Countdown To Real Independence

WORDS & PHOTO Klas Lundström

Blackouts remain a significant part of East Timor’s capital, Dili, although Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has promised the country’s thirteen districts electricity by the end of the year – a promise which Gusmao is to realise with money from the country’s oil fund, a fund increasingly tainted by corruption scandals and the falling US dollar.

In front of Dili’s tiny harbour, headlights illuminate the night. This is the United Nations’ industrial area, protected by warning signs, barbed wire and two bored security guards. They chain smoke cigarettes, talk and watch the night traffic pass by. What do the guards protect? Containers, generators, water tanks and tractors – a surplus of logistics that nobody uses in a society that lacks roads, clean water and electricity. Instead, this equipment has ended its days here, in the transit hall of the UN.

A fleet of white Toyota Land Cruiser’s takes to the streets. The trademark for the UN staff represents a third of the country’s vehicles. For many Timorese, 2012 is going to be the decisive year – a year of elections for president and parliament, and the final year of the UN force, UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (Unmit), which will begin its withdrawal from East Timor after 12 years.

A presence that began shortly before the bloody referendum of 1999, which ended in massacres and East Timor’s final liberation from Indonesia. East Timor was a de facto UN state between 1999 and 2002 until Gusmao - for many years a freedom hero in a prison cell in Jakarta – became the country’s first elected President.

Now, ten years down the road, the economy is in disarray as a result of the weak US dollar – East Timor’s official currency. People ask themselves, the day UN staff leave, who will be able to afford an orange juice for US$4 ($4.80), let alone pay for a room at one of the capital’s many luxury hotels?

The economic outlook, dependent on foreign investors, is from a Timorese perspective untenable.

»It seems to be a culture that is difficult to change; the Timorese remains the servant and the foreigner its master, no matter if it’s Portuguese, Indonesian or UN people who hold the political and economic power,« an Australian media worker at Hotel Timor says. Gyorgy Kakuk, spokesman for the UN mission, glances at the TV in the cafeteria inside the UN compound in Dili. The TV shows pictures of burning buildings in Afghanistan.

»They have a real headache compared to us over here,« he says. When the Hungarian joined the mission in 2009, the country seemed to be heading towards stability and peace. That is why the UN must leave East Timor, he says. »To do otherwise would be embarrassing. If the Government can’t control the country without the assistance of the UN, it would be proof that things are not working at all here.«

The democratic institutions are in place thanks to the UN, says Gyorgy Kakuk. »To enter East Timor was a bit of a long shot, so in the end you can say that this mission has been a successful one. Many fear that violence will return when we pull out, but you have to understand that the United Nations can’t stay here forever. It wouldn’t be good, for anyone.«

So, what will happen with the inflated economy the day the country’s current upper class - the UN staff - pulls out? Kakuk admits that the UN has helped to shape an untenable economic situation, but, on the other hand, he adds, »you must not forget that this country is dependent on goods to be imported, which inflates the prices on everything«.

According to UN studies, the economy will not be significantly affected by the UN withdrawal.

»In the end«, says Gyorgy Kakuk, »it’s up to the Government in this country to build industries, take care of the natural resources and increase the number of jobs for young people. Half the population is illiterate and among women that figure is even higher. So there are still things to do here, to say the least.«

On another street, the dry heat is taking its toll on the people waiting outside the office of Angela Freitas, presidential candidate for the Worker’s Party (Partido Trabalhista).

From here, Freitas is planning her campaign with a few associates. The country, she says, »is sinking like the Titanic«.

»If nothing is done today, if the same leadership will be given another five years to rule, East Timor will be looked upon as a failed state.«

Freitas grew up with politics; her father founded the Worker’s Party in 1974, the same year that the Portuguese pulled out of then Portuguese Timor after 500 years of colonial rule. When Indonesia invaded East Timor, nine days after Portugal’s final withdrawal, Freitas had already sought refuge in the mountains, after her family had being chased there by the independent movement Fretilin. For many years, the Timorese united under the same banner against the Indonesian occupation, but lingering social, domestic and internal political conflicts would soon float to the surface and begin to mark splits on the walls.

