March 8, 2007
East Timor's Broken Promises
By Hannah Beech/Dili
photo: The View from Below: East Timorese jostle
to buy subsidized rice in Ermera, 58 km from Dili. Kemal Jufri/Polaris
Every day, the fancy jeeps cruise past Palmira Pereira's shack on the northern coast of East Timor.
Sometimes, the passengers inside the air-conditioned vehicles raise their hands in greeting, and Pereira,
or one of her 10 children, waves back. But the occupants of the cars—owned by the government, the U.N.
or other organizations that are helping to run this infant country, which gained independence from Indonesia
in 2002—have never stopped to meet the Pereiras. If they did, they would find a family that has
not eaten rice in three months because of shortages that have nearly tripled the price. The
younger children are already showing signs of malnutrition. "I love our country very much, but
independence has given us nothing," says Pereira, her voice softening as she tries to soothe her
hungry infant. "We are starving. Life was better during Indonesian times."
Pereira's wistful recollection of 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule shows just how little
progress East Timor has made in its five years of freedom. As the nation prepares for its first
post-independence presidential election on April 9, East Timor's 1 million people are ranked by
the U.N. as Southeast Asia's poorest. Eight politicians have announced their candidacies,
ranging from populist former resistance fighter Fernando de Araujo to Nobel Peace Prize laureate
and current Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta. But even as such democratic rituals play out, the
capital Dili has erupted into a battleground for gangs, internal refugees and supporters of a
former army commander turned rebel, Alfredo Reinado. Last spring, tensions within the army
spread to the civilian populace, sparking riots in which dozens died. On March 3, Reinado's
forces engaged in a firefight with Australian-led peacekeepers. Four people were killed, but
Reinado escaped. Earlier this week, mobs loyal to him thronged Dili's streets, burning tires and
threatening to torch government buildings. "It can be hard to understand how things have gotten
so bad so quickly," says Lucia Lobato, another presidential candidate. "Without a major change
in leadership, I have no confidence that things will get better."
After the disasters of Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, tiny East Timor was supposed
to prove that nation building was a feasible exercise. An independence referendum in 1999
forced the Indonesians out, but not before departing soldiers and sympathetic local militias
practically leveled the country in a paroxysm of violence that claimed hundreds of lives. All in
all, up to 200,000 East Timorese are believed to have perished during the Indonesian occupation.
Determined to help reconstruct a country that had been birthed in such chaos, the U.N. set up shop
in 1999. A constitution was written, universities were built. Charismatic former guerrilla
commander Xanana Gusmão was elected President. Boasting pristine beaches and untouched coral
reefs, the Catholic country—a legacy of centuries of Portuguese colonialism—was trumpeted as a
future tourism destination. In 2004, the U.N.'s troops began withdrawing (though peacekeepers
returned after last spring's violence), and East Timor was hailed as the little nation that could.
The euphoria lasted long enough for World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz to visit Dili last year
and proclaim: "It really is a remarkable story. In just a few years, the people of [East Timor]
have built a functioning economy and a vibrant democracy from the ashes and destruction of 1999."
Just weeks later, East Timor again descended into conflict, and the country still simmers with
strife. What went wrong? In reality, the simple narrative of East Timor's success hid a far more
complex story line. Yes, the Timorese cherish independence. But no amount of freedom masks the
fact that nearly 45% of the country lives on less than $1 a day. When the international community
began decamping in 2002, thousands of jobs associated with its presence disappeared. The
current government, run by the political party Fretilin, a key resistance force during the
Indonesian occupation, hasn't improved the economic situation much. Although Fretilin's
reputation is burnished by the brave ex-guerrillas and former exiled activists among
its ranks, many members of East Timor's government are woefully inexperienced. "For many
of these people, this is the first real job they ever had," says the head of the opposition Social
Democratic Party, Mario Carrascalão, who even as the Jakarta-appointed governor to East Timor in
the 1980s and early '90s spoke out against the excesses of Indonesian rule.
Nor is it any secret that the fierce determination that makes a good resistance
fighter can prove disastrous in a democracy where conciliation and flexibility are paramount.
