Subject: Arena: Dispelling the Myths of Timor

This article was originally published in Arena Magazine No. 62 (February-March 2003)




On Tuesday 20 May last year, the day on which East Timor celebrated its independence, the Age newspaper had at the top of its ‘Opinion’ page an article by Hugh White warning readers of the threat which East Timor’s independence posed for Australia. The article portrayed Timor as a candidate for ‘failed statehood’ in the near future and claimed it would be Australia’s responsibility to take the fallout when it happens. White’s dim view of East Timor’s future was based on what was happening in Papua-New Guinea and the Solomons. He painted our new neighbour as having the worst possible heritage from Portuguese fascism, Indonesian authoritarianism and postcolonial Marxism from Mozambique (whatever that might be), ignoring completely Timor’s own cultures and history.

Then in December, following two days of rioting in Dili the Australian media exposed some of its worst ignorance about the political system and society in East Timor in articles which, sadly, also became a major source of information for many Timorese about what was going on in their own country and how it was seen by outsiders. On 5 December, the newspaper Suara Timor Lorosae had a page of articles in English, all from different newspapers, and with contradictory information and analysis, including the numbers of people who had been killed in the riots. Some of the myths created, in large part, by the Australian media include the idea that East Timor is run by a clique of retrograde Stalinists left over from the Cold War era who lived it up in Mozambique for twenty-four years; that FRETILIN is somehow an illegitimate government, as fresh elections were not held after the writing of the Constitution; that most of Timor’s problems arise from the decision to introduce Portuguese as an official language; and that there is a huge rift between Mari Alkatiri, the Prime Minister, and President Xanana Gusmão.

One of the reasons why these rumours have flourished is failure to establish an effective and sustainable communications and transportation system in Timor during the period of United Nations transitional government. Under UNTAET (the United Nations Transitional Admistration in East Timor) public telephones were not repaired, nor public transport revived to its former strength, nor the Post Office, with its banking system. No courses in interpreting and translating were introduced to train Timorese from the diaspora. Instead, millions were spent bringing translators and interpreters from Portugal, Indonesia and Australia work that should have gone to Timorese. No information system was put in place to inform school leavers and the unemployed of career opportunities and how they could best prepare themselves in skills needed by the country. Legislation on radio was left till the last moment. Donors were wary of funding television, and the two daily newspapers have never developed the capacity for sustained investigative reporting of local issues they mainly reprint news from elsewhere, particularly Indonesia, Portugal and Australia.

In the absence of a good communications system, rumours flourish, and it seems that Australian journalists have not only been victims but also the instigators of many of the rumours flying around in Timor at the moment which generate fear and hostility. It is also clear that certain political factions, including some represented in the Parliament, are using rumour-mongering as a political strategy.

At the same time, criticisms which could legitimately be made of the East Timorese government, such as its failure to move on local government, problems with the judicial system, and slowness in Timorising the education system, are being ignored by Australian journalists.

In the absence of a good current-affairs tradition in the media, and good channels for discussion and debate, some people will believe anything. There is even one group that has convinced its followers that former FRETILIN leader Nicolau Lobato, killed by the Indonesians in 1979, is still alive. In this sort of environrnent Australian journalists flying in and out quickly to report on an event need to be very careful. Too often they just read the files of their paper’s previous articles on Timor and recycle the mistakes. During the twenty-four years of East Timor’s occupation by Indonesia, sections of the Australian media played a positive role in highlighting the aspirations of the East Timorese people. This was in no small part due to the fact that five members of the Australian media were killed at Balibó by advancing Indonesian troops immediately before the full-scale invasion on 7 December 1975. During the dark days of 1999 the Australian media highlighted many human-interest stories of Timorese courage and determination which mobilized public opinion in a way which was decisive.

However, since the election of the FRETILIN government, the bringing in of a new Constitution, a Development Plan and the Independence ceremony, Australian print journalists, with some honorable exceptions, do not seem to have really tried to familiarise themselves with the new issues. Nor have they let their readers get to know Timor’s political leaders, other than José Ramos Horta, Xanana Gusmão or Bishop Belo. Worse still, they have often fallen for political myths and rumours which they then repeat in articles that are often reprinted in the daily newspapers of Dill, which are always short of copy. Several myths have been perpetuated by the Australian media which require exploding if Australians are to better understand what is going on in East Timor.

Myth 1 - East Timor’s leaders

The first is that the Timorese Cabinet is dominated by people who lived in exile in Mozambique during the resistance. For example Paul Dibb wrote in the Australian two days after independence “It is disturbing that fully half the ministers in the new cabinet come from the so~called Mozambique clique within Fretilin”. While this is not actually true, why should it be disturbing? Following the rioting in Dili in December 2002 some of FRETILIN’s political rivals in Dill retailed this view back to Australian journalists as one of the reasons they didn’t like Mari Alkatiri. In the Age (14/12/02) Mark Baker wrote:

“The government is dominated by exiles who fled the country after the Indonesian invasion in 1975 and only returned when the peace was won. Many of them, like Alkatiri, led relatively comfortable lives in Mozambique, another former Portuguese colony.”

