August 2007


Timor's future

By Mark Aarons
Timor's future
Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta

In March 1975, I travelled from Darwin to Portuguese Timor on assignment for the ABC. It was my first overseas adventure, but my excitement did not lessen the shock of seeing the severe poverty and lack of basic progress. Then, the contrast was not so stark, as Darwin lay in rubble after Cyclone Tracy. In June 2007, it could hardly be greater, as I leave first-world opulence and in under two hours arrive in dusty, humid, third-world Dili to talk with two men who have played central roles in East Timor's turbulent history, and who may well determine its future.

Young boys stand forlornly, holding phone cards for sale. Skinny men carry bamboo poles over their shoulders, dangling fruit. Others weave their bicycles dangerously through the traffic, clutching scrawny chickens or bunches of crabs. Beside roadside vegetable stalls elderly peasant women sit patiently on rusting petrol drums, chewing betel nut. Emaciated dogs dart across the pot-holed roads; goats scrabble in the sharp, dry grass; pigs root around in piles of garbage.

This is comparatively wealthy Dili, with its public servants and thousands of foreign police, soldiers and aid workers. Here, locals can expect to earn more than the country's average income of $1.20 a day. Out in the towns and far-flung villages, most do not make even this paltry sum. About 12% of East Timor's children die before they reach the age of five; 40% of those who live show visible signs of malnourishment. Many Timorese die from diseases that have simple cures; tuberculosis and malaria are rampant. More than half the population is illiterate, and basic services like electricity and running water are rare. In the most productive areas, rice yields average one tonne per hectare. Neighbouring countries often average four tonnes.

Timor's people have been struck by succeeding waves of misery. Four centuries of neglect under Portuguese rule were followed by almost a quarter-century of illegal Indonesian occupation. Repression, mass killings and a deliberate policy of starvation traumatised the nation. Nearly one-third of the population died, and the Indonesians laid the country to waste when they departed ignominiously after the 1999 independence vote.

In May 2002, visiting Dili for the independence celebrations, I again saw the poverty and signs of destruction. Yet the town was immaculately clean, and there was an air of optimistic excitement. Not four years later, Dili was wracked by violent clashes, this time between supporters of the often incompetent and corrupt Fretilin government, led by Mari Alkitiri, and those frustrated by its failure to improve basic conditions for the Timorese people. When I returned in 2006, life in Dili was dominated by hopelessness and fear. As we left the airport's ramshackle international terminal, my driver warned me to be ready to duck: youth from the neighbouring camp for Internally Displaced People were regularly throwing rocks at passing cars. Several young men died in clashes in the few days I was in town.

Driving through Dili on the eve of the parliamentary election in June this year, the remains of that history are still evident. Like many suburbs, Becora, where my interpreter lives, bears the scars of the recent violence: derelict buildings, blackened vehicles and piles of discarded junk. No one can say which of the burnt-out houses were ransacked by the Indonesians in 1999 and which were destroyed in 2006. Nonetheless, things have improved. The sense of imminent violence is almost gone. The streets are filled with people, even at night, and many locals are cautiously optimistic about the future.

A mood for change was evident in May's presidential election, which saw José Ramos-Horta decisively defeat Fretilin's candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo' Guterres. This set the scene for the parliamentary election, in which three moderate, democratic parties won 51% of the vote and proposed Xanana Gusmão as the country's prime minister, a move that Fretilin is still resisting as I write. Xanana and Ramos-Horta have been the giants of Timorese politics for the best part of 30 years: Xanana as the military and political leader in the fight against Indonesia, and Ramos-Horta as the head of the diplomatic front outside the country. After independence, Xanana was elected as East Timor's first president (2002-07); Ramos-Horta was its first foreign minister (2002-06) and second prime minister (2006-07), a role in which he was strongly backed by Xanana. Together, they would be a formidable, experienced team to lead their young nation into better times.