Opposition parties snipe that Fretilin has become more concerned with internal squabbles and
retaining power than with the nation's welfare. Case in point: Fretilin's élite—many of whom were
educated in Portuguese and spent decades in exile in countries like Mozambique where it's also
spoken—imposed the European tongue as East Timor's official language. Yet less than 10% of
the population understands Portuguese. The decision, largely acquiesced to by an
international community that sympathized with Fretilin's reluctance to adopt the language of
East Timor's former occupier, excluded an entire generation of Indonesian-educated citizens from
government service. "The current leaders have decided that their own history is more valuable
than ours," says António da Conceição, who was trained in Indonesian and English and now works
as a consultant for AusAID, the Australian government's overseas aid program. "But we
younger people, we fought for independence, too. How can we be turned into second-class citizens?"
Other divisions are festering, too. Even though the country was hardly riven by ethnic hatred
like, say, Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, tensions between the half-island nation's eastern
and western populations exploded in the spring of 2006 after then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri
fired nearly 600 army troops predominantly from the country's west. In protest, Commander Reinado
later deserted, claiming that westerners were being discriminated against by eastern army
officers. The dispute sparked weeks of fatal mob unrest that sent some 15% of the population
fleeing to the hills. (On Wednesday, ex-Interior Minister Rogério Lobato was sentenced to 71/2
years in jail for abetting the violence.) Other effects of the crisis linger. Today, tens of
thousands of people from the country's east still live in makeshift refugee camps around Dili. Late
last month, Australian-led peacekeepers, who were invited back to East Timor nearly a year after
they had jubilantly ended their mission in 2005, clashed with a group of armed men from these
camps, resulting in the deaths of two refugees. With Reinado still on the run, Australian Prime
Minister John Howard talked tough on Monday, calling for the renegade soldier to "be neutralized."
The lawlessness of Dili's streets is exacerbated by gangs of unemployed youth, many of whom belong
to rival martial arts clubs that have turned certain parts of the capital into no-go zones.
The spreading anarchy is, in turn, triggering a sense of despair among many East Timorese, who
realize that the fledgling nation's honeymoon is over. "What has happened in East Timor over the
past year has destroyed the claim that this is a nation-building success story," says Laurentina
Barreto Soares, a researcher with the United Nations Development Program in Dili. "Whoever
wins the presidential election could face even tougher problems than Xanana has."
Presidential candidate Ramos-Horta, who is an early favorite despite the nation's mounting woes
during his tenure as Prime Minister, says it's unfair to condemn East Timor to the dust heap of
failing states after just five years of independence. "It can take five years for a Chinese take-away in
Manhattan to break even," he says. "How can we dismiss East Timor as a failed
state when it's not even been given enough time for a restaurant to turn a profit?" Ramos-Horta,
a Fretilin founder who is now an independent, is right in that East Timor is no Afghanistan or
Iraq. "There is no civil war or bombs bursting on the streets," he says. "These are just growing pains
of a young country."
Still, there is palpable discontent in East Timor—and that could boost Ramos-Horta's main
rival Fernando de Araujo, the leader of the Democratic Party, which holds the second-largest
number of parliamentary seats after Fretilin. Imprisoned for six years by the Indonesians for
his pro-independence activities, de Araujo shares a similar resistance-hero status with current
President Gusmão, who is not running for re-election. (Gusmão, however, may form his own
party and could conceivably end up as Prime Minister after parliamentary elections later this
year.) Yet de Araujo is deeply critical of the old guard with which Gusmão has surrounded
himself. "We are a new country, but we are not a new society," says de Araujo, whose party
membership is largely under the age of 40. "Our people can see with their own eyes what has
happened. It has been five years and what is there to show for it? Almost nothing."
Afonso soares was supposed to be one of East Timor's bright hopes. The 22-year-old son of a
vegetable vendor from the eastern town of Baucau had done well enough in school to earn a place at
Dili's Universidade da Paz in 2002, the same year his homeland gained independence. Soares chose to
study law, believing that a strong legal system was a key institution for the young nation. But
all that changed last April, when the army revolt ignited clashes between Dili residents from the
country's east and west. "Before the crisis, east was where the sun rose and west was where the sun
set," says Soares. "Now, differences between these two groups, which I never even knew about
growing up, have been politicized." In late April, Soares' home was burned down by mobs, as
was his mother's vegetable stall. Today, he lives in a camp for 2,825 internally displaced refugees
near Dili's waterfront, sharing a small tent and one bed with six others who must sleep in shifts.
