Living without why


I am enjoying reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s In the Time of Madness, which is about Indonesia and East Timor in 1998-99. He has a simple, no-nonsense style with minimal ego. (Or at least not big as one might expect from hotshot correspondent.)

One passage in particular struck me. After a visit to the church in Liquiça in June 1999, the journalists and their fixer are told to leave by the sacred church attendants. The scars of the April massacre were visible in spite of the Indonesian whitewash. The town was full of refugees and red and white flags.

The passage reveals the power of living without why:

We climbed into the car and drove away from the church and towards the west. Within five minutes Liquisa was behind us, and we were back on the empty road in a landscape of scrubby grass and open-sided huts.

“No one will talk,” said Fernão. “The driver wants to go back.”

Then a man became visible on the road in front of us, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. He was walking towards Liquisa with the sun behind him, and a large and awkwardly shaped branch was balanced on his shoulders. He walked very slowly towards us and, as he passed the car, Fernão spoke to him through the open window. He looked ahead and behind him, but the road was empty. Carefully, he laid down his branch and climbed into the car.

He was from a village called Hatoguesi in the hills above Liquisa, and he had been here for two months with his wife, his five children and all his neighbors. The militia arrived in Hatoguesi one day and ordered them to leave. They burned a few houses, shot several cattle and buffaloes, and lamed a horse. There wasn’t much of an argument.

[He said], “[The militia] say ‘If you vote for independence then, when the Western people go back to their countries, we will come and finish you off.’ They say the Western people are only staying for two months, and when they are gone, we will be finished.”

“And what do you want? Independence or autonomy?”

“Independence,” he said. “We all do.”


Fernão mouthed to me we must go.

I said to the man, “Why do you support independence?”

Fernão translated, and the answer came immediately back. “He says ‘Yes, I support independence.'”

“Yes, but why does he support independence?”

Fernão put the question again, more elaborately.

“He says that all the people in the village support Falintil and support independence.”

“But why?”

Fernão began speaking again, a lengthy, patient explanation. The man nodded, but he was frowning and he kept interrupting, as if what Fernão was saying made no sense. Soon the interview had turned into a conversation, and the two were first smiling, then chuckling and finally laughing out loud. For the question was absurd. Why independence? There was no answer. It was like questioning a natural drive: why breathe, why eat, why marry? Without independence, Timorese were like men without air or rice or women.

No honest means in Dili


I was surprised to find, a couple of years ago, that the Portuguese administration of Timor struggled with urban unemployment long before I had imagined. The question of how to keep Dili safe from “indigenous who had no honest means of subsistence” arises in the Boletim Oficial de Timor in 1938.

An ‘edital’ from that year reveals that many Timorese were coming to the city in hope of finding work, and unable to places, according to the Administration, they were “induced to the practice of robbery.”

To that end, the Administrator of Dili prohibited Timorese from outside of Dili to take up positions without prior knowledge of the government. Instead it tried to require employers of Timorese labor from outside of Dili to procure this labor through the administration. Salaries were also to be paid via the Portuguese administration.


Whether this actually occurred in practice is unclear, but it shows that the Portuguese colonial administration made early attempts at controlling movement and the salaried economy well before Dili was as large as it is today.

I know the Indonesian administration tried to control movement in and out of Dili, often to no avail. It would be interesting to look at issues of migration and urbanization in Dili, starting before World War II and continue to the present, putting the hyped “gang violence” issue into greater perspective.

Xavier you are number one


Xavier was the first.

In one of its last acts, the first Timorese parliament, dominated by some of his long-time foes, finally decided to face up to the facts: Xavier was the first President of Timor-Leste. He deserves to be officially recognized as such, with all of the symbolic and humble material privileges that may bring.

In speaking to Lusa, Xavier offered more of his typical wily humor, reporting that Xanana and Ramos Horta called him today. “They congratulated me, but it’s not even my birthday today. I guess they have something to offer me anyways.” Clearly, Xavier is aware of the power he will yield in an eventual unity or coalition government.

He went on to say, “It’s too bad this had to come so late, but thanks to everybody. I still have one or two months to go back home and enjoy what is to come. Even if it’s just eating potatoes.”

I have written about him in various different moments on this blog.

I think appreciating Xavier is key to understanding East Timor as a nation. The man is fascinating, is articulate in many languages, entirely approachable, and dare I say, a living national treasure. (And it’s rare I can say that about people who have endorsed marrying off teenage girls!)

If I had the time, I would be on his front porch tomorrow to ask about writing his biography.

