Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok The hero of East Timor's independence, Xanana Gusmao, will continue to lead his country's sensitive negotiations over maritime boundaries with Australia despite his party losing office in the July elections.
For years Mr Gusmao has refused to budge on his insistence that gas from the still undeveloped Greater Sunrise field in the Timor Sea be piped across a 3000-metre seabed chasm, known as the Timor Trench, to East Timor.
He insists that a maritime resources boundary between Australia and East Timor be shifted to put the $50-billion Greater Sunrise field entirely under East Timor's jurisdiction.
A three-party coalition that will form government in Dili confirmed Mr Gusmao's authority to represent East Timor in negotiations being supervised by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
"We will not change the team leader. We will not change the team," said Mari Alkarti, leader of Fretilin, the party which won the most votes at the election. Mr Gusmao was quoted by the Portuguese news agency Lusa as saying "I am grateful for the confidence the coalition has placed in me".
Negotiations, which are due to be settled in October, resume this week. Development of Greater Sunrise is critical to the future of Asia's newest nation as revenues from existing oil and gas reserves run out in the next several years.
Analysts say the country could be broke within a decade unless other resources are developed. But even if an agreement is reached on the boundaries, Greater Sunrise may still not be developed at a time of low gas prices and the possible opening up of other fields.
Greater Sunrise's developers, led by Woodside Petroleum, have rejected East Timor's demand the gas be piped to an industrial complex on the country's remote west coast, saying they favour a floating liquefied-gas plant. Another option is to pipe the gas across shallower waters to an existing gas plant in Darwin.
Fretilin, the People's Liberation Party (PLP) led by former president Taur Matan Ruak and a small new party called KHUNTO, which aimed its campaign at young disaffected voters, will form the new government.
Mr Gusmao has announced his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) would serve in opposition after narrowly losing to Fretilin, saying he would "contribute positively and constructively" in parliament.
A former president and prime minister, Mr Gusmao is expected to remain the country's key behind-the-scenes power-broker.
Police fired tear gas at hundreds of students protesting against allegedly corrupt government officials at East Timor on Monday, forcing members of Parliament to suspend a scheduled auction of government cars, reports Reuters.
The students claim the cars at the auction were purposely priced lower and will bring losses to the state. At the street demonstration, they threw rocks at police and public vehicles, injuring several officers while some students were arrested, according to officials.
"We are doing this because we are not satisfied members of Parliament are taking such decisions to their own benefit," said Duarte Antonio Nunes from a student organization. Nunes warned of more protests if the government did not call off the auctions.
After the protest, national Parliament president Aderito Hugo told a local radio station the auction had been "temporarily suspended" and asked for the public's patience while they review what to do with the cars.
Monday's event is not the first time East Timor students protest on the streets. Last March, they joined thousands others outside the Australian embassy in Dili, calling on Australia to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea. According to ABC, organisers allege Canberra has been "illegally" occupying and taking resources from East Timor's maritime territory.
Some 1.2 million people live in the young democracy, which held its first peaceful legislative and presidential elections this year after a UN peacekeeping force left at the end of 2012.
From its establishment in 1999 until its independence from Indonesia in May 2002, the United Nations provided an interim civil administration and peacekeeping mission in the territory.
Reuters notes the young democracy is now struggling with issues of income inequality and high unemployment. A UNDP "Human Development Report 2016" found nearly half (46.8 percent) of the population live below the poverty line, despite the country being rich in natural resources.
Dili Hundreds of students in East Timor clashed on Monday with police who fired tear gas to disperse the crowds protesting against alleged government corruption.
Members of parliament were forced to suspend a planned auction of government cars after protesters took to the streets and threw rocks at police officers and public vehicles, alleging the cars were being deliberately marked down and would cause state losses.
"We are doing this because we are not satisfied that members of parliament are taking such decisions to their own benefit," said Duarte Antonio Nunes from a student organization. He added that more demonstrations could take place if the auctions were not called off.
Several police officers were injured in scuffles and several protesters detained, officials said, and loud speakers and other equipment were confiscated from the students.
But Aderito Hugo, president of the national parliament, said after the demonstrations that the auction had been "temporarily suspended". "I ask for the public's patience on this...so we can review procedures on the use of the cars," Hugo told a local radio station.
East Timor is the poorest nation in Southeast Asia despite being rich in natural resources, and tensions have simmered in the young democracy over income inequality and high unemployment.
Legislative and presidential elections this year were peaceful and were the first since a United Nations peacekeeping force left at the end of 2012 following bouts of violence since independence from Indonesia in 2002.
The polls were dominated by concerns over government's perceived failure to capitalize on those resources, and create jobs and wealth.
The leading parties, Fretilin and CNRT, secured a combined 58 percent of votes in last month's election and are expected to form a government in the coming weeks.