This totally ignores the role played by the Timorese of the diaspora in the ‘diplomatic struggle’ and the fact that Mozambique was the only country that would give the Timorese scholarships to study and prepare themselves for eventual return to East Timor in positions of leadership. Most of those Timorese in the Council of Ministers who lived in Mozambique (and there are only six of them) had distinguished careers in Mozambique, where they were able to exercise leadership and develop practical and policy-making skills, unlike those who stayed behind and were educated in the Indonesian system.

Without the Mozambique-educated Timorese, Timor today would be in a much worse position than it is. Mari Alkatiri, with an academic background in law, economics and surveying and lobbying at the UN and around Africa with José Ramos Horta, is one of the few Timorese with the ability to negotiate something like the Timor Sea Agreement with Alexander Downer. During the occupation the Indonesians would never promote Timorese, even when they had ability and qualifications, always putting Indonesians in control, which meant that few Timorese inside the country learnt decision-making skills or how to implement policy.

A related theme that the Australian media seems to have picked up without proper evaluation is that the FRETILIN majority of 55 in the Parliament of 88 is somehow illegitimate. This is based on the view that the Constituent Assembly elected in 2001 should have been dissolved and new elections held, but that FRETILIN used its numbers to avoid this happening. The decision to transform the Constituent Assembly, after it had written the Constitution, into the first Parliament, with a five-year life, follows a recommendation made by the predecessor of the Constituent Assembly, the National Council (NC), a 3~member body appointed by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Mr Sérgio Vieira de Mello. It had very few FRETILIN members. The proposal was hardly debated, as there was no dissent, despite the fact that it has obvious weallnesses, and eighty-eight members is much too large a Parliament for a country of some 800,000 people.

But those who proposed the conversion and voted for it, induding, ironically, Avelino Coelho of the Socialist Party (PST) and Manuel Carrascalau of UDT, thought they would be in that first government of East Timor. When later they found it was FRETILIN who would be in power for the next five years, these two spearheaded a movement bringing together the extreme left (PST) and the extreme right (UDT), to try to overturn the proposal and bring about another election. But it was too late. The UN, with support from the NC, had already decided on its timetable another election would be too expensive and would not lead to a markedly different result. Nevertheless a small group, partly through their contacts with the foreign media, has been able to transform what was at the time an uncontroversial recommendation, into a major irritant for the government of the day, which it shouldn’t have to waste time counteracting.

But Mark Baker in the Age (14/12/02) describes the government of Timor-Leste as “a government that was shoe-horned into power by a UN administration determined to force a rapid political transition”. He goes on to quote FRETILIN’s political rivals:

“They point out that the 88-member assembly elected in August 2002 was chosen only to draft a new constitution, and that Fretilin used its numbers to extend its rule for five years - while reneging, with the UN’s acquiescence, on a pledge to form a national unity government.”

Such comments ignore the fact that minor party members were offered portfolios and decided to decline them and remain in the opposition. It similarly ignores the fact that there are many non-FRETILIN members in the cabinet as, unlike the Westminster system, it is not necessary (or even possible) to be a member of parliament and a minister, so the ministers are chosen for their skills and expertise.

The argument that the Timorese government is dominated by a group of ‘outsiders’ who are somehow illegitimate, and the force with which it is advanced by certain Australian journalists, reminds me very much of the way the Australian media, and later the Fijian people themselves, used to describe Dr Bavadra’s Fiji Labour Party cabinet as ‘Indian dominated’, even though numerically speaking it wasn’t true. People later came to believe it, and, in the popular imagination, it became a legitimation for overthrowing the government in the first 1987 coup. In December 2002 many of those students who went along with the mob to burn down Man Alkatiri’s house would not have had in their minds a clear reason why they didn’t like him. But the forces who had attached themselves to the students’ demonstration and who then poured kerosene on the house and set fire to it were relying on generalised rumours: namely that the group from Mozambique were somehow illegitimate and corrupt. They didn’t believe they needed any proof.

While it is true that UNTAET, who ruled the country from January 2000 to May 2002, imposed an unrealistically short time-frame on the Timorese to write a Constitution, there were far worse omissions than the decision not to hold fresh elections. Among the greatest failures was not to include in the Constitution (which required a 60 per cent majority vote) a firm provision for the election of local government, the setting up of local courts or land ownership provisions. As a consequence, in Timor at present there is only one centre of power, Dili. Most people believe the only way to get your view across is to march on the government buildings. All these may have been contributing factors to the decision by many people to join the rally on 4 December. Clearly local grievances must be solved locally, but as yet there are no elected representafives at District or Sub-district level. There is one Member of Parliament for each of the 13 Districts, but they spend most of their time in Dili - the rest are elected by proportional representation from the one electorate of the whole country. In his first major speech of 2003 Xanana Gusmão called on the government to hold elections for local government. This can hopefully be soon, although the local government system remams to be designed and legislation to be passed.