Constitutional kangkung water

The Timorese constitution, and its vagueness in the Portuguese language, is causing a lot of consternation in Dili. According to arguments by José da Teixeira and Sahe da Silva, the two spokesman for Fretilin, they believe the President is obligated to call on the party with the ‘most-voted’ to form government first. The phrase ‘most-voted’ does indeed figure prominently in Section 106 which states

O Primeiro-Ministro é indigitado pelo partido mais votado ou pela aliança de partidos com maioria parlamentar e nomeado pelo Presidente da República, ouvidos os partidos políticos representados no Parlamento Nacional.

The official English translation, which is NOT a direct, word-for-word translation, but instead captures the spirit and practice of this form of government:

The Prime Minister shall be designated by the political party or alliance of political parties with parliamentary majority and shall be appointed by the President of the Republic, after consultation with the political parties sitting in the National Parliament.

So the English translation is specific, stating that either option (party or alliance of parties) must have a parliamentary majority. This is not the case in the Portuguese version.

A Portuguese commentator on the ETAN Timor list reminds that Portugal’s most famous Prime Minister, Mário Soares, took office after his party won only 34% of the vote in 1976. But this only occurred because none of the losing parties were willing to enter into coalition with each other. (The parallels between that election and this one would make an interesting post of its own.)

Sahe and Teixeira also point out that the constitution refers to the possibility of a coalition of parties forming government if they are recognized before the vote. They refer to this as a ‘pre-election’ coalition. Their argument appears to have some validity, but is not specifically set out by the constitution itself. And most observers from European parliamentary democracies would point out that post-election horse-trading and coalition-making is a vital feature of this form of representative democracy.

Xanana appears to be drawing together a coalition of the major opposition parties. The main sticking point was La Sama and the Partido Democrático, who feel undercut by the rapid organization of CNRT, a party which took away a lot of the PD’s support base.

La Sama has been villified, ridiculed and sidelined for much of the past couple of years by the ruling party. He also has good reasons to want to stymie Fretilin. Yet interestingly, in these past few days, he drew his power from his hesitance to align with Fretilin OR a potential CNRT-ASDT-PSD coalition.

If he had publicly agreed to allow for a Fretilin government, and agreed to work with them on passing a National Budget, he would have supported the (rather eccentric) Teixeira/Da Silva argument that a Fretilin government is a legal and a pragmatic option.

Indications are, however, that he has agreed to ‘coalesce’ into a CNRT-ASDT-PSD coalition. Yet for all of the reasons I have stated above about rivalries and potential shifting political groupings, I fear that this coalition is starting from a weak footing. And the Fretilin’s questioning of the constitutional legitimacy of a Presidential ‘invitation’ to this coalition lingers.

Things are looking about as clear as a the water in a Caicoli kangkung field at the moment.

No joke

Fernanda Borges, ex-Minister of Finance under UNTAET and founder of PUN, Partido de Unidade Nacional, will quite possibly sit in the next session of Parliament.

Of the new ‘mini-parties’ PUN is ahead of the pack. The party is strong in Ermera and Bobanaro and reportedly enjoys some support from Colimau 2000, a disaffected cult-like group in those districts.

In Ermera, a highly populated district with a large electorate, her party was polling 20+% with over half of votes counted. If the trend continues over the last 100,000 vote yet to be counted, Ermera alone will deliver her a seat. PUN also polled well in Bobanaro. (It should be noted that Bobanaro showed significantly lower voter turnout than any other district: only 60% of the electorate voted.)

PUN, according to the Australian Labour Party’s political party briefing, is a center-right party which advocates minimal government intervention in the market. It upholds what it deems to be Christian values. Borges resigned from the UNTAET-era cabinet because of concerns over good governance and, quoting her resignation letter, over “lack of transparency in developing policy.” She is keen on extending basic services to rural areas and implementing pre-natal and maternal health programs.

If elected, she will be one of the strongest female voices in parliament. Additionally, the result is increasingly pointing towards a coalition in government and so one or more seats could provide significant bargaining power to PUN.

L7’s UNDERTIM and the monarchists of PPT-KOTA may also gain a seat, saving them from oblivion.

The other mini-parties such as Abílio Araujo’s PNT, João Saldanha’s Republican Party, the Socialists, and the Christian Democrats did not fare as well. It will be interesting to see what is next for them.

The success of PUN may indicate the importance of ties to highly populated areas for small parties, but it may also indicate that voters across Timor are starting to more than ever feel free to vote their conscience. And perhaps PUN and Borges simply appealed more to the electorate.