Vol. 9, No. 1
Accomplishments and Challenges After One Year of Independence
Accomplishments and Challenges After One Year of Independence
by Charles Scheiner
East Timor has been independent for one year – too little time to overcome three years of United Nations transitional government, a quarter-century of Indonesian military occupation and a half-millennium of Portuguese colonial rule. But anniversaries are milestones, and this article attempts a brief overview of the accomplishments and challenges facing the world’s newest nation, one of the poorest, smallest and most traumatized countries on the globe.
From the devastation of 1999 until mid-2002, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) ruled as a benevolent dictatorship. In 2001, elections were held for a Constituent Assembly, which wrote a constitution. Resistance leader Xanana Gusmão was elected President in April 2002, and the Constituent Assembly, with an absolute Fretilin majority, became East Timor’s Parliament. Although some progress was made in reconstruction, economic development and creating administrative structures during UNTAET, huge tasks were left to the new government.
East Timor achieved political independence on May 20, 2002, but
achieving real independence is a long-term struggle. The country remains
dependent on foreign donors for 80% of public sector spending, including
40% of the government budget. Unemployment stands at more than 75%; many
of the buildings and homes destroyed in 1999 have not yet been rebuilt;
the judicial, educational and other government systems are barely
East Timor lives with a legacy of pervasive poverty, trauma and disempowerment, but the population remains peaceful, with most people working constructively against difficult odds. An elected government is in power; an elected parliament is passing the basic laws every country needs. East Timorese police, teachers, health care workers, judges, administrators, activists, and politicians go to work every day.
All have too few resources to do their jobs well, and nearly all have less education and experience than would be required in many other countries. So they make mistakes and learn on the job; people’s expectations are unfulfilled, deadlines are missed. Laws and procedures are missing or deficient; administrators don’t understand the systems they regulate. But East Timor is free and responsible for its own destiny – and I have not met one person nostalgic for the better infrastructure, efficiency and jobs during the Indonesian occupation.
Considering its history and conditions, this is a remarkably peaceful
country. Violent crime (with the significant exception of domestic
violence) is much lower than any U.S. city. Revenge killings are
In spite of mishandling by UN security forces, and East Timor’s new military over-reaching its authority, these incidents did not spread. The incipient violence, however, has caused UN police and peacekeepers to slow their departure, although they will all be gone by mid-2004.
Political polarization is increasing, driven by Prime Minister Alkatiri’s reluctance to delegate or decentralize authority and the majority party’s failure to consult meaningfully with the citizenry or the political opposition. The recently unified opposition parties make vague or personal charges, rather than presenting policy alternatives. Most elected officials don’t feel accountable to the voters (the next scheduled election is four years away), and civil society rarely lobbies the people they elected.
Neither leaders nor citizens have experience with representative government; they have always had to resist illegitimate foreign-imposed autocracy. Although international agencies did much “civic education” during the past three years, they focused on the voting process, failing to teach that government exists of, by, and for the people. So this highly politicized population is learning by doing, and, like all roads in East Timor, there will be bumps along the way.
Some of the physical and human infrastructure that Indonesia destroyed in 1999 has been rebuilt, but much has not. Electricity is almost back to pre-1999 service, but telecommunications, roads, water, health care, and education are not.
The World Bank and other international institutions are promoting a fee-for-service, private enterprise economic model, insisting that East Timor live “within its means” — not depending on unending donor assistance, nor oil revenues that will start around 2006. At present East Timor is debt-free, but the World Bank, as the intermediary between donors and the government, has power over East Timor’s economic and other policies.
Perhaps the single greatest disappointment is the failure of the international community, including Indonesia and the United Nations, to achieve justice for the crimes against humanity committed by Indonesian forces and their supporters from 1975 to 1999. Although victims (most of the population) continue to demand justice, government leaders are discouraged, and East Timor cannot stick its neck out alone without support from the UN. Instead, priority is given to enabling low-level East Timorese criminals to be re-accepted by their communities. This has the effect of blaming the victims, while the real perpetrators enjoy impunity.
Given the history of international complicity in crimes against East Timor, such a result should not be surprising, but it is a sharp reminder that the sovereignty of a new, small, poor country is not equal to that of its large, strategically important, former occupier. And the government in Dili feels powerless to confront its huge northwestern neighbor (Indonesia), with whom it needs trade and a peaceful border, without international peacekeeping.
Relations with East Timor’s southern neighbor are also problematic. Australia is stealing about 60% of East Timor’s twenty billion dollars worth of oil and gas under the Timor Sea. Canberra refuses to negotiate the maritime boundary between the two countries, while continuing to extract oil that should belong to East Timor under international legal principles. For many East Timorese, the independence struggle will not be finished until their country’s boundaries are consistent with international law. Nevertheless, Australia and the UN coerced East Timor into signing “interim” agreements to enable oil companies to continue working in the disputed areas. If these temporary agreements are not replaced by a permanent boundary settlement, Australia will reap ten times as many dollars in oil as it has given East Timor in aid.
As world attention shifts to the Middle East, and as donors, “crisis junkie” humanitarian agencies and journalists redeploy to Iraq, East Timor is still remembered by the solidarity activists and people of good will who supported this struggle before it was front-page news. Today the people of East Timor are dealing with a complex new set of problems, perhaps more difficult than military occupation, and they continue to rely on their friends.
In the long run, their voluntary sharing of experiences, skills and struggle will do more to support the East Timorese people’s struggle for genuine independence than the thousands of highly paid consultants who dropped by for a time, and moved on.