Victims of their own success

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 14/08/07):

Sporadic gang violence, rape, and arson attacks following the appointment of a new government in East Timor have underscored the country’s continuing fragility eight years after the international community, improvising on a theme developed by Tony Blair, intervened to end Indonesian control.

As with other noted “humanitarian interventions” in Kosovo and Sierra Leone during the same period, Timor is seriously unfinished business – but it no longer enjoys the political attention that briefly made it an international cause celebre. As a result, the nation-building agenda laid out following formal independence in 2002 remains as daunting as ever, and may yet fail.

Internal factors are just as important. Timorese society is deeply divided, not least between the east, the heartland of the pre-independence Fretilin movement’s resistance to Indonesian rule, and western areas. Despite considerable potential oil and gas revenue secured by a 2006 deal with Australia, most Timorese remain desperately poor, with up to 80% unemployed.

Language is another barrier. Tetum, the dominant local language, vies with Indonesian and Portuguese, now designated, oddly, as Timor’s official tongue.

The wounds of last year’s army mutiny and the subsequent violence and political showdown have yet to heal. According to the UN, around 150,000 Timorese – some 15% of the population – was uprooted and many people remain so. This crisis formed a bitter backdrop to parliamentary elections in June.

Fretilin emerged with the most seats but forfeited power to a more numerous coalition led by its former Falintil guerrilla commander, Xanana Gusmao. Mr Gusmao, East Timor’s first president, was named as prime minister last week by his sometime ally and the current president, Jose Ramos Horta.

At his swearing-in ceremony Mr Gusmao vowed to bridge the country’s divisions: “No political party, no institutional entity, no citizen will be excluded from the political process … The new government’s first priority is to regain the confidence of the institutions of state.” But Fretilin’s leader, the former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, declared the new government illegal and announced a parliamentary boycott.

Although Mr Alkatiri condemned election-related violence, including attacks on UN personnel and Australian peacekeepers, the UN has pinned the blame on Fretilin supporters. So far Fretilin has ignored appeals by NGOs and election observers to rejoin the political process.

While Timor’s troubles no longer directly concern Mr Blair and others who viewed their solution as integral to a new international order, they remain a cause for concern in Canberra, the leading bilateral aid donor. Australia also has about 1,000 troops in the country, part of the international stabilisation force supporting the UN mission, and there is little prospect of an early departure.

Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, accused Fretilin of responsibility for the upheavals in a recent commentary. “Its leaders say they are not ordering or even sanctioning violence. But these were Fretilin mobs that were rioting and Fretilin’s leaders could have stopped the riots … Fretilin is facing a Hamas-like moment. It must decide whether it is essentially an armed militia or a respectable political party committed to democracy.”

The insecurity attendant on the political process was undermining attempts to attract foreign investment or develop job-creating industries such as tourism, Mr Sheridan added. Australia would have to stay engaged for many years to come – or risk witnessing a civil war.

There are other ways of looking at external involvement. East Timor’s chronic dependence on military support, on an estimated $3bn in foreign aid in recent years, and on a bewildering series of UN missions (the fifth since 1999, Unmit, was organised last year) was a hot election issue, with many voters wondering exactly what their hard-won sovereignty really means.

According to Loro Horta, writing at Open Democracy, such worries point towards a more fundamental dilemma: what he called “the loss of trust by the people in its once near-mythical leaders”.

Just as Fretilin was increasingly seen not as a national movement but a party dominated by easterners, he argued that:

“Xanana Gusmao himself – the once revered guerrilla leader and father of the nation looked upon as a pillar of national unity and impartiality – has also suffered a significant demystification.

“Horta and Gusmao face the consequences of having made various deals and concessions in order to secure support … They may remain the nation’s most respected politicians, but some of their prestige has been severely dented by the difficulties of the post-independence years.”

In short, the men who led the liberation struggle are struggling to secure their achievement – while former international cheerleaders turn their backs and Indonesia, a giant neighbour with a long memory, watches quietly from across the 1999 border.

If they fail, it is unclear who or what will follow.