Q: What is going in Timor?
A: After 24 years of Indonesian military occupation in 1999 over 78% of the population voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum. The Indonesian military, with Timorese proxies, perpetrated one of the most devastating scorched earth campaigns in modern history in the territory: stealing, burning, raping and murdering. In 2002, after a transitional administration under the UN, East Timor gained independence. The government is a parliamentary democracy based on the Portuguese system, with the Prime Minister and his cabinet in control and the President largely as a figurehead.
The ruling party, Fretilin, was the party that unilaterally declared independence in late 1975 and organized the military resistance to the subsequent Indonesisan occupation.
In April and May 2006, brewing conflicts within in the Armed Forces and between the Armed Forces and the Police exploded. Violence by members of these security forces (and ex-members) created massive instability and led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Rivalries or divisions between Westerners and Easterners were aggravated during the course of the crisis and have served as the pretext for much of the violence in April and May.
The question of the illegal distribution of assault rifles brought down the Alkatiri government, although as of February 2007, there has been no proof of Alkatiri’s criminal knowledge of this distribution. His ex-Minister of the Interior was convicted of illegally distributing arms and is serving a 7-1/2 year prison sentence.
In the months following this political crisis, martial arts groups began to occupy the security vacuum and continue to be behind much of the violence in Dili.
Tens of thousands were displaced by the political instability. Disgruntled ex-FDTL forces and deserters, both from the Army and Police alike now threaten to destabilize the country further.
Elections were conducted in May and June 2007 in which José Ramos Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and opponent of Fretilin, was elected. The parliamentary election in late June necessitated the formation of a coalition government. The UN mission (UNMIT) continues in full force, which is expanded and meant to keep the peace through a massive policing contingent in coordination with the Australian “International Stabilization Force.” This Force has pledged to stay in Timor through 2008.
The Timorese government has insisted on peaceful attempts to bring military deserters down from the mountains (with the exception of a seige in March 2007). Quite unexpectedly, on February 11, 2008, ex-member of Timorese armed forces Major Alfredo Reinado apparently invaded the Presidential home of José Ramos Horta, where he was apparently shot dead by the President’s military security team. The President was later shot by assailants — apparently Reinado’s men. Following this, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão was attacked, allegedly by Reinado’s second-in-command. While this appeared on first impression a coup attempt, it appears that the story is not that straight-forward.
Q: Why does Timor matter?
A: Well, for diplomats and development hacks, according to prominent members of the UN, Timor was intended to be a model “test case” for state building.
For finance types, oil tycoons and the Australian government, Timor matters because of the petro resources lying in the sea to the south of the island. Their total value is estimated at over US$8 billion.
The straits of Ombai, to the north of the island, represent the most attractive deep water trench for passage from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean for both whales and nuclear submarines.
For the rest of us, Timor matters because there are about 1 million people there living in dire poverty, and half are under the age of 18. It is a beautiful place, with extremely rich and diverse traditions. In 1999, the people bravely expressed their will to determine their own future, well aware of the risks involved.
Q: Is there a way out of the “crisis”?
A: Most observers believe that the first step will be disarm all of the various disgruntled non-government forces, with the promise of serious security sector reform. The leader of one of these groups appeared in photos with a rocket launcher which he allegedly bought over the Indonesian border. The brazen attack on the highest institutions of the Timorese state in February 2008 by the disgruntled forces reveals that they are still armed and willing to resort to violence.
Clearly a negotiated settlement with Timorese authorities will be necessary to disarm the disgruntled parties and ensure some semblance of justice for the violence of 2006 and 2008.
Q:What language do they speak in Timor?
A: First of all, this is an extremely loaded question. Be careful with the language issue in relation to Timor, it can get you in real hot water! The lingua franca of Timor is Tetum (yes, it is officially spelled with an “m” at the end). The other official language of the country is Portuguese. The Portuguese presence in Timor lasted over 450 years. The vast majority of Timorese cannot converse or read in Portuguese. School children — and their teachers — are currently learning, although there is a severe lack of books in the country. Although Indonesian is the language that today’s young adults were educated in, the political elite considers the language unimportant to Timor’s future development. English is widely spoken after a number of UN missions. Timor has over a dozen local languages that remain mother tongues.
Bottom line: the Timorese are accomplished polyglots.
Q: How dangerous is Dili?
A: After the assassination attempts of February 2008, Dili emerged from long curfews to experience a relative calm. Yet ever since 2006, Dili has not been the comfortable or relaxed place it once was, and many in Dili have suffered from extreme stress and intimidation. Certain parts of the city remained dicey areas, including sometimes even the hospital and many Easterners are quite scared to ride public transit and go to school in Dili. That said, the violence prior to February 2007 was seemingly contained to feuding martial arts groups. There were a few spontaneous attacks against students, missionaries and other hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they were exceptional. The media had a way of making the situation sound apocalyptic, and embassies travel warnings are very alarmist.
Q: How do I help?
A: This is usually the hardest question. In this case, money is not lacking for the “crisis” and the refugees. If anything there is too much in the wrong places.
If you are Australian, pressure your government not bully the Timorese into a raw deal over the oil fields and to stop being so close to the anti-government forces in West of the country.
If you are from a Western power, particularly the US, keep an eye on the support that your government is giving to the Indonesian military. Many of those who willfully destroyed East Timor, scarring the country with murderous scorched earth campaign, were promoted and are serving in other parts of Indonesia. Instead they should be brought to justice for the crimes of 1999. This issue is still very important to East Timorese victims.
I think it is worthwhile following Timor in the media and showing support and interest for Timorese civil society over the long-term. Issues of governance, aid and bilateral support are all areas where tax-payers and voters of other countries can impact life in Timor.