The result can be seen today; East Timor is becoming more and more divided by poverty, gangs and criminal elements that control certain parts of the districts and urban suburbs, in turn backed and armed by different political forces. »These people, mostly young men without jobs, are the future of the country,« says Freitas. »But they lack every interest in social issues or political ideas, they either make their living committing themselves to crime or jump on the first flight out of here.«

Freitas’ political programme was titled »Revolution Now«; her platform is nationwide and hopeful - but the political hierarchy she and her faithful are up against also have foreign support. Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd recently met Gusmao and President Jose Ramos Horta in East Timor, a meeting that ended in closer ties between the Labor-led Government in Canberra and their counterparts in Dili. The meeting also resulted in an expanded aid package from Australia to East Timor, worth A$150 million dollars.

It’s clear that the political stability stands or falls with the current leadership. Any domestic policy changes could quickly make foreign investors think twice, something that would have a devastating impact. Freitas is aware of all this, but is still keen to investigate any foreign contracts signed since 2002.

»It’s a promise to the Timorese voters. They deserve to know whether all these contracts and free rides given to foreign investments are clear of corruption and nepotism.« The oil industry, she continues, is part of a »neo-colonial agenda that ultimately does not offer more than peanuts to the Timorese people.«

One of East Timor’s highest peaks is the mountain of Matebian; »the mountain of the dead«. It was here, surrounded by the souls of their ancestors, that the Timorese resistance movement made its last stand before the war against the Indonesian occupation forces changed into clandestine guerilla warfare. The Indonesian air force, backed by Washington, finally brought the Fretilin guerilla to its knees with napalm and bombardments over Matebian.

Today, the results of the chemical warfare can be seen in the central highlands; the natural springs have been damaged, the infrastructure still resembles that of a war zone, and the harvest often goes to waste.

Apotino has lived on the slopes of Matebian all his life. He used to organise the transport of food, medicine and information up to the Fretilin forces further up on the slopes.

»They never caught us«, the old man remembers, »they didn’t know what path to use and they were also scared of fronting us face to face. The Indonesian forces knew that Matebian is a sacred land for us.«

Nowadays, Apotino earns his living by cockfighting; the closest East Timor comes to a national sport. Apotino and the rest of Baguia’s inhabitants live in a no man’s land where the past and the present have become a single state of mind. Death is a natural thing here and it represents all that got lost in the quest for independence. Matebian finally got electricity in 2009, but it still takes four hours on the back of a truck to get there from the main road along the north coast.

Apotino calls the political elite »an opportunistic clique«.

»They make sure to have plenty for themselves, but for the rest of us – nothing.«

He falls silent. Is he going to vote in the coming election? Apotino remains silent and shrugs.

In the presidential palace, built by Chinese workers and finished in 2010, Ramos Horta explains why East Timor has enjoyed economic growth for the fourth year in a row.

»We have achieved amazing things since 2002. We still have a lot of problems, yes, but with wise leadership, even these issues will be resolved. The UN departure in 2012 is a necessary step in our continuing development.«

The agriculture sector and the education system must be improved, the President adds.

»The agriculture needs more political guidance, as well as the health sector needs better focus. But it has improved, what used to be a system of high fees for advisers and foreign people has gotten a lot better.«

The question now, for the Timorese and East Timor’s foreign partners, is whether Ramos Horta intends to run for a second term. »My head tells me that I shouldn’t run, and colleagues abroad and in East Timor are encouraging me to run for re-election. I still haven’t made up my mind.«

Ten years down the road, he predicts, East Timor will be a functioning democracy: »But that requires wise leadership.«

The essay was first published in The New Zealand Herald


Also read Klas Lundström's book on East Timor: Land of Crocodiles (in Swedish)