Myth 2 - Language is a major source of disquiet

Another myth perpetuated by the Australian media is that the decision to use Portuguese as one of the official languages is the worst possible choice that could have been made, and is responsible for all sorts of youth alienation. As Tim Dodd put it in the Australian Financial Review, (6/12/02):

“Adding to the sense of disenfranchisement is the government decision - made by the Lusophile elite like Alkatiri who sat out the Indonesian occupation in Portugal - to niake Portuguese the official language, meaning thatfluency is a practical necessity for getting a good government job.”

Leaving aside the factual inaccuracies about Alkatiri, the decision on language policy was not made by any small group. All parties broadly supported it, although one or two small parties may now oppose it. Indeed it was two FRETILIN Constituent Assembly members of the younger generation who made sure that Tetum was added to Portuguese as an official language during the debate on the Constitution. Admittedly there are problems in the implementation of Timor’s language policy, in particular how to make use of Timor’s existing linguistic resources, such as using the former FALINTIL, who spoke Portuguese during the struggle, as teachers and storytellers in the Portuguese language. But Timor’s linguistic problems would exist whatever language had been chosen in the Constitution. Problems with court interpretation arise, as many of the local languages have no written form. Indonesian and English are widely used as ‘working languages’ and, I believe, will be around for a lot longer than is currently admitted. No Timorese will be barred from jobs because they don’t speak Portuguese for a very long time, or there would be few candidates for any job.

Most of the disasters which people attribute to the decision on the language policy result from the failure of UNTAET and the succeeding Timorese government to fully recognise Timor’s linguistic heritage of other indigenous languages, or to take advantage of the Timorese ability to learn languages. For example widespread literacy programs and second-language learning programs should have been instituted early on, to boost people’s confidence in language learning. Reading and writing should have been promoted through setting up libraries, bookshops, printing presses and a good postal service and the internet to motivate people to actually use languages. If everyone was taught to read and write in their mother tongue first and then to read Tetum or Portuguese they would find learning other languages easier, including Chinese and Japanese and other languages they will need for international trade. The fast-developing countries of Singapore and Malaysia are all multilingual countries with very difficult languages, yet children master these languages, and as a result are better equipped than many Australians to work in a globalised world.

Myth 3-relations between the President and the Prime Minister

Australians have some difficulty in understanding the so-called ‘semi-Presidential’ system that Timor has adopted. Similar to the French system, it has two separate but different centres of power: the Presidency, whose power or influence would be similar to that of our President had we voted Yes in the Republic referendum. In theory the President should be a person above politics who can inspire and bring out the best in people and get them to work together for national goals, but who does not engage in actual policy-making. In some ways it is a position tailor-made for Xanana Gusmão, who has those qualities but who definitely did not want to be appointing cabinets and balancing budgets. Yet some in the Australian media, such as Geoffrey Barker of the AFR (9/12/02) have claimed that it was FRETILIN who wanted to reduce Xanana “to a figurehead”.

In reality the relationship between Alkatiri and Xanana is much better than the Australian media will ever admit. While Alkatiri made some sharp comments at the time of Xanana’s election, it was a warning to him not to get too close to any other party. FRETILIN would support Xanana so long as he was independent, and he had filled his campaign commit-tee with members of the PSD - Partido Social Democrático. With a few brief forays into trying to comment in detail on tax policy, and an unwise comment made on official independence day 28 November to the effect that one of the Ministers should be sacked, Xanana tested out the limits of his power and got a firm response from Man Alkatiri that they should each stick to their areas of competence as laid down in the Constitution. Then the riots came, putting them on the same side of the fence, and since then they seem to have been working together very closely.

Geoffrey Barker’s suggestion in AFR (9/12/02) that Xanana should take over from Mari Alkatiri shows absolutely no understanding of the system. Xanana has his job precisely because he doesn’t believe he can do the sort of detailed work over figures and documents that Alkatiri excels at. Alkatiri’s job doesn’t require him to be personally popular, but competent and honest. No one, other than a handful of Australian journalists, and political rumour-mongers In the streets of Dili, has suggested that he is otherwise. Nevertheless Timorese politics is full of symbolism, and those educated in Mozambique have a very straightforward style, often regarded as blunt or even arrogant by those educated under the Indonesians, where one was taught never to give a straight answer. There is no doubt that Alkatiri needs a press adviser, particularly one who can line up some relaxed interviews for him with Australian journalists.


Underlying the fears of most of these journalistic commentators is the argument that Australia is the largest aid donor to East Timor and will be required to ‘pick up the pieces’ should East Timor become a ‘failed state’. While this is widely believed, it is not true. Japan, Portugal and the rest of the EU have larger aid budgets for Timor than Australia; and a wide range of other countries Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, even China and Thailand are putting significant amounts of money into projects in East Timor. More importantly they are putting in very valuable skills and giving the Timorese experience in fields such as organic farming. It is not the volume of money in an aid program that ensures its effectiveness. The experience of Timor-Leste shows that much more intelligence and strategic thinking is needed to overcome the deficiencies of aid as a means of reconstructing a country. Its worst aspect is that turning everything into ‘projects’ undermines local capacity for decision-making and policy making. This is certainly happening in East Timor. The best defence Australia can have in this situation is to use our brains rather than throw money, and help the Timorese to overcome their problems as they define them, not as we do.

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