Subject: Big challenges still ahead in East Timor

from, Thurs June 8 2006:

11. Big challenges still ahead in East Timor

Occasional UN advisor and Dili resident Robert Johnson writes:

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.

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