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10 years after independence, East Timor still rebuilding

Online NewsHour - November 12, 2009

[Special correspondent Kira Kay examines East Timor's ongoing effort to rebuild itself, 10 years after winning independence from Indonesia. The report is part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting's Fragile States project, a partnership with the Bureau of International Reporting.]

Kira Kay, special correspondent – There are very few people in East Timor who didn't lose a loved one in their two-decade fight for independence. So, this ceremony, reburying the bones of the war dead at the national martyrs cemetery, was filled with grief. But it was also a day of pride, the 10-year anniversary of Timor's success in that push for independence from Indonesia, the neighboring country that had violently swallowed it whole in the 1970s, after Portugal abandoned its longtime colony.

Flanked by dignitaries from around the world stood Xanana Gusmao. Once a resistance fighter, he is now East Timor's prime minister, and Jose Ramos-Horta, who lived for years in exile lobbying for freedom for his country. Today, he is the president.

Jose Ramos-Horta: I have enjoyed it thoroughly to be reattached culturally, physically to part of my body and spirit, in spite of the difficulties we encounter in these last 10 years.

Kira Kay: Difficulties of the past 10 years, because Ramos-Horta, Gusmao and their Timorese citizens have had to build their new country from the ground up. More than 100,000 people had died during the 24-year occupation. And when Indonesian troops finally withdrew in a spasm of violence, East Timor was left in ruins. Even today, its fragility remains obvious. Half its people live below the poverty line. Burned buildings remain on many corners. Unemployment runs as high as 40 percent. But overcoming adversity is not new to Timorese like Eduardo Belo Soares, a former guerrilla fighter now making the transition to ordinary citizen.

Eduardo Belo Soares: For me, myself, I have obligations. And I believe that everyone has obligations to fill independence of this country.

Kira Kay: For Belo, that obligation meant starting a business and creating jobs. So, he took a small grant given to him by the United Nations, and made an investment.

Eduardo Belo Soares: My carpentry started from this wood lathe.

Kira Kay: This is the very first thing you bought?

Eduardo Belo Soares: Yes, this is the very first thing I had.

Scarce resources

Kira Kay: In a place that has so little, even tables and chairs are important. Over 6,000 of Belo's desks are now in Timor's schools and government offices. And Belo now employs more than 600 Timorese. But even an army of Belos is not enough to build a nation. From the beginning, that job has also fallen to the international community, backed today by 1,600 United Nations police and 800 peacekeeping troops from Australia and New Zealand. Although East Timor is only the size of Connecticut, with a population of one million, the international community's job here has been one of its biggest ever undertaken.

Edward Rees, senior adviser, Peace Dividend Trust: This has been, to some extent, a – a laboratory for the international community, and continues to be.

Kira Kay: Edward Rees first came to East Timor in 2000 with the UN Mission. Today, he runs an international development group here.

Edward Rees: This was probably the first place where the international community played a direct and – and highly intrusive and controlling role in the Ministry of Finance and the business of tax collection and revenue generation and – and natural resources management. And this was the first place the United Nations played a role in the creation of a national defense force.

Kira Kay: While the UN provided crucial emergency services to those displaced from the fighting and oversaw successful elections, it had never before tried to build the institutions needed to run a country, and was given very little time to do it.

Jose Ramos-Horta: The United Nations was here for two years. In two years, with the best of intentions, all the resources they could have mustered – and they did have a lot of resources, financial and human resources – they could not have built up a modern functioning state within two years.

Edward Rees: I think, given the time that they had, they made expedited decisions in order to get things done to keep to the schedule that New York had given them. And they were the wrong decisions for the long-term stability of the country.

Kira Kay: Rees and other international analysts point to the mismanaged building of a professional military and police force, and a failure to properly integrate former guerrilla fighters, leaving them marginalized and disgruntled.

Just as the UN was in its final stages of drawdown in 2006, political infighting tore apart these fragile institutions. Violence cascaded into the streets. Dozens were killed and thousands again displaced. East Timor called for help. The international community sent new peacekeeping troops and scaled the UN back up.

'Nation-building takes time'

UN officials admit lessons were learned, that nation-building takes time. Today, there is more focus on shoring up the police and military. Under the watchful eye of Australian peacekeepers, Timor's army and police recently squared off in a friendly shooting competition. Just three years ago, they were killing each other.

Police Commander Longinus Montero is hopeful a corner has been turned.

Kira Kay: Why are exercises like this important for your forces?