They would also be taking on two of the most difficult jobs in modern politics. The task they face is, in its own way, as daunting as the independence struggle. If the basic problems confronting East Timor were not enough, the country has fractured into regional political blocs. This was demonstrated most clearly in the parliamentary election, in which no single party received even 30% of the vote. With 29%, Fretilin remains the largest party, but its vote was barely half what it received in 2001 and it can no longer claim to represent the majority of East Timorese. Nor can Xanana rely on his standing as the heroic ‘father of the nation' to guarantee votes: his newly formed National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) received just 24%, far from the 85% he received in 2001 to win the first presidential election.

At least one thing is certain: most East Timorese believe that Fretilin no longer points the way forward. The formation of the coalition that supports Xanana as the next prime minister reflects the widespread desire for a new direction, as did the second-round vote of 69% in May that made José Ramos-Horta president. These shifts may indicate an evolving political maturity in voters.

Ramos-Horta and Xanana have helped to create national unity before. In the 1980s, both played pivotal roles in forging a broad coalition of forces for a seemingly impossible cause. Inside Timor, Xanana resigned from Fretilin and formed the National Council of (Maubere) Timorese Resistance, a similar name to the CNRT party he took to the recent election. Overseas, Ramos-Horta inspired a new generation of émigré youth to look beyond the narrow confines of Fretilin's Maoism. Today, they agree about the nation's priorities and propose similar policies to address them, though their personalities and styles differ in ways that are likely to generate tensions and make their relationship a fascinating study in psycho-politics.

Before driving to Xanana's house in the mountains south of Dili, I call in at the CNRT's headquarters to meet the young secretary general, Dionisius Babo. He shows me the punishing schedule for the election campaign, in which Xanana criss-crossed the country, starting on the eastern tip, moving westwards along the north coast, then zig-zagging south and north before turning into the rugged southern highlands and on to the western regions.

I catch up with Xanana's final rally, for which 5000 people have gathered in Dili's soccer stadium. Part entertainment and part declamatory speechmaking, the rally culminates in wild cheering when President Ramos-Horta and then Xanana mount the rostrum.

Later, as we sip beers on Xanana's front porch, with its panoramic views across the jungle to the Banda Sea, I remind him of the trip he made almost 30 years earlier. At the end of 1978, under bombardment by weaponry supplied by the US, including Agent Orange and napalm, the Timorese resistance had collapsed. As its charismatic new leader, Xanana walked the rugged country, reorganising the guerrillas and consulting his people to determine whether they wished to continue the struggle or wanted his rag-tag band of fighters to accept permanent integration into Indonesia. This journey forged the Xanana legend and gave the people hope that one day he would lead them to freedom.

 He agrees that there are parallels between the two campaigns. The first aimed to "liberate the country" from Indonesia, while in the second he seeks to "liberate the people from all of their problems, from misery, poverty". Reviewing the five years of Fretilin government, Xanana cannot hide his disappointment. "The state now is only a president, government, the flag, parliament, but nothing that links to the people's daily lives," he says regretfully. "There's no state in an empty land, and this is a land of people who fought for this state. Our state was built on corpses, on bones, and that's why the state's obligation is to take care of the people. And we have to do this, because if we don't, the state doesn't mean anything. The country, independence, don't mean anything."

Xanana's disappointment is shared by Ramos-Horta, the man who seemed so ambivalent about becoming president. I ask him what his vision is for the nation. Paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah, he replies, "Together with a compassionate prime minister, we'll mobilise the resources to feed the poor, to clothe those who are naked, to provide shelter to those who are homeless. I believe we can do that. So that in five years from now, we can look back and say, ‘There are less poor people today than five years ago, there's less malnutrition, less malaria, less TB, and there's more clean water, more electricity and more jobs, and much greater peace.'" The determination in his voice reminds me of his zeal during the years in exile. "I don't intend to sit back and be a president for ceremonial occasions," he says emphatically. "I intend to speak out loud and clear, especially about poverty. I'll be the strongest advocate of the poor and will spend plenty of time listening to the people, being with them in their villages."

