Subject: Timor-Leste The unsustainable island

Timor-Leste The unsustainable island

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25.11.2008, Pedro Rosa Mendes, special reporter for newspaper PÚBLICO

This is the ruthless portrait of a reality we can no longer pretend that it isn’t there. These are some of the truths, hard as nails, regarding a country that dreamt to be different ­ and that made us dream too.

1. Timor is not a failed State. It is worse. The national project designed a decade ago has failed.

In nine years of freedom, Timor-Leste has not managed to ensure water, power and sanitation for its small capital. Baucau, the second "town", is a more gardened version of the slum that is Dili, thanks to the (officious) municipal management by the diocese.

The rest, the "districts", is a country of mountain ranges for which the Neolithic is the daily life, far from the acceptable human minimum. You get there by roads and paths left by the "Indonesians". There are main roads that have not seen a pickaxe since 1999.

The public good and the needs of the people have been ignored for nine years, with obscene contempt. The best example is the power company: for five years, the Dili power plant did not maintain any of the 14 generators ­ all of them offered ­ until the last major machine broke down.

National Hospital Guido Valadares, which is inaugurating shiny new facilities today, is yet to have a proper ultrasonography machine or ventilators at the Intensive Care Unit. There is not a CAT scan machine in the country (even though it costs the same as two of the new cars for members of Parliament); the Timorese girl who moved Portugal had her tumour diagnosed by chance by an American hospital ship that was anchored in Dili. The child mortality rate is only second in the entire world to that of Afghanistan. Post-delivery mortality is alarming. Nevertheless each Timorese woman of fertile age has in average 7.6 children.

A World Bank report is being circulated among diplomats and humanitarians, concluding that "poverty has increased considerably" between 2001 and 2007 (a devastating balance of the Fretilin consulate, as the study uses indicators up to 2006). About half the Timorese live with less than €0.60 a day, and half of these people are children. Timor is a rich country mired in indigence, where leaders insult each other on account of budgets that nobody is even able to spend.

2. The "Maubere identity" is a costly fiction.

The "national" identity of the Timorese political space does not exist, as good historians explain, whenever they mention the "peoples" of Timor in the plural. Under the myth of "Maubere people" there is a mosaic of some fifteen ethnic and linguistic entities, which are defined by opposition (in conflict, separation, mistrust, distance) to the "other", even when allied. This "other" may be an outsider or an insider. It is a type of circumstantial and opportunistic cohesion that dies with conflict, while preparing other conflicts in the future, in cycles of calm and crisis in an island with medieval paradigms.

"Maubere" exploits have finally produced a chronologic reversion. The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is the political crystallization of a society that had the enfranchisement of a State before having built an identity to support it.

The affiliation of each Timorese remains their respective "uma lulik" (sacred house) and the lineages that define other territories and other laws that do not include ministers, judges and police officers, but rather monarchs, oligarchs and war chiefs. This is what leaders try to be ­ or else they will not be leaders at all.

3. The independent State is sabotaged by the resistance structures.

The Timorese State works. However this does not mean that it produces any results, except for the Banking and Payment Authority, the single institution where the focus on building the capacity and empowering local staff and the rewarding of merit have turned the future central bank into an oasis of Nordic probity.

The operative structures of the country are parallel, officious and opaque. They come from the time of the resistance, and there has not been enough courage or intelligence to formalize them in the new State.

An obvious case is that of the Falintil veterans, who have not integrated the new Defence Forces (FDTL). In 2006, it was to 200 of those "civilians" that brigadier general Taur Matan Ruak turned to at a critical time for the survival of the State. The Timorese Defence Staff is, however, being investigated by justice. If this process is not stopped in the inquest stage, perhaps the case of the weapons and the "20-20" militia will open a debate that should have occurred before. The place for "moral reserves" has to be formalized, lest there is no line of separation between patriotism and delinquency. Major Alfredo Reinado illustrated, in a tragic manner, how easy it is to make this leap.

