Michael Rose, ANU – In May 2022, Timor-Leste will mark 20 years of renewed independence.
No one could say that the past two decades have been smooth for Asia's youngest nation, and 2021 was no exception. Over the past 12 months, its people have faced fire, flood and pestilence. But while there is cause for sadness looking back at 2021, there is also room for pride. A year that brought more than its share of problems to Timor-Leste was also one in which its people showed their determination to overcome them.
Even in a year defined by disaster the April floods stand out. Over Easter torrential rains associated with Cyclone Seroja swept across the region, leaving at least 45 dead, thousands homeless, and two things very clear.
One is that although floods are nothing new in Dili, the urbanisation, erosion, population growth and climate change that exacerbate the threat they pose is becoming more pronounced. Prior governments could have heeded calls to mitigate this through better civil engineering, urban planning and disaster preparedness, but for the most part simply didn't. They need to do better. People shouldn't need to die to reinforce the necessity for this, but considering they have let's hope it's not a lesson lost.
The second is this; in 2021, Timorese citizens are better able to organise disaster relief for themselves than ever. Immediately after the worst of the floods, before the government declared a state of calamity, Timorese at home and abroad were donating money to help volunteers set up shelters, kitchens and clean-up crews. This is a vivid example of the relational state – the socially contingent business of how things in a country like Timor-Leste get done in reality, as opposed to how an outsider with an organisation chart might assume. For those with an interest in Timor-Leste's next decade, this can't be ignored.
Timorese villages have always been communal, and the resistance was sustained by heroic self-sacrifice, but over the past two decades, widespread education, a free press, the consolidation of a unifying national identity, the uptake of social media, the growth of the working diaspora, a thriving ethic of voluntary service, and bitter experiences with an underperforming government, have fed into the emergence of a peacetime social compact that values supporting kin, neighbours and compatriots in times of need. The 2021 floods demonstrated this spirit, arguably Timor-Leste's greatest and most characteristic strength.
While few in Timor-Leste were impressed by the government's response to the floods, its reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic left far more to be positive about. Soon after the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent in early 2020, it closed Timor-Leste's international borders and instituted quarantine measures for returning residents.
The lockdown that was imposed when community transmission was confirmed in March 2021 tested the limits of what was practical in a place of large families, small houses and few savings, and became nearly impossible after thousands were forced into flood shelters. In the aftermath the virus began to spread, albeit in parallel with a vigorous and generally well-received COVAX-powered vaccination effort. It was in many ways a race against time.
The result was a health policy success. The sort of mass casualty event which many feared would overwhelm the national health system seems to have been avoided. At the time of writing the official death toll stands at 122 – a tragedy, but one that could have been so much worse. Admittedly none of this occurred without a degree of political drama and administrative chaos, but it cannot be denied that, in this success, we have an example of how a nation that 20 years ago was in ruins can stand on its own two feet.
The jailing of former priest Richard Daschbach at the end of 2021 rounded the year off with another example of how far Timor-Leste has come in addressing its own issues. Daschbach, a US-born Indonesian citizen and a former Catholic priest, had worked in the highlands of West Timor since the 1960s, relocating full-time to Timor-Leste's Oecussi Enclave in the early 1990s. A beloved figure, in 2018 his friends and supporters were shocked when he confessed to being a serial paedophile. He was later defrocked and arrested.
To say Daschbach's prosecution was challenging is an understatement. Those seeking justice endured harassment, replete with a death threat and at least one episode of physical violence. The accused absconded from house arrest. The trial was delayed twice. Political figures unhelpfully became involved. Many who had revered Daschbach as a father figure, living saint or national hero found it difficult to accept.
On 21 December, Daschbach was sentenced to 12 years in prison. His trial was a traumatic reckoning on several levels, but also a milestone. In spite of the pressure they were under, the judiciary was steadfast in pursuing a fair outcome. The ruling sets a precedent that the days of powerful, charismatic men, like Dascbhach, being able to abuse women and girls with impunity are at an end. As Timor-Leste enters its third decade this is a huge step.
As 2022 begins presidential elections have been announced for March. They matter, of course, but maybe not as much as it might seem at first. The resilience seen in Timor-Leste throughout 2021 owed less to politics than the work of administrators and young volunteers, migrant meat-packers and students, lawyers and abuse survivors, police and health workers, and the hundreds of thousands who tend gardens and children every day. Whether these people will get the leadership they deserve in 2022 remains to be seen, but looking back at 2021 there is no question that the nation they have built against all odds has firmly staked its place in the world.
[Michael Rose is a Research Fellow in the Development Policy Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.]