Ramos-Horta has deep respect for Xanana, but there is also tension between them. Xanana, the president says, is a "unique leader" of great compassion who "knows more about the soul of the East Timorese people than anyone I know. There's no one in this country that should claim to have contributed equally to the successful struggle as Xanana." But Ramos-Horta also echoes the international community's report on the 2006 crisis, which found that Xanana had made mistakes. "Xanana has to redeem himself because he too failed the people. Xanana was the national hero and first head of state. He should have done more to work with the government, to scrutinise the government." If Xanana becomes prime minister, Ramos-Horta explains, he "will have to work extra hard to deliver on his promises, because Fretilin will be an experienced opposition, scrutinising government policies and actions".

Xanana's policies are founded on what he calls an "integrated master plan" to develop all social and economic sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, tourism and education. The aims are basic: "A decent house, with all services nearby. Education, health, hygiene, water in the house, healthy conditions. The right to learn with schools right there, not walking five kilometres to go to school." To achieve them, he must balance traditional ways of life and modernity. How this plays out will not only define Timor's emerging new culture, but determine whether material progress can be achieved as rapidly as both leaders intend.

He is adamant that the country must change: "We want the future for the people. We cannot just remain in the past." Like other indigenous peoples, many Timorese live in tiny, widely scattered villages, far from basic services. To fulfil his promises, Xanana advocates building new communities to which people will have to move if they want electricity, running water and educational and health facilities. "We want to change the social way of living. Our people live very far away from each other and the kids don't go to school, the health services cannot go to each house. That's why, if we can provide a good master plan, people can start having the capacity to buy houses that we build in communities."

Yet Xanana also wants to preserve traditional culture, especially the people's special relationship with their ancestral lands. "If we don't take care of this, we will lose our past." He insists that he "will not cut this relationship" between villagers and their sacred lands. "If they live in a community, they will have the opportunity to go to their ancestors' lands when it's the right time, not in an animist perception of life, but more like a ceremony, a ritual. We can also bring the new generation, to remind them that these are our roots."

José Ramos-Horta's own daily life exemplifies the contrasts between Timorese traditions and modernisation. His house on Robert Kennedy Boulevarde is built with the kind of steep thatch-roofs used for centuries, but he also has cable television and a stereo, electricity and running water: things that most young people aspire to. Yet, as he observes, many traditional East Timorese "don't want to move. They're ready to walk miles and miles each day down into the valleys to carry water and firewood back, because that's where their ancestors lived." Building new, centralised communities, and convincing people to live in them, will take years - and patience. In the meantime, Ramos-Horta wants to address poverty by the most direct route: "I wish to inject as much money as possible into the rural economy to help the poor through simple, direct cash transfers to the elderly, widows and war veterans." His election platform included a commitment to annual pensions of $560 for the poorest 10% of the population. He has also promised to extend the cash-for-work program in Dili, in which street cleaning is undertaken for a basic wage, into other projects, such as the maintenance of rural roads, schools and hospitals.

He wants the government to provide $58 million a year for straight cash transfers, not only as a means of helping the desperately poor, but also because "by putting money into the hands of poor people you're injecting money into rural economies. They'll immediately start buying more vegetables, eggs, some clothes for their children. So in helping the poor with cash transfers this will help those who have a plot of land and can sell vegetables. It helps many more beyond those who receive the cash." He would like to see these measures reinforced by "radical reform of our fiscal policies, especially the tax system. This is important to create growth, because without creating growth, you can't help the poor. We must create the proper environment for business, for the private sector, to create jobs."

For now, the only source of revenue for these programs are the hard-fought-for royalties that Timor will receive from the rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Over the next 30 years, the government expects to receive about $30-40 billion; it is already receiving royalties from the Bayu-Undan (Wind Pelican) light-oil and gas field directly to the south of the country, and Xanana is certain that this alone will be enough to fund his plans. In addition, after tough, protracted negotiations with the Howard government, East Timor finally secured an improved share of the rights to other lucrative fields.

