Vol. 8, No. 1
East Timor Elects Assembly
East Timor Achieves Hard-won Nationhood
May 20 independence begins new phase in Timor’s struggle
by Charles Scheiner
Dili, April 24, 2002— On May 20, East Timor will become the first new nation of the millennium in a grand celebration which will draw heads of state and celebrities, including Bill Clinton, from around the world. While independence is indeed cause to celebrate, these high profile individuals are not from the ranks of the diehard solidarity activists who supported East Timor’s long struggle. Some feel an emphasis on such big names may not accord enough respect to the ordinary people of East Timor, who suffered and struggled for a quarter-century to defeat the Indonesian dictatorship. They, not the United Nations and foreign countries who ignored and betrayed them from 1975 until 1999, are the true victors. And they are the ones who will live with their freedom, and the results of Indonesian and UN rule, after East Timor again disappears from the world’s consciousness.
East Timor faces tremendous problems. Some are the legacy of centuries of colonial and military occupation. Others stem from the massive September 1999 destruction of East Timor by the Indonesian military. And still others developed during thirty months of transitional rule by the United Nations, and the politics and structure of East Timor’s government that developed during this time.
Nearly three years after InterFET forces entered East Timor and the rampaging Indonesian military (TNI) withdrew, much of the infrastructure destroyed by the TNI, police and their militia surrogates remains unreconstructed. Close to 70,000 East Timorese remain virtual hostages, trapped in Indonesian West Timor by the same militia leaders who took them there after the UN-sponsored independence referendum.
The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has governed the country since October 1999. UNTAET’s responsibilities included ending the humanitarian crisis, rebuilding the country, and developing the human, physical, social and political capacity for independence. While it accomplished much, UNTAET has fallen short on many fronts: capacity building for a self-sufficient future is inadequate, and the education, health, judicial, road, electric, water, communications and other systems are still among the worst in the world. Except for subsistence agriculture and a few short-term, foreign-owned businesses profiting from the temporary influx of international staffers, economic development is virtually nonexistent. East Timorese workers and families are in for a tough time for the next 3-5 years, until revenues from the Timor Sea oil and gas deposits are realized (see page 4).
East Timor’s de facto emperor, UNTAET Transitional Administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello, will abdicate to an elected parliament and president on May 20. A few thousand UN peacekeeping soldiers and international police will remain until 2005, and around 100 or so civilian advisors will continue to support East Timor’s government.
Birth of a Nation-state
In August 2001, UNTAET organized an election for East Timorese voters to choose 88 people to form a Constituent Assembly to write the nation’s Constitution (see cover story, previous Estafeta). The leading pro-independence party from 1975, FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), which most East Timorese associate with the resistance movement, won 57% of the vote, and has 64% of the Assembly seats.
Acting under tremendous pressure, with no experienced legislators, the Assembly tackled its task, doubled the unrealistic 90-day period the UN had assigned, and approved a 170-article Constitution on March 15. The document protects most basic human and social rights and separates powers, with Parliament responsible for most areas and the President serving as head of state and the military. Most administrative authority resides in a Council of Ministers, chosen by the Parliament. The Constitution contains some limitations on transparency, freedom of the press, and civil liberties – perhaps understandable in light of East Timor’s unfriendly neighborhood. Stability is built in – elections are infrequent and it is difficult to amend the Constitution in fewer than six years (an English translation of the constitution can be found at http://etan.org/etanpdf/pdf2/constfnen.pdf).
The first Council of Ministers was appointed in September 2001 by the Transitional Administrator. Reflecting the election results, the Chief Minister is FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri, a Muslim in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. The 53-year-old Alkatiri was born in East Timor but lived in exile from 1975 to 1999, teaching law in Mozambique and traveling the world for the diplomatic front of East Timor’s resistance.
The other ministers are mostly FRETILIN, with a few independents. The Democratic Party (PD), formed out of the younger activist generation, got a few Vice-Ministerial positions, while the Social Democratic Party (PSD), headed by former Indonesian-appointed governor Mario Carrascalão, decided not to participate. The Council has governed East Timor since September, defining patterns and policies that will endure for years. Some of the Ministers will retain their portfolios after independence, although others will not.
After adopting the Constitution (PD and PSD dissented, but signed on after losing the vote), the Constituent Assembly transformed itself into East Timor’s first parliament, with FRETILIN’s majority consolidating its power.
Like any party in power, FRETILIN wrote the Constitution to protect its control. But PD and PSD, which appeal to the generation that broadened the resistance during the 1990s, could develop a serious opposition by the next parliamentary and presidential elections, in 2007.
On April 14, East Timor’s people elected Jose “Xanana” Gusmão as its first President. Xanana rebuilt East Timor’s nearly-defeated guerilla movement in the early 1980’s, and continued to lead the resistance after capture and imprisonment by Indonesian forces in 1992. Although he is considered the only person with the stature and the popular support to lead the nation, the 55-year old Xanana played hard to get, denying he wanted to be president, and ultimately saying he was giving in to popular pressure.
Xanana received an 83% mandate, defeating 66-year-old Francisco Xavier do Amaral, President during the short-lived 1975 government of FRETILIN and now Vice-President of the Parliament. Throughout the campaign, Amaral said he did not expect to win but was running because democracy meant the people should have a choice.
FRETILIN encouraged Xanana to run as a non-partisan independent, but he declined. Hours before the deadline for filing candidacies, Xanana was nominated by nine “smaller parties,” effectively the parliamentary opposition.
The early stages of the campaign were more symbol than substance – a major controversy began after Xanana threatened to withdraw his candidacy unless party symbols were dropped from the ballot. The furor was resolved by Xavier’s acquiescence to Xanana’s demand.
In spite of his vast popularity, Xanana made some voters uncomfortable. He has avoided the difficulties of transitional government, resigning as head of the first consultative legislature in 2000, and sometimes appearing to belittle the Constitution-writing process. His conciliatory approach to Indonesia – justified by the need for national unity and reconciliation – rankles many frustrated by the UN’s inability and unwillingness to bring Indonesian military and civilian officials to justice for crimes committed in East Timor from 1975 to 1999. Finally, Xanana’s reputed estrangement from FRETILIN leadership causes concerns about government unity.
During the most hopeless years of East Timor’s struggle against Indonesia, Xanana Gusmão’s motto was “to resist is to win.” Now that his people have won independence, they still face many challenges. In another phrase of the period, “A luta continua.”
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