Hanging on the wall of a conference room in the office of the Prime Minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, is a satellite photo of Dili on fire. Smoke billows from scores of incandescent spots all over the city.
The image was taken from the fires of September 1999, when Indonesian-backed militias torched the country. Sadly, it is an image that is starting to become synonymous with the recent history of this newly independent country.
Just six months after independence, there were the fires of 4 December 2002, when the killing of a student by police triggered riots and the burning of shops and the home of Alkatiri.
Then there were the fires of 28 April this year when a demonstration by sacked soldiers was hijacked by political opportunists and some of the mass of unemployed youth. This led to five deaths and the burning of several cars outside the Prime Minister’s office, and the burning of many homes.
In between, there was, in April 2005, a tense, three-week demonstration by the Catholic Church against the government. This ended peacefully but, like 28 April, it came close to being hijacked and turning violent.
These demonstrations reflect the frustration and disappointment of people who expected that independence would bring rapid change to their lives. But they are also an indication of a government that is unpopular and increasingly perceived as autocratic.
The task of building a new nation from scratch, especially after the devastation of 1999, was a massive undertaking from the beginning. But the significant achievements since independence in May 2002 have been overshadowed, and the nation set back many years.
Until 28 April, East Timor was gaining a reputation as one of the success stories of post-conflict reconstruction. After recovering from the December 2002 riots, the UN peacekeeping mission and local security forces had brought stability and development to East Timor.
Last year new laws were passed for investment and petroleum development, and the country began to attract tourists.
East Timor was touted as a model for other post-conflict endeavours including Iraq. For a country in which only a handful of the working-age population is formally employed, East Timor was remarkably safe, until recently.
There was no need for razor wire and elaborate high-security technology that is mandatory in Papua New Guinea and other similarly poor countries in Africa. It was safe to wander the streets by day and night.
The president of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, remarked on the high degree of stability that prevailed when he visited East Timor just two weeks before the riots.
On 10 April, he lauded ‘the considerable progress the Timorese people have achieved in the past six and a half years’.
‘The bustling markets, the rebuilt schools, the functioning Government and above all, the peace and stability, attest to sensible leadership and sound decisions.’
That East Timor’s steady development from early 2003 to April 2006 could be brought undone by a trivial dispute over discrimination and conditions in the armed forces underscores the fragility of this emerging nation.
And it highlights the need for Australia [and New Zealand] to make a substantial and long-term commitment to the development of East Timor, a country of great human and natural resource potential.
The World Bank and the UN had warned there were fault lines that could easily lead to unrest.
The government, dominated by former exiles from Mozambique and Australia, had been told that the population perceived it as remote, insensitive and centralised.
The government has made mistakes in its handling of the dispute with the soldiers. The decision to sack them provided the spark for the riots.
One telling fact is that after sacking the soldiers, the head of East Timor’s armed forces, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak, embarked on an extended international tour to Malaysia and the US to look at military equipment. Last week he was in Lisbon.
It is unfortunate that government members routinely accept invitations from foreign governments and organisations. More time could be spent at home rather than travelling abroad. East Timor needs to make the switch from running an international independence lobby to nation-building.
While Ruak is a veteran of the resistance army, most government members did not live through the hell of the Indonesian years. Some have brought back the less desirable traits of the former colonial era.
While Alkatiri is perceived as arrogant, he is far from the worst offender in this regard. Much worse is the senior minister who refuses to speak the main indigenous language, Tetum, which is the national language alongside Portuguese, the official language.
This minister speaks Portuguese while chairing meetings and visiting the districts where no-one understands her.
Or take the Australian-educated minister who threatens staff with the sack, including former resistance fighters.
This included the time when civil servants in his department had wanted to stay at home on All Souls’ Day – a solemn day of remembrance in a country where most people have lost multiple family members from the Indonesian years. Last year, Alkatiri made this day a public holiday.
The government, led by Alkatiri and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, is, on the whole, worthy of ongoing international support. Elisabeth Huybens, who recently finished a marathon five-year term as World Bank country manager, says she liked working in East Timor because the government was genuinely trying to do the right thing, as opposed to her experience in flagrantly corrupt countries in Africa where governments couldn’t care less.
Canberra recently ordered three Australian navy ships to waters off Timor as a contingency measure but despite the recent upheaval, East Timor is not destined to become a failed state – another Haiti on Australia’s doorstep.
But the government and people of East Timor require a long-term partnership with Australia and other countries in the region in order to succeed.
As The Australian said in a prescient editorial in January 2004, Australia’s aid commitment since independence of about $40 million a year is inadequate when compared with the needs and the $2 billion spent during the emergency phase.
East Timor does not need money per se, but it needs technical support and programmes that can directly address poverty and move the country onto the first rung of the development ladder.
Without this support, East Timor may remain stuck in its current state of under-development and fragility.
Paul Cleary worked for East Timor Prime Minister Alkatiri as a consultant on a World Bank-funded project from 2003 to 2005. He is now writing a book on East Timor for Allen & Unwin. This article is reprinted from the online public affairs, arts and theology magazine, Eureka Street. www.eurekastreet.com.au