Siktus Harson, Jakarta Three weeks after its parliamentary election, Asia's most Catholic nation Timor-Leste remains leaderless and could be heading for a minority government.
Fretilin, which won most seats in the July 22 poll, has so far failed to form a government with its former coalition partner the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT).
Without the support of the CNRT, rocked by the resignation of its leader and the country's most powerful politician Xanana Gusmao on Aug. 5, Fretilin, with 23 seats is struggling to patch together an alliance to try to reach if not pass the 33-seat target to form a majority in the 65-seat assembly.
Of the four other parties that won parliamentary seats in the July election, CNRT won 22, the Popular Liberation Party grabbed eight, the Democratic Party has seven seats, and Khunto has five.
With the CNRT ruling itself out of an alliance Fretilin is pinning its hopes on the other three.
So far the Khunto party has agreed to join a coalition, the Democratic Party has opted to sit in opposition, while the Popular Liberation Party has offered mixed signals.
Popular Liberation Party chairman, Taur Matan Ruak, has announced that his party would sit in opposition.
Juliano Sapalo Ximenes, a political analyst from the University of Dili, said Fretilin has the chance of forming a minority coalition since the Popular Liberation Party would be "unofficially" in the coalition with Fretilin.
"It's true the Popular Liberation Party will sit in parliament as an opposition party, but it does not mean it will forever be an opponent. For major national interests, such as to pass bills on the state budget, Popular Liberation Party will support the government," Ximenes told ucanews.com.
However, the government would be in a precarious situation if the PLP does not provide full backing, he said.
Fretilin leader, and another former premier, Mari Alkatiri, told reporters on Aug. 10 that the party had not lost hope of gaining further partners and would look to form a minority government if necessary.
"Fretilin is confident it can form a government," Alkatiri said, adding an agreement could still be achieved before Aug. 22 when the new parliament members are sworn in.
"I call on all Timorese people to stay calm so to give leaders the chance to discuss about the establishment of new government," Alkatiri told the Timor Post.
Negotiations are still ongoing. On Aug. 14, Fretilin, CNRT, and Popular Liberation Party were back in talks, but reports suggested the CNRT and Popular Liberation Party are still reluctant to strike a deal.
Efforts to form a new government were thrown into disarray after Gusmao announced he would step down as CNRT leader and called on party members to sit in opposition leaders.
Gusmao said he resigned because the party had lost the people's trust after it lost eight seats in the July poll.
Father Julio Crispim Ximenes Belo, head of Baucau Diocese's Justice and Peace Commission, said Gusmao's decision to quit and call for the party to sit in opposition must be respected.
He said it's a healthy democracy if there are parties that function as opposition, to ensure that the government works in accordance with the constitution and for the good of the people.
However, he said the Catholic Church hopes further negotiations before Aug. 22 would see the establishment of a more stable government.
The priest said the church would pressure the government on two fundamental issues: the needs of the people and clean government.
"One of the main things the church is fighting for is better education," he added, saying the church will also continue to push the government on providing clean water and helping farmers.
A new party in East Timor's parliament has tapped into rising disenfranchisement among the youth and anxiety over the country's economic survival.
The party's founder spent two years in prison after members of his martial arts group became involved in a violent brawl.
Now Khunto is a new political force in East Timor's parliament, bolstered by rising disenfranchisement among the youth and anxiety over the country's economy.
Almost three weeks after the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) proclaimed victory following parliamentary elections, the party is moving to forge new alliances.
While they had formed a de facto coalition with the country's other leading political force, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), in 2015, that partnership might be ending.
In a closed-door party conference in Dili in July, CNRT president and independence leader Xanana Gusmao resigned, urging it to be in opposition rather than join Fretilin again.
Fretilin is now talking to three smaller political parties the People's Liberation Party (PLP), the Democratic Party (PD) and Khunto which won 20 of the 65 seats in the new parliament.
At five seats, this is the first time Khunto, formed in 2011, has entered parliament. Its founder, Jose dos Santos "Naimori" Bucar, was jailed for two years in 2004 following a gang brawl.
Mr Naimori told AAP that although he was not involved, the court held him responsible for the actions of his martial arts group members. Such groups have since been banned in East Timor.
The party says it is now focusing on justice and education for the people of East Timor.
"Justice must apply equally to all people... some 'big people' are untouched by justice," Mr Naimori said. "Education must be accessed by all students not only by some people that have links or influence inside government."
Most of Khunto's supporters are between 17 and 30 years old, whose main concerns are jobs and economic uncertainty.
Fretilin and CNRT have been criticised for their over-reliance on the shrinking petroleum fund to bankroll government salary and large-scale infrastructure projects.
Researcher Charles Scheiner, of La'o Hamutuk, an NGL that analyses the country's economy and government policy, said the most pressing need was economic diversification.