His mother's source of income destroyed, he can no longer afford university. "My dreams have
died," Soares says. "We have no jobs, no education, no homes." The former law student
admits to knowing people in the camps who get drunk on palm spirits and throw stones at
peacekeepers and passersby. "I don't do it myself," he says. "But life is so frustrating, it's hard to calm down."
The sense of frustration is also shared by many in East Timor's nascent middle class. Adérito de
Jesus Soares (no relation to Afonso) does have a law degree, one from New York University no less.
Before his nation's independence, he served as a crusading human-rights lawyer in Indonesia and
helped draft East Timor's constitution. Yet today Soares doesn't practice law at home. Like most
people of the post-'75 generation, Soares was educated in Indonesian and English. The country's
courts, however, operate in Portuguese. Indeed, the language obstacle is so great that every
single one of East Timor's judges, prosecutors and public defenders failed a competency
evaluation in 2005. While they undergo 212 years of linguistic training, the courts are being run
by a dwindling group of international legal experts. In August 2006, for instance, not a
single civil or criminal trial hearing was scheduled because of a lack of staff. Even though
corruption is becoming a concern in East Timor, no cases of graft have been brought to trial
since independence. Today, with so few Portuguese-speaking judicial employees available,
police are having to release suspects because the courts cannot schedule hearings within 72 hours,
as required by law. "The justice system is being seen as enabling the criminals," says Katherine
Hunter, head of the Asia Foundation in Dili, which works on governance and legal issues. "That
creates a growing sense of impunity that makes the situation on the streets much more fluid."
Like many talented East Timorese who have grown disenchanted with the state of their homeland,
human-rights lawyer Soares has decided to leave. He plans to pursue further studies in Australia
next month. "Linguistic ability is becoming the priority in hiring, not judicial expertise,"
Soares says. "How can you build a competent civil society with limitations like these? I don't want
to participate in such a system." But he's among the lucky few. Others like Avelina Gomes, whose
children's school in Dili has been shuttered for a month because it is located in a no-man's land
between two gang territories, can't just pick up and leave. "I'm so worried about my kids'
education," says Gomes, who works as an administrative assistant at a government office.
"There's no sign that the school will reopen, and the security situation is only getting worse."
Some members of Fretilin do acknowledge that divisions have widened under their leadership.
"Our biggest mistake was pretending we are not a traumatized people," says Minister of State
Administration Ana Pessoa, who is a senior member of the ruling party. "By focusing almost
exclusively on the physical reconstruction of this country, we didn't pay enough attention to
people's mental states. People's irrational fears helped trigger the crisis last year, but we
didn't understand it well enough to take it seriously." For his part, Ramos-Horta is urging
his countrymen to look ahead, speaking glowingly of the country's economic potential. Revenues
from offshore oil and gas reserves increased nearly ninefold to $351 million from the 2003-04
fiscal year to the 2005-06 fiscal year. The reserves, which are located between East Timor
and Australia, are to be developed by international and Australian companies, who will
hand over half the royalties to Dili. "We could have 10% growth rates and a shortage of labor in
a few years," predicts Ramos-Horta. Entrepreneurs are also trying to develop East Timor's once
prized coffee plantations. But all the talk of future earnings means little to Dili resident
Linda Ricardo, who lined up one day last month from 5 a.m. in hopes of securing a few sacks of
rice in the afternoon. "The government does nothing," she says. "The situation is hopeless."
Fretilin's pledges of concern were undermined last month when Deputy Prime Minister Estanislau
da Silva denied reports of famine in the countryside, insisting that not a single person
in East Timor had died of hunger since independence. "Every day I have people coming to
my door who are slowly starving," says Bishop of Baucau Basílio do Nascimento. "Are you saying
these people do not exist?" Even if the April presidential election is supposed to give these
citizens a voice, many are so disenfranchised that they see little point in participating in
the democratic process. Back in her shack on the northern coast of East Timor, Pereira just laughs
when asked which candidate she will choose to lead her country. "When I am asked to vote for
President, I will just close my eyes and pick one," she says. "The leaders don't care about
people like me, so why should I care about any of them?"
With reporting by Marcelino X. Magno/Dili