Ten-Year Anniversary in East Timor

Simon Roughneen, September 6, 2009

East Timorese march in a parade in Dili on Aug. 30, the 10th anniversary of the U.N.-backed vote that ended the bloody 24-year occupation by Indonesian forces and ushered in the birth of Asia's youngest nation. (Photo: Mario Jonny Dos Santos/ AFP-Getty Images)

On August 30, East Timor (the official name is "Timor-Leste") marked a decade since it voted to end Indonesia's long, brutal and illegal occupation. It is sure to be an emotional occasion—a time for celebration certainly, and maybe for somber reflection.

After all, an estimated 150,000 people died during the 24 years Jakarta put its jackboot to the Timorese throat. Out of a population of around 700,000 in 1974, when Portuguese colonial rule ended, this is perhaps the highest death toll per capita of any conflict anywhere since World War II. It is hard to find any Timorese person who has not been touched, one way or another, by such large-scale tragedy.

A quick background

In December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, annexing it as part of their country. The invasion was silently supported by many Western countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, who had business interests in the country and wanted to stay on the side of President Suharto.

The reason for the invasion was Indonesia's fear of East Timor becoming communist, to prevent a domino effect of breakaway provinces, and to get control of its oil and gas wealth. The occupation lasted almost 24 years.

The 10th anniversary of independence

With the anniversary looming, many activists and NGOs jumped at the opportunity to lobby again for some form of justice for past crimes perpetrated in East Timor. The government in Dili does not want this, preferring instead to maintain good relations with Indonesia, the now-amicable ex-invader to the north (and east, and west).

Both sides of this debate have merit, though perhaps not equal merit. However, dealing with the past should not mean future progress must be neglected or international relationships compromised.

Therefore, given the retrospective theme of much of the 10th anniversary coverage so far, it is worth looking into the country's future—through a dark glass, though, rather than any crystal ball clarity.

East Timor moving forward

When I interviewed President Jose Ramos-Horta in the country's capital Dili recently, he was upbeat about the future. "We will celebrate August 30 in a booming economy. Dili and the rest of the country are at peace," he said. "The police and Army are reconciled, and we are celebrating at a time when cooperation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is at its best—no two countries on the planet have a better bilateral relationship."

Indeed, East Timor has seen double-digit economic growth in the last two years, pretty spectacular given the downward global trend. However, much of this comes down to a doubling of government spending—itself a controversial move—as the Timorese have been cautious about spending oil revenues, seeking to avoid the financial "oil curse" that has destabilized countries all over Africa.

Another issue that needs tackling is the perception that the country is an obscure, impoverished backwater—that's even if people know it exists. The government needs to better market the country's amazing beaches, scenery and nature, all of which are unspoiled.

The recent Tour de Timor bike race is a good start. President Ramos-Horta knows this, saying they plan to kill two birds with one stone in the coming years by putting thousands of the country's unemployed to work on road projects to upgrade the ramshackle infrastructure that currently hinders any dynamic tourism potential. The World Bank agrees, and so do I after losing my car bumper to a pothole.

Ramos-Horta and other senior administration officials agree that corruption—regarded by many development experts as the biggest hindrance to countries becoming prosperous and stable—is a major problem in East Timor.

Independence icon and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was caught up in a corruption allegation recently, though the case has not been proven. Still, the opposition has jumped on it, despite the fact that corruption, according to watchdog NGOs such as Transparency International, was just as bad when they (Fretilin) were in power. At least this is a sign that the country now has a thriving democracy where vigorous public debate can take place.

All in all, it is difficult to give a mark on progress in East Timor, now 10 years free. There is no quantitative benchmark by which a country coming out of 500 years of colonial rule and 24 years of violent occupation can measure itself a decade into state-building.

It can be argued that the country remains over-reliant on international support, and that nobody knows what would happen if the U.N. and I.S.F. left tomorrow, given that the country almost fell into civil war three years ago.

As Fernanda Borges, leader of the opposition P.U.N. party, told me in Dili, "Sometimes the U.N. gives good advice, sometimes not. But then, sometimes we have not heeded or acted on the good advice. At the end of the day, it is up to us Timorese."

Ramos-Horta himself has said that international babysitting has not always been positive. An estimated $3-5 billion in aid has been spent on Timor in its first 10 years, but nobody knows how much has actually gone toward improving the lives of ordinary Timorese.

The U.N. mission will perhaps leave in 2012 or 2013, as Timor hits adolescence. So, like the steep, winding byways leading out of Dili, maybe all we can say for sure is that Timor-Leste faces many twists on its climb to prosperity and stability.

This article was originally published in The Casual Truth:

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