"It has to start now, as the saved oil revenues may be used up in less than a decade," he said. "The working-age population will go up by 19,000 this year, increasing to 24,000 each year by 2026, when the oil money may all have been spent."
Mr Scheiner said a national unity government was not good for the country. "It's much better if there are members of parliament with diverse perspectives," he said. "Perhaps Khunto can help fill this role."
Khunto supporter David Soares, 30, hopes young people are supported in education, especially abroad. "When they come back they can develop this beloved land," he said.
Michael Leach East Timorese politics remain in a post-election limbo as the parties elected to parliament just over a fortnight ago negotiate to form government.
Despite early optimism that the broad outlines of a new administration might be known quickly, the recent developments suggest an outcome is at least a week away, and possibly longer. Negotiations have begun in earnest now that the major parties have held conferences to determine their own approaches to the deal-making.
The 22 July election saw the two main parties Fretilin and CNRT once again take the majority of the vote, with 29.7 per cent and 29.5 per cent respectively. In a significant twist, Fretilin narrowly beat the previously dominant CNRT, led by former resistance leader and ex-PM Xanana Gusmao, resulting in a slim but important lead of twenty-three seats to CNRT's twenty-two.
Since 2015, these two major parties have been involved in a de facto power-sharing executive, in which Fretilin provided ministers to a CNRT-led government. A new party, the PLP, led by the immediate ex-president Taur Matan Ruak, performed well to secure eight seats, and quickly asserted that it would serve as the active parliamentary opposition that Timor-Leste has lacked since 2015. Two other parties entered parliament, the longstanding Democratic Party, or PD, with seven seats, and a newer party, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nacional Timor Oan, or KHUNTO, which aimed its campaign at disaffected younger voters, securing five seats.
The rise of the PLP and KHUNTO reflects important demographic shifts, with new voters now comprising a full 20 per cent of the roll, even as the two major parties continue to dominate. With neither party securing a working parliamentary majority of thirty-three seats, government will be formed in inter-party negotiations.
Having lost eight seats since 2012 to fall narrowly behind Fretilin, the CNRT congress last weekend was a less than happy affair. The giant of East Timorese politics, Xanana Gusmao, had been openly disappointed with the result and, in a dramatic development on Friday, announced his resignation as president of CNRT and declared that the party would go into opposition. This announcement challenged the widespread assumption that the power-sharing arrangement between the two major parties would continue, leading to media claims of "disarray" in the formation of government. Jose Ramos-Horta was quick to contest this assessment, rightly noting that there were other paths to stable government, and that negotiations were only commencing.
By Sunday, the CNRT congress had suspended Gusmao's resignation pending an extraordinary congress to be held later, meaning in effect that Gusmao remains party leader. Nonetheless, the declaration that the party would head to opposition has raised the stakes considerably, upsetting expectations that the consensus politics of the last two and a half years would continue expectations reinforced in the electorate's mind throughout the recent election campaign, in which the major parties largely refrained from attacking each other and concentrated on their record of bringing political stability to a country wracked by political crises only a decade ago.
Should CNRT hold to this position, Fretilin's options narrow to more difficult paths of negotiating with smaller parties for a thirty-three-seat working majority, or trying to advance a minority government, supported by an "incidencia parlamentar," a Portuguese term for confidence-and-supply arrangements with minor parties that do not formally join the government. But Fretilin hopes to form a government of "grand inclusion" incorporating members of other parties, and has now scheduled talks with all the smaller parties this week. The CNRT's position, as it stands, certainly makes it more challenging to form a majority government.
For its part, PLP has previously stated a desire to stay in opposition, adopting the strategic view that this will maximise its electoral chances in 2022. There is debate within the party, however, between the older veterans, including Ruak himself, and younger Dili-based intelligentsia, with the latter more open to participation in government. All elements are understood to have an open mind about the coming negotiations, and might be prevailed upon to offer confidence and supply to a new government, rather than formal power-sharing. It is also possible that any genuine prospect of instability may alter the party's present calculus.
With its seven seats, PD is understood to be split over which major party to back, but with the bulk of the party likely to favour CNRT, as they have since 2007. By contrast, KHUNTO is likely to deal with any major party that can offer it ministries and secure it influence over the youth issues that drove its vote. This balance of forces leaves Fretilin with an uncertain path to thirty-three seats.
The new president, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, himself from Fretilin, will now have a key role in encouraging the formation of a government. As the most voted-for party, Fretilin will be given first opportunity. If it cannot command a majority on the floor of parliament, it can present its government program as a minority government. Should that program be rejected twice by parliament, the president can then turn to the CNRT. It is not clear that the CNRT could command thirty-three seats, though it is certainly possible, and the prospect gives Gusmao bargaining strength. But the prospect would also raise relatively unpalatable memories of the post-crisis era of 2006-07.