Disagreement over how best to use this revenue was a key issue in the June election. The Fretilin government adopted a cautious policy, refusing to borrow against future income and insisting on banking the royalties in New York. Known as the ‘saving policy', the idea was to put the money aside for future generations, when the oil and gas are depleted. Xanana and Ramos-Horta have both strongly opposed this. As Xanana puts it, "saving the money in New York will give benefits only to the bank, not to us. We can make some interest, but the bank will manage that money and will be richer and richer itself." Ramos-Horta wryly observes that "romantic people, poets who don't have a sense of reality, always talk about saving the money for future generations. I'm not going to save money for any future generation. If I have my way, I'll spend it today on starving, malnourished children and on old people who have dry skin showing their bones."

To hasten his reform program, Xanana also proposes taking out loans against future income. This, too, was a point of difference with Fretilin, which bitterly opposes going into debt. For Xanana, it is a simple proposition: "If we need it, why not? You should not go into debt under only two conditions. One, if you cannot pay it back. The other is if you don't use the loan correctly. On the first, we can pay, and the second is what we have to prevent. We will use these loans to pay for better conditions for our people, and for the fundamental infrastructure that can develop the country."

As for how to use this money, Xanana and Ramos-Horta are in broad agreement. Ramos-Horta explains: "We need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the next five years, not ten, to have a modern road network, as well as improved telecommunications and cheap and reliable electricity. Without resolving these problems, we'll go nowhere. We must develop high-class roads, bridges, a new port, expand our existing airport in Dili and develop Baucau Airport." (Baucau is the eastern town that was once the country's tourist gateway.)

Water and land management are also vital for a nation in which many people face starvation during the dry months. As Ramos-Horta tells me, "We don't have enough water, and with population growth in the next 20 to 30 years there'll be more pressure on land and water. So if we don't invest now, in ten or 20 years we'll be killing each other over water and land." Xanana also sees this as a priority. "We need infrastructure to store water and then we can start talking about new methods of agriculture, of cultivating rice and other crops. We have many good fields but we can't use them, and in the south we can produce at least twice a year, if not three or four times. But we can only produce this if we have water for our farmers."

The two are similarly united over the need for major spending on environmental programs. Xanana is particularly concerned about the impact of climate change and has "a plan that each citizen must plant one tree every year and their village will be rewarded. Every year we need to plant about one million trees." Ramos-Horta explains: "I would invest seriously in the environment in terms of tree-planting, land and water preservation. This is immediate and can create thousands of jobs, and at the same time you save nature for future generations." He wants at least $10 million every year for such programs, and is certain that ordinary Timorese would embrace them. The work, he says, would involve doing "something that they like, and it would save the country and the planet".

There are, however, formidable obstacles to overcome before such programs can be implemented, and the two leaders both argue for comprehensive administrative reform. The biggest challenge is the bloated central bureaucracy installed by Fretilin. According to Xanana, "The minister for finance controls everything. The government used to say that this controls corruption, but it didn't; it centralised corruption." He would therefore make his first year in government "the reform year", and would institute an international, independent audit of Fretilin's five-year term "to review the past and determine responsibility for corruption and mismanagement. This will be a lesson for the future."

He believes that policies should be implemented at the local level, taking into account community needs. "We need new laws about the administrative divisions of the country, about regional parliaments, about making districts and sub-districts work like municipalities. Because we are a small country, the central government should be small, making policy, and the regions, districts and sub-districts should implement policy."

A crucial part of this reform will be the development of the public sector. As Ramos-Horta says, "a developing country can have all the best doctors and lawyers in the world, but if you don't have a highly trained and well-paid civil service, the country cannot function. Economies function when they are supported by a strong, competent and honest civil service. We have to invest more in training people to be good public servants, with proper incentives and rewards. The civil service should be modelled after the best British traditions of professionalism and independence, neutrality in politics. We inherited a culture of corruption and mismanagement from Indonesian times. So it will take at least ten to 20 years to develop a proper civil service."

