated by subsistence agriculture, while a small urban elite lived principally in the capital Dili.
This continued under Indonesia rule, and is still the case in East Timor today.
It is to be hoped that in the next phase, the report includes discussion of the important role of the Catholic Church and religious organisations, which are very important unifying factors in East Timor, in helping to address the country's many problems in areas such as health, education and development.
The full report can be downloaded from the web site of the Swiss-based organisation, Interpeace, at: www.interpeace.org