The outcome of this week's negotiations is therefore uncertain. One clear possibility is that the era of national unity that characterised the period from 2015 is over, or at least under serious threat. Another is that we are witnessing an elaborate game of double bluff as the two giants of East Timorese politics, Fretilin and Gusmao, circle around the prize of government and seek to improve their respective bargaining positions before striking a deal. Parliament is due to sit first on 21 August, and the president will be keen to see a deal for government settled by that time, though it is not, in practice, a hard deadline if negotiations are incomplete.
Looking ahead, the risks for Fretilin in establishing stable government without the support of the key figure of Gusmao are clear enough. While acknowledging the CNRT conference's recent resolutions, Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri last night reiterated his desire to meet with Gusmao, the "inescapable" figure of Timorese politics who "cannot be left out." Alkatiri also noted that the Fretilin program is not "a sacred text." Notably, the party has deferred a decision on whom it will nominate as PM until after negotiations with the parties. The party conference did, however, confirm that the prime minister would come from Fretilin itself, a position that could prove a stumbling block to the CNRT, and may need to shift to facilitate good-faith negotiations.
Having supported a Fretilin president in 2017, and facilitated the rise of Fretilin PM Rui Araujo in 2015, the CNRT will expect substantial and senior positions now the tables are turned. These may include the prime ministership itself. Herein lies the real possibility for national unity to falter.
Certain risks also face the CNRT. As a classic "party of power," it is not especially well-suited to opposition, at least not for long. It is notable that the senior party figures, including Gusmao himself, are not taking up their parliamentary seats, raising the question of how and where the commitment to parliamentary opposition will be enacted. Obvious paths back to power include striking a new deal with Fretilin, or leading a non-Fretilin alliance, as in 2007. A third option involves establishing a non-Fretilin alliance, then inviting Fretilin to join a renewed power-sharing arrangement from a position of relative strength. While Gusmao's relatively poor current relationship with Ruak somewhat diminishes these prospects, they remain possibilities.
While these prospects may excite commentators, hardball tactics from either major party may not be welcomed by an electorate that recently voted for a continuation of Timor-Leste's consensus politics. The stakes for both major parties are therefore high: having advertised a product called political stability, they may suffer electorally if they do not deliver it. There is also a strong sense in Dili that "it is no longer 2007," a reference to the political crisis of that era, which saw dangerous rifts within the East Timorese political elite lead to the re-entry of foreign peacekeepers. Any political tactics reminiscent of that era may prove deeply unpalatable to voters in the wake of an extended period of national unity, even if they remain constitutionally acceptable.
At the same time, East Timorese politics is in transition. In focus groups I conducted in Dili with young voters before and after the July election, many argued that while political stability remains the key issue for their older relatives, who experienced the great turmoils of East Timorese history, younger voters are more interested in transparency and accountability. These factors explain the ongoing but now reduced popularity of the two major parties, and also the rise of new political challengers in PLP and KHUNTO.
From an Australian perspective, Canberra will clearly welcome the prospect of a shake-up in the government in Dili, as relations have been at a low point in recent years. It is notable, however, that Mari Alkatiri last night explicitly affirmed that Xanana Gusmao would continue to lead the maritime boundary negotiating team in any outcome, demonstrating that, even now, certain fundaments of East Timorese foreign policy remain stable.
Also significant is the fact that the powerful US House Armed Services Committee's recent National Defence Authorisation Act for 2018 was specifically amended to encourage resolution of the maritime boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste. There is little question that this shift in Washington signals extra pressure on Canberra to resolve the matter in the current UN Convention on the Law of the Sea conciliation process, due to conclude in September.
Independence leader Xanana Gusmao has resigned as president of his party following their recent election loss, reportedly saying the East Timorese people had lost faith in them.
The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), headed by the former president and independence leader, lost eight seats in parliament following last month's election.
Mr Gusmao resigned as president at the party's conference in the capital Dili on Friday, saying the party had lost the people's trust, state news agency Tatoli reports. "The majority of people don't trust CNRT's program, this is shown in voters' numbers being down," he reportedly said.
However, he said he would still work with the party towards a better future. He also urged the party's members to be an opposition force in the next parliament, rather than work on a unity basis with the leading party Fretilin, which seized 23 seats compared with CNRT's 22.
"CNRT's presence in parliament as opposition will contribute positively and constructively to serving our beloved country of Timor Leste," Tatoli reported Mr Gusmao as saying.
A party spokeswoman confirmed to AAP that Mr Gusmao had resigned but would not comment further.
The once unlikely alliance between CNRT and Fretilin in 2015 has been credited with bringing about much needed political stability. But it has also been criticised for leading to a lack of opposition voices.
A major concern has