The garden of earthly delights

I feel the need to respond to Pedro Rosa Mendes’ critical meditation on Timor’s existence published last week in the Público. To give you an idea, the piece is peppered with subheadings like “The Indonesian occupation was implacable and the Timorese leadership is dismantling with zeal all that was left: dignity”.

One feels in reading his writing, that he is describing episodes, scenes, moments in time — much is repulsive, screaming out from the Timorese landscape. It’s a bit like a large canvas, where different scenes are occuring in different places, but there is unity in the way in which the scenes jar and disturb.

He paints a grim picture [my translation]

The sympathy for the Timorese cause stagnated into an ideal of society and of the individual that is disproven by frustrating daily experience. Ignorance, trauma, misery and neglect, with a sprinkling of the poisons of complacency, paternalism and piety, have made banal behaviors of predation, dishonesty, egotism and bad-faith. Solidarity, generosity and gratitude are in the minority. What is criminal in other places are common rites, in the Timor of today, in offices, businesses, in the market, in traffic and in the home.

The “historic leadership” rules over the impossible country, in passive civil disobedience, that thinks and acts as though everybody owed them everything and as though everything was for the taking, from the Petroleum to investment to international attention. Coveting and social jealousies infect the workplace, the political, social, and even familial spheres. “Here everybody gives orders and nobody obeys,” to cite an old Timorese [man] educated in principles which have since lost their value in the country.

Reaction to Rosa Mendes’ writing was swift from Portugal. It was called “a punch in the gut” to the concerned Portuguese public, whose illusions and romantic ideas Rosa Mendes so forcefully shoots down. Xanana himself even commented on the piece, which was timed for his state visit to Lisbon.

Few of Rosa Mendes’ points are far from my own impression of the state of things. And I have thrown myself headlong into histories of violence in Timor for the past couple of years, so the nightmarish is never far away for me.

And yet, with distance, I’m able to focus on the spontaneously positive parts of the sometimes grotesque landscape. (For example, Veronica Martins’ luminous tais pictured below. Or the NGO Forum’s forceful broadside addressed to the Prime Minister and his coalition called simply “The Law does not only apply to small and poor people“.)

Perhaps I mention Portuguese agronomist, anthropologist, artist, and poet Ruy Cinatti too much here. But he really touched a nerve when he captured a paradoxical feeling of connection-alienation with Timor. When he wrote in devastating verse “The Timorese will only be right/when they kill me” he was not only expressing the profound injustice in colonization. He articulated how a raw encounter between the self and the Other provokes a (sublime?) impulse to self-destruction. It drags us away from comfort and towards dark reaches of our being.

(I would argue this “raw encounter” and its impacts are not necessarily unidirectional, not only coming from an unequal power dynamic between West and Other. It bears asking: how has the intense, “raw encounter” with the malai changed the Timorese?)

It is the collision of Construction and Destruction. On facing panels.


Osan for the old

Pensions. Probably one of the least sexy topics on the face of the earth.

But if we are interested in economic growth, poverty alleviation, and not pushing a cynical double standard, then we need to consider the power of social pensions. (Xanana in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera attacks those in the international community that would have the State buy banks, but would criticize him for social spending. And he is on to something.)

And the model of “development” that the “international community” pushes is one based on work. It implicitly assumes people in poorer economies are lazy and must be made to work. Think about the lexicon: the emphasis on “livelihoods”, “cash for work”, and training programs.

And yet, is there a major OECD nation that did not use a pension system to consolidate the state during the tumultuous 20th century? These systems were in fact based on the notion that each individual citizen has rights, irrespective of his or her ability to work. And just look, even in an country like the US with huge mistrust for ‘big government’, the social security system is essentially untouchable. It is a compact between the people and the state.

While the AMP government is busy being battered for its belief that money can buy the peace, I think it is correct to point out that cash transfers to the oldest and most vulnerable can have a major impact in alleviating poverty propelling Timor.

I am a little worried that Timorese officials have been visiting Brazil for best practice. Brazil has a quite complex system that seems far from what Timor hopes to do, which is transfer about $20/month to older people. Perhaps an example like Lesotho (watch this interesting documentary by Dutch NGO World Granny) would be more appropriate.

Well-designed pension systems take into account all of the social contours and dynamics in a country.

I remember a trip we took to Baguia to deliver rice to an older woman, to find out later that it had been stolen by the neighbors.

It will not be easy for the government to roll out a pension scheme for older Timorese. I hope that the politicians give the Ministry of Social Solidarity the time, space and resources it needs to design something effective.

I fear, given the current political climate, that this will not be the case. And I would hope that FRETILIN also investigate, as opposition, what kind of social pension scheme it would implement if in power.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the Petroleum Fund Law is untouchable, and that Timor should stick to withdrawing what it is allowed by law and nothing more. But a pension scheme is still possible in Timor if it’s possible in Lesotho.

If you need any more convincing about the feasibility or effectiveness of social pensions, take a moment to read Helpage International’s quite digestible materials.

Not so fast

This week’s ruling of the Court of Appeals, rendering the AMP government’s budget unconstitutional, has to be the biggest single decision made by the judiciary since independence.