Still, parallel structures do not occur exclusively in the security sector. Former commander Xanana Gusmão does not hide that Caixa, the clandestine "intelligence" network, is still active. The loyalties, reflexes and atavisms of resistance still exist. The "old" voice of command is sometimes the last instance, and even in the Council of Ministers the last argument is sometimes the quality vote by way of a punch to the table.

José Ramos-Horta, removed from Falintil and the woods until 1999, knows that there is more than one way to skin a cat. The head of the State, in line with the masonry symbols trimmed in his shirts, has been for the past two years the second "father" of the Sacred Family. This is a society founded in 1989 by Commander Cornélio Gama "L7", which evolved into a somewhat mystical mix of a religious group, a political party and a vigilante militia. It was "L7", with the blessing of Xanana Gusmão, who presented the candidacy of Ramos-Horta as President of the Republic, in February 2007, in Laga. Several elements of the Sacred Family are integrated in the personal guard of the head of State.

The Timorese Republic is limited and sabotaged by occultism, nepotism, vassalage and cell mentality. However, if it were not for the informal trust and command networks, which also include codes of loyalty and group values, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste would have already imploded.

A modern version of States within a State: the last confidential count reports 350 international advisors at the IV Constitutional Government.

4. The ruling strategy for the society is included in the Penal Code. It is called extortion.

The sympathy for the Timorese "cause" has stagnated in an ideal of society and person that is proven false by the frustrating daily experience. Ignorance, trauma, misery and negligence, sprinkled with the poisons of complacence, paternalism and pity, have made behaviours of opportunism, dishonesty, selfishness and falsity seem trivial. Solidarity, generosity and thankfulness have taken a backseat. What is considered marginal or criminal in other places, is often the rule in Timorese offices, businesses, markets, transit or homes.

The "historical leadership" rules over an untreatable country, in passive civil disobedience, which thinks and acts as if the entire world owed everything to it and as if everything was there for the taking, from oil to investment and international attention. Greed and social envy infect the political, social, working and even family domains. "Here everyone gives orders and nobody obeys them", to quote an old Timorese raised with principles that no longer apply in his country.

Current "stability" is purchased with a Christmas every day. Everything is subsidised, from rice to fuel, with a flood of benefits and compensations to an unthinkable range of clienteles. We may say that civil society is a sum of lobbies that receive as much as they threaten with fires and stone throws, from internally displaced persons to petitioners or students.

All this money has produced nothing. Some if it goes to Indonesia, which Timorese nouveaux riches consider to be a safer place for investing. What is left buys motorcycles and cellular phones. Timor Telecom will end the year with 120 thousand clients in its mobile network, a percentage equal to that of countries with three times more income per capita than Timor-Leste.

Most Timorese do not pay for what they use: water, electricity (which is why consumption increases 25 per cent per year, a rate than it impossible to accompany by any infrastructural investment), houses, lands, credit and rice. This model of pillage and squandering is unsustainable for the economy, banking, ecology, demographics and, in time, even politics.

5. Indonesian occupation was ruthless and Timorese leaders are dismantling with zeal what was left: dignity.

The most notorious gangster of the Jakarta underworld in the 1990’s ­ the Timorese Hércules ­presently manages the rehabilitation of the finest garden in Dili. Those who were condemned for crimes against humanity, such as Joni Marques, from "Tim Alfa" (who had Portugal bringing out their white scarves in September 1999 after he had massacred nuns and priests), have returned to their villages with indemnities for houses burned while they were in prison.

In the mixed Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF), it was the Timorese part that, to the amazement of the Indonesians, tried to obtain a general amnesty for the 1999 crimes, with a persistence that could turn one’s stomach.

The report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), which records 24 years of pain in seven volumes, has been awaiting three years for the honour to be debated in the Parliament. Two dates were scheduled for November; however the holders of political offices have been trying backstage to bowdlerize CAVR’s recommendations.

