PRESIDENT Xanana Gusmao may have prophesied when he told fellow East Timorese four years ago that “raising our flag will not mean that malaria will suddenly disappear, or that domestic violence will suddenly end, or that we all will have enough food, education, electricity, roads, or jobs. We dreamed of independence, but now we dream of development and of being a developed nation.” Those words can never be more relevant at present as the world’s tiniest and youngest nation is thrust again into socio-political turmoil threatening to rip the fabric of the nation – this time from within not from without
PRESIDENT Xanana Gusmao may have prophesied when he told fellow East Timorese four years ago that “raising our flag will not mean that malaria will suddenly disappear, or that domestic violence will suddenly end, or that we all will have enough food, education, electricity, roads, or jobs. We dreamed of independence, but now we dream of development and of being a developed nation.” Those words can never be more relevant at present as the world’s tiniest and youngest nation is thrust again into socio-political turmoil threatening to rip the fabric of the nation – this time from within not from without.
“If it bleeds, it leads” this was the cruel moniker newspapers and news bulletins often associated pre-independence East Timor. Yet, barely four years after independence, East Timor is again bleeding. Only this time, East Timorese and observers alike would ask: Where will all this eventually lead to?
Violence erupted in Dili, the sea-side capital of Timor Leste, two months after some 600 soldiers mostly from the Western part of the country were sacked last March after they deserted their barracks in protest over the alleged discrimination and over-zealous surveillance of soldiers coming from the the Western part of the country. The fledgling East Timorese Army has about 1,500 regular soldiers and 1,500 reservists. Most of its core officers and rank and file are reportedly recruited from the so-called East which was the bastion of resistance against Indonesian occupation then.
Observers considered the recent violence as the worst in East Timor since its break from Indonesia in 1999, when revenge-thirsty Indon militias went on a rampage, killing nearly 1,500 people. The country became fully independent in 2002 after two years of U.N. administration, but remains one of the world’s poorest.
No matter how “disappointing” the recent events could be, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it, the world’s youngest and most fragile nation is not a “hopeless case” after all. (UN research showed that countries that survived the conflict era will likely have recurrence of conflict within 5 years of post-conflict period) Their most recent history proved to the world that they are capable of rising from their own lot of being an oppressed and conquered people to being free and independent, no matter how costly it maybe.
The immediate list of doables at present may include the need of humanitarian aid for the displaced people because of the recent violent incidents. Sukehiro Hasegawa, the UN special representative in Dili, reported that some 65,000 people who had fled their homes were staying at 35 camps around the city. Clearly, this indicates a humanitarian crisis by which various international humanitarian aid organizations had already responded.
Though the situation has stabilized but it remains to be fragile. As reported, the country’s young security force has lost its capacity to restore order which necessitates the presence of the UN Peacekeepers with a definite timetable for pull-out. Australia’s assessment that there is a need for a prolonged tour-of-duty by foreign troops to restore and maintain order may be considered but with definite intervention plan formulated in close coordination with their local counterparts and under the command of the UN and not of Australia.
To prevent other “groups” who may exploit the sentiments of the dismissed soldiers, as pointed out by President Gusmao, it is imperative that an independent investigation by a competent body should be conducted immediately with its reports and recommendations be made known to the public. The process of reconciliation cannot proceed with much success without looking deeply into the issues surrounding the dismissal of some 600 soldiers.
On the long term, there is clearly a need for a comprehensive intervention to strengthen existing government institutions and the professionalization of the defense unit. Maybe, the government can look into developing a package of a retirement program for some veterans of F-FDTL as a first step of professionalizing its armed forces. It is of help if the role of “foreign advisers” in the different government institutions should be limited to providing advise without giving them the power to decide.
Mainstreaming of civil society’s role in conflict prevention and nation building seem to be the most logical answer to a government in transition. With most of the East Timorese having used to being part of decision-making during the pre-independence period, the opening of the venue for greater people’s participation through their legitimate civil society organizations may prove to be invaluable. At the same time, mainstreaming civil society processes and the institutionalization of their role in post-independence East Timor may provide a sense of check on their government.
Bishop Ximenes Belo’s words after the 1999 independence vote rings more relevant at present when he said, “Working for the common good of every East Timorese and for East Timor as a nation means new structures, new vision and new processes whereby a fractured society can be reconstructed as truthful and just.” (italics supplied)
As a general strategy, the cure to East Timor’s fragile democracy is democracy itself.
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