Three justices, including decision-writing justice Ivo Rosa, ruled that any transfer of more than $391 million (a figure called the Estimated Sustainable Income or ESI) from the Petroleum Fund is not permissible given the context and the letter of the law.

A number of issues are at stake here, but the biggest issue (as even the World Bank sees it) is how East Timor’s national survival will be brokered, with all of the implied difficult present/future trade-offs.

I mentioned the questions around the Budget in late August, shortly after three parties (FRETILIN, PUN and KOTA) came together to file a petition with the courts challenging the constitutionality of the Midterm Budget. For background please consult Lao Hamutuk’s site.

The plaintiffs threw a number of arguments at the Court, which the Court rationalized into four main lines of argument, and only some of them “stuck.” (Excuse my lack of legal knowledge, this is a lay-person’s analysis of 54 page judgment.)

(1) The decision of the Court of Appeals states that it is not the competence of the Court to decide on whether the internal proceedings of Parliament were legal or not.

(2) The Court ruled with the plaintiffs on their second argument, which is that the Economic Stabilization Fund represented in essence a “blank check” to government, which is not allowed in the Constitution. The Court found that in approving the Budget, parliament is not a merely authorizing, but instead, is participating in a political decision which “sets out certain lines of policy” and guarantees certain rights. The Court decided that the Timorese constitution foresees a “discrimination of expenses” and seeks to prevent “secret funds.” It found that the Economic Stabilization Fund ($240 million) was indeed in violation of the spirit of Article 145 (N. 2) of the Constitution.

(3) The Court rejected the argument that the Budget disturbed the balance of powers by allocating the Economic Stabilization Fund to the Executive Branch.

(4) On the last argument of the plaintiffs, the Court found illegal a withdrawal in excess of that set out by the Petroleum Fund Law. The Court ruled that the Petroleum Fund Law has the status of a “reinforced law” — that it in effect outranks the Midterm Budget Law in question.

The AMP coalition has reacted by questioning the legitimacy of a decision made by foreigners (all have Portuguese citizenship, one is also Timorese). This is particularly ironic because Xanana has been one of the greatest advocates of the Portuguese language in Timor, and the orthodoxy of language usage has left the Timorese judiciary dependent on Portuguese judges. AMP has also claimed that all of their spending is legal, until the day that the decision is published in the Diário da República (expected to be November 17).

Xanana and Emília Pires were featured on an Al Jazeera programme defending their budget, Xanana saying that the AMP “had to buy the peace” — the money was for IDPs and to fill people’s bellies in hard times. It’s true that at a certain point in the year, rice prices presented a major challenge to the government.

In some sense, the issue was not so much with the idea of spending more to “buy the peace” but it was the way in which the AMP went about it — no transparency, no debate, no deliberation. That in the end, is what the law requires.

Much is made of the unpredictability of Timorese politics and statecraft. But what about the unpredictable and positive developments in Timorese democracy? Outside people are quick to speak of “crisis” — like BBC, which already concludes “if this row escalates, East Timor could face another political crisis.”

Let’s not jump to the conclusion that this decision renders Timor ungovernable, or that the judiciary has overstepped its bounds. Only a truly participatory democracy will allow for confrontation and contestation. I would be more worried if Timorese democracy were consolidated in a silent and consensual manner, hidden from public view, like a Cambodia or a Mozambique.

In how many post-conflict countries do you have such a vigorous, public negotiation over the people’s resources? I hope this is a precedent, and that this is just the beginning of more real debate about Timor’s future.

Priceless tais

The tais exhibition on display at the Suai Media Space is like fireworks on textile. I highly recommend it. Also fascinating to see how much exchange and influence there is from other neighboring islands. The one featured above is a creation of Veronica Martins of Kamenassa, Suai, now in the collection of Friends of Suai.

Kamenassa was the center of Timor’s greatest rebellion against the Portuguese, in the 1720s.

May and November

Today, phone calls and emails, online chats… All with one profoundly positive message. History does not make us. We make history. I have not felt like this since May 20, 2002. And one Timorese friend made the comparison over email as well

After Timorese independence, the election of Barack Obama is one of the great events of the 21st century. It does not matter what may come to pass afterwards. The great step has already been taken.

There is something very true about this feeling. In fact it is not a release, or a moment to kick back. What it means is, an irreversible historical adjustment has taken place. It’s a restoration that brings with it enormous implications and responsibilities.

I wrote on May 21, 2002

Now I can say, that while living in East Timor for 9 months has only deepened for me the complexity of the words “justice” and “independence,” I can see today as the truly emotional and unforgettable day that it is.

Strangely, these feelings have taken many of us by surprise even though we have been working and building up to this day for nearly seven months.

Postscript: I just watched John McCain’s concession speech. Fascinating how the phrase “we make history” has such a different ring to it when he uses it!

Tetum is a more precise language with its two first person plural pronouns ami and ita.

I’m pretty sure McCain meant ami mak halo istoria (the “exclusive we”). This pronoun refers to the speaker and others but excludes the person addressed. Whereas if Obama were to say it, I think he would be using the “inclusive we” (meaning a more abstract all of us), ita mak halo istoria.