Longinus Montero: This is one of the proof that they can show everybody that we are working as a part of the state institutions, we're working side by side, we're sharing our ideas. We have to leave all the past gone away. It's what East Timor needs, because our people is suffering too much.

Kira Kay: It's uncertain if this camaraderie will hold. According to an International Crisis Group report, the Timorese government has resisted further reforms, such as instituting civilian control and defining the specific tasks of the army and police. Edward Rees says the UN is still struggling to figure out its role.

Edward Rees: The United Nations police, which are the largest link in the chain, are also the weakest link in the chain. Police officers are not institution-builders. Their job is to train people how to be police officers. Their job is not to teach people how to run a police service, particularly when it comes to the civilian oversight and management of, you know, legislative issues, personnel issues, logistics issues, financial issues, budgeting, planning.

Kira Kay: The UN may be having better luck building East Timor's political institutions, including a 65-member parliament. Just a courtyard away from the impressive main chamber, a UN program is teaching staff everything from drafting legislation to scheduling a minister's daybook.

Tony Sisule, specialist, United Nations Development Program: So, you will help with the speeches, yes?

Kira Kay: UN staffer Tony Sisule came from Kenya to help.

Tony Sisule: I'm working with my colleague Jonas. He's fresh from university. And that's probably the best you're going to get, a fresh graduate. He doesn't have work experience. I bring 10 years or so of work experience from many other countries. So, we basically try to transfer this experience to the young Timorese who are coming up. Two, three years down the road, I think they should be able to handle a lot of the functions on their own.

Kira Kay: Today, the capital, Dili, is becoming a bit of a boomtown. Building construction is everywhere. There's a new slogan here: "Goodbye conflict, hello development." A well-attended exposition promises a comfort never before imagined. Much of this is because the country got lucky. It struck oil in the Timor Sea. Just after the crisis of 2006 hit, oil revenues began to flow, a boon for the struggling government. Much of this is because the country got lucky. It struck oil in the Timor sea. Just after the crisis of 2006 hit, oil revenues began to flow, a boon for the struggling government.

Charles Scheiner, La'o Hamutuk: Their chosen way of dealing with problems is handing out dollars.

Immediate fixes too shortsighted

Kira Kay: Charles Scheiner was an independence activist who now works for a well-respected local watchdog group. He says East Timor has a habit of using its oil wealth to literally pay off disgruntled members of society, from dismissed army soldiers to displaced people.

Charles Scheiner: You know, so it sort of resolved the problems the instant problems. But it created a pattern where people say we don't get services from the government unless we make trouble. If we make trouble, we get money. If we just sit quietly and are good citizens and wait for the government to provide education or health care or roads or water, it's not going to happen. I think we're – right now, things are pretty peaceful, and we're lucky, maybe, but I think that the elements of further conflict are still there.

Jose Ramos-Horta: Peace has to be paid for. Peace has to be bought, whether in Timor or anywhere in the world. And when we say it has to be paid for, it's not in the sense you buy people, in the sense you have to invest in creating infrastructures that create jobs. You have to hand out, when necessary, cash for the poorest.

Kira Kay: And this is East Timor's big gamble. With a petroleum fund now worth more than $5 billion, the government is spending more of the money on short-term problems, rather than saving it for the future. Besides the cash handouts, the government is spending millions importing a basic food staple, rice, in effect, buying some calm and some time for the country's more long-term development goals.

Edward Rees: I think, if you are me, that's the wrong policy. I think, if you're Timorese, it's the right policy. And I think that they have made a calculated decision that we need to distance the community from the last event as far as possible. And, so, spending the money today in order to ensure that nothing happens in the next five, 10 years, as I'm sure that's the way they're thinking, strikes me as being sensible.

Kira Kay: It's a fragile political equation, one that might still unravel under societal pressures, chief among them, what to do with all the young unemployed people, a demographic that has become violent in the past, and another: East Timor has not pursued war crimes tribunals against Indonesia, calculating that it needs to keep the peace with its much larger neighbor.

Jose Ramos-Horta: Let's put the past behind. There will be no international tribunal.

Kira Kay: But local activists warn that having no international judicial process keeps East Timor vulnerable to renewed violence, the process of healing from the trauma of occupation incomplete. As the flag was raised at East Timor's commemorations of its bold first steps 10 years ago, many open questions remain for its future. At stake is not just peace and prosperity for one of the world's newest nations, but also the role of the international community, as it continues to grapple with the task of nation-building.