Both know they must invest in their young people if they are to build a professional public service. Ramos-Horta wants to "spend more money on youth, more assistance to students, establishing youth centres with libraries and the internet in every district". Xanana concurs, arguing for greater investment in the young: "We lack human resources. I see the example of China when it opened up to the world. They sent their young generation all around the world and in ten or 15 years they were ready. We have to do this. What we can do for this country is to invest in this generation, to make them capable in ten or 15 years to take over the leadership of the country. This is the best investment we can make."

Both leaders are convinced that Australia should do more to help in this regard. Ramos-Horta becomes animated, even angry, when the topic is broached: "One of the disgraceful things about Australia's co-operation with East Timor is that only a handful of positions in Australia are open for East Timorese students." Although he does not support the communist system in Cuba, he compares its generosity to Australia's indifference. "Look at poor Cuba, which has taken 700 East Timorese medical students. Australia could do the same. Portugal has provided many more scholarships for East Timorese to study in Portugal, but Cuba has done more than Australia, America and all the European countries combined. Australia pursues a policy that really discourages East Timorese from going there to study." He would like "to see hundreds of East Timorese going to Australia every year to work and study in TAFEs and other vocational institutions, and Australia to open its labour market so that East Timorese youth can work at jobs like fruit picking". This, he argues, would "generate income to send back home to their families, and also they'd learn about work habits. When they come back from working in Australia they would be changed people."

He reveals that during his 2006 visit to Australia, as prime minister, he asked John Howard and Alexander Downer to open up TAFE positions to Timorese students, but nothing happened. He links this to Australia's wider policy failures, especially in dealing with regional instability. He is puzzled by what he sees as a short-sighted, provincial approach. "It isn't in Australia's interest to have unstable neighbours. Australian capitalism needs prosperous, stable neighbours in order for Australian capital to thrive and profit. And prosperity in East Timor depends on Australia." It's an argument that Ramos-Horta applies generally, to the other small nations of the region: "If Australia would take a few thousand from each island it would help tremendously to change the work ethic in East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, and generate income for their local economies."

Ramos-Horta's prescription for Australia's regional policy seems close to that announced recently by Kevin Rudd, who advocates a much greater emphasis on economic development to end the cycle of police interventions following crises. Ramos-Horta is careful not to comment too specifically on Australian politics, saying only that it is self-evident that improved economic conditions for the region will reduce instability and encourage development, saving Australian taxpayers from the financial burden of military and police interventions, and of underwriting failing states. Most of all, he wishes to encourage greater openness in the region: "We shouldn't worry too much about boundaries. Australians should feel that East Timor is like an extension of their own home, where they can come to visit for holidays, to work or to trade, and East Timorese should feel equally welcome in Australia to work, to buy and to sell."

While the practical problems facing East Timor often appear insurmountable, the country's psychological problems are perhaps even bigger. As José Ramos-Horta explains, "99.9% of the people are indigenous, but they were dispossessed during the Indonesian occupation, and the consequences were alienation, humiliation and violence, resulting in a lot of the reality you see today. People instantly engage in violence whenever some problem happens."

Ramos-Horta believes that as the nation's president, he has "an extra responsibility to promote dialogue, mutual acceptance and mutual respect". He wants to work in partnership with the government and the wider society to turn East Timor into an "island of peace", by building "zones of peace" throughout the country: geographically defined areas where he can focus his "attention and energy". By "addressing the root causes of violence" within these zones, he hopes to "develop a culture of non-violence, of tolerance, of solidarity, where people work together and help each other," so that "the tendency of individuals and groups to react with violence in any dispute - land dispute or political dispute - is replaced by an attitude of dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts." Ramos-Horta believes this can be realised in his lifetime. "Block by block, zone by zone," he insists, East Timor will become a peaceful land: "within ten, 20 years".

