The people of Timor-Leste are the greatest resource the world’s youngest nation has and there is much hope for its future as the new prime minister, Jose Ramos Horta, takes office.
Jesuit priest, Fr Peter Hosking, visited Wellington last month as Ramos Horta was appointed to fill the role Mari Alkatiri had just vacated.
Fr Peter worked in Timor before the referendum in 1999 which brought a huge wave of violence wrought by the Indonesians’ reluctance to give the country its independence. He has worked there on several occasions since, most recently in June after the latest unrest resulting in Alkatiri’s resignation.
Leading the nation will be difficult, he says, because there are a lot of young people who have no sense of purpose. These need to be given a sense of hope and belief in the leadership.
‘The people just have a wonderful spirit. I think a lot of it is about encouraging the young people with their futures. However the political, economic, legal, and other systems that need to be put in place are just beyond the comprehension of most people.’
Fr Peter gave as an example the inadequate efforts to bring about justice after the violence that was committed during the 25-year Indonesian occupation, particularly in 1999 when the Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence.
The launch of a report from the Truth, Reconciliation and Reception Commission which, for many, was an important way of accounting for what happened, has not been achieved although it was presented nearly a year ago.
Leadership will have to come from a variety of quarters besides the political sphere. The church, student groups and solidarity movements should work with the country’s young people to give them a sense of encouragement and hope. They need help to bring about reconciliation between the various factions.
The church worked well in the past as a place of sanctuary for people in need. It has done this again in recent months after the rise in violence in Dili. But it has been more complex for it to find a proper role in economic and political affairs.
Jose Ramos Horta, who was foreign minister in the previous administration, and President Xanana Gusmao are two of the most popular leaders the country has had. But neither is part of the ruling Fretilin party so they will need to keep good faith with the strongest party in the parliament. Family alliances and loyalties within Fretilin complicate the political situation.
Former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, may be in the media spotlight for corruption but Hosking says scapegoating is easy, getting this to work is hard.
‘Alkatiri is not everyone’s choice. But in lots of ways he tried hard to do his job as prime minister. I don’t know the degree of corruption or indeed his involvement in more nefarious activities he’s been accused of and only time will tell on that.’
Fr Peter says a number of factors besides the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure will be a challenge to the new administration.
Timor’s position between Indonesia and Australia is significant. Australia has many resources and a small population; Indonesia is a densely populated country with a history of poor colonisation in Timor. This causes tension for the Timorese and the challenge will be for both parties to resolve the tension effectively.
The negotiations with Australia over gas reserves in the Timor Sea were fraught. Alkatiri and his advisors drove a hard bargain regarding Australia’s wish to define the boundary between the two countries in a way which gave Australia a greater share of the reserves.
Hosking says Timor could earn considerable foreign exchange from the products of these fields but this has not happened so far. So much needs to be invested in the infrastructure for oil and gas production and it takes time before profits are returned to Timor’s economy.
Even then there is doubt that the earnings will go to the people who most need it. The distribution of resources to the poorest in the community is a real issue.
Fr Peter speaks of the demoralisation of the people after the latest round of rioting and violence. People had a great deal of hope after independence in 1999. This spurred them on in rebuilding the nation. But many have seen their homes torched in the recent violence and must again rebuild.
‘It’s hard when you have very little to rebuild but when you make an effort of it and then it kind of falls apart again your confidence is very hard to reestablish.’
Church a refuge
Meanwhile, former aide to Mari Alkatiri, Paul Cleary, says the church has been both a safe haven and a political activist during the past year.
Writing in the Australian public affairs, arts and theology magazine, Eureka Street Online, Paul Cleary tells of bravery in the line of fire on the part of local church leaders. One, Canossan sister, Sister Guilhermina Marcal, was driving into a village to rescue a family trapped in their home when the vehicle came under fire. She immediately got out of the car and told the gunmen to put down their weapons. Later the gunmen helped to push-start the car.
Cleary writes that for more than a year the church been one of the most vocal critics of East Timor’s first independent government. In April last year it staged a three-week demonstration against the government which involved trucking and bussing thousands of people into the capital from around the country, and then providing food, water and sanitation throughout. The highly disciplined church network ensured that the demonstration remained peaceful and that it was not hijacked by other groups.
The trigger for the demonstration was a government move to make religious education in government schools optional and its failure to consult on the policy. Paul Cleary says the demonstration showed the deep disaffection the people feel for this government.
With numbers in refugee camps still near their peak, the church’s Commission for Justice and Peace is now focusing on reintegration and reconciliation. It is training church people in Dili in conflict resolution at parish level. The commission is planning a peace concert in October to draw back the young people who were lost to the church during the conflict.