Mari Alkatiri, Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta, by fragmenting the memory of the violence, have squandered the capital obtained at the cost of the death of two hundred thousand people (including their loved ones). The legacy of genocide is publicly debased as a risk capital and a visit card. The result is a moral dystopia, a chasm of tremendous proportions where the country is sinking ­ a country whose sovereignty, in view of its geographic and historical setting, was grounded on what essentially moral legitimacy.

The dead are the noble part of Timor, worthy of rituals and mournings. However, in this land of crosses, mass graves and missing persons, nobody has yet been kind enough to spend 200 thousand euros on a DNA laboratory that would finally enable the dead to be returned to their families. Injustice and impunity are safe values in Timor-Leste.

6. Timor speaks all languages and none.

Timor is a fiction of the Lusophone community, where Portuguese navigates against a generation that is culturally integrated in Indonesia, against geography, against internal political manipulations and against the sabotaging by several international agencies. The reintroduction of Portuguese can only succeed if Dili shows political firmness regarding its official languages and if both these languages receive the necessary means.

The National Institute of Linguistics has a monthly budget of 500 dollars (more precisely, USD 6,000 per year).

In the "Babel lorosa'e", as Luiz Filipe Thomaz called it, none of the common languages (Tetum, Portuguese, English and Indonesian) is spoken well. A language is the articulation of a world and our place in it. Removed from grammar and vocabulary, a generation of Timorese has reached adulthood and entered the labour market often without knowing such concepts as the law of gravity, time zones or geometrical shapes, just to mention a few easy examples.

The few (three) banks with agencies in Dili receive foreign investment projects with plans that do not include Timorese labour or that view them as dead weight in the payroll, working next to imported workers or technical officers who will be responsible for production.

7. "To enter the United Nations is to be politically untouchable".

A diplomat who enjoys the Javanese shadow theatre said: "The UN in Dili is in sync with the Timorese leaders. They all create ghosts: the great strategist, the great diplomat, the great guerrilla fighter. Otherwise the masks would fall, and it would be very embarrassing..."

UNMIT, one of the most expensive missions of the UN, is slowly sinking in the same moral emptiness of Timorese leaders. Three thousand workers, police officers and military, a formidable critical mass that might be a counterweight to incompetence and foolishness, are crushed by the career-oriented charlatanism of its head of mission, Atul Khare, and by acolytes who see with good eyes in Timor-Leste that which they would never allow in their developed countries. "To enter the United Nations is to be politically untouchable ", explained a senior officer of UNMIT.

8. There is no Portuguese flag in the Timor sea.

There are no Portuguese interests in Timor-Leste, because this country still lacks the minimum conditions for any measurable interest to succeed. Certainly not according to the criteria applied elsewhere. It would be good if our politicians understood this. From 1999 to 2007, Portugal has granted over 440 million Euros to assist the development of Timor-Leste ­ almost half of the total we spend with cooperation.

Continuing a Portuguese tradition, the post-imperial projections and the fascinations with successive apprentices of Mandela take precedence over the information coming from economical operators in the field. "But you will never hear a Portuguese ruler say anything against Timor", said a Portuguese ruler visiting the country, at the coffee table.

9. "Everything is yet to happen ".

The wound in the body of Ramos-Horta, when the President was lying in a pool of blood after being shot twice, is a gap as deep as the shame of the nation. The resurrection of the Nobel prophet has created a Gnostic Christ, but the stigmata, in this torn land, no longer create religions with the same ease they used to create States ten years ago.

Dili, as a circus with gladiators, boils with young men thrown to the fight. They have no job, no education and no perspectives. Someone tells them: "You are not bandits, you are warriors." But from the Aswain, the heroes of the Timorese mountains, all that remains is the physical courage, a scrap of rituals dispersed by rival groups and the intransigent sacralisation of their territory. This is an explosive mix for the entire nation. "The resistance still exists, but now it has no direction. And without direction, all it can do is fuck things up", says the former Youth advisor to Ramos-Horta, José Sousa-Santos.

"Everything is yet to happen", warned the "spirit" of an ancestor, through the voice of a little girl in Ermera, in the still innocent Christmas of 2005.

Dili, November 2008.


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