Ramos-Horta concedes that there are problems which arose during the 2006 crisis that have yet to be addressed by the East Timorese government, most notably the tens of thousands of Internally Displaced People (known as IDPs) who either have refused to return home or have been prevented from doing so - especially by gangs, many of which are politically manipulated. (The IDP camp opposite Dili Airport, for example, is controlled by Fretilin.) Xanana argues that the problem could have been solved last year, but "Fretilin and the government never wanted to. They used the IDPs as a bargaining chip." Ramos-Horta is certain that the problem can be solved: "I believe that by August-September most of the IDPs will have either returned home or moved to transition shelters."

The president is also confident that the issue of the ‘petitioners', the 600 soldiers whose sacking by the Fretilin government sparked the 2006 crisis, will also be resolved. "I've secured agreement from the military for all those petitioners who want to return to the army to re-apply under a new recruitment law. A few months ago the army would not contemplate that. Those who don't wish to rejoin would receive a financial package equivalent to three years' salary, to help them resettle." He has discussed his proposal with the petitioners and the Catholic bishop, and both parties have endorsed it.

Neither the IDPs nor the petitioners, though, pose the biggest threat to the president's vision of Timor as an island of peace. Rather, it is another legacy of recent conflicts: the political fault-lines. The hostility between Fretilin and Xanana's CNRT has been clear in the post-election jockeying, when the two parties declared their willingness to form a coalition government with other parties, but not with each other. Ramos-Horta has floated the idea of a "government of inclusion" representing all parties which won seats in the election; but for Xanana it is unthinkable to allow Fretilin another chance. "We gave them five years to govern, and they made mistakes. Worst of all, they gave weapons to civilians; they created a wave of violence. Until now, they could not educate their supporters to be democratic, and this is because of the anti-democratic behaviour of the leadership. They never accepted their mistakes; they feel that they never made mistakes and they will never make any mistakes."

Xanana promises to deliver a new approach to government. "CNRT's policy is to be open. We will behave differently to Fretilin. During those five years, they made and changed the laws only by themselves, because the opposition was so weak, and they took advantage by imposing things.  We will prevent ourselves from committing the same mistakes. But if we do, the people will have the chance to replace us in 2012."

President Ramos-Horta's more charitable approach to the Fretilin leadership illustrates the differences between his and Xanana's political and personal styles. Despite the continuing bitterness between Fretilin and the CNRT, he remains optimistic. "It is one of the positive things about this country that even among leaders who fought and dislike each other, we are not fanatics or extremists like you find in the Middle East, or in southern Thailand or the southern Philippines. We are able to talk, and I believe these wounds and divisions will be healed in due course; and divisions, in any case, are part of human beings, part of the political process. We should not pretend to all think and act in the same way." He admits that radical elements in Fretilin "might be unhappy and angry with the election results, but the leadership has shown its sense of responsibility and acceptance of the democratic verdict of the people, so I think Fretilin will become a constructive and effective opposition. And that is tremendously important for the future of democracy in this country."

Ten days after the vote, Fretilin supporters at a media conference threatened violence if their party did not continue to govern - including killing another party's leader. Some things apparently never change, at least among Fretilin's leadership and the party's more radical elements, who seem incapable of accepting the election result. As I write, Fretilin is arguing for its right to form the next government because it received the largest number of votes. This is despite it receiving only 29% of the total vote and seemingly having no viable coalition partner. Fretilin's leader, Mari Alkatiri, has said that the party "won't tolerate not being in government," and has announced that it will form a minority government if it cannot attract sufficient support from other parties. Xanana's CNRT and its two coalition partners, meanwhile, received a combined total of 51% of the vote and have a comfortable majority in the parliament, holding 37 of the 65 seats.

Both Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta want a more open, inclusive and democratic East Timorese government. Their relationship over the next five years may well determine whether their shared vision for their people can be realised, and whether significant progress can be made in eradicating poverty, building infrastructure and bringing stability to a people who have known only repression, conflict and despair.

Mark Aarons
Mark Aarons is the author of The Family File and War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a Sanctuary for War Criminals Since 1945. From 1996 to 2006 he was a senior adviser to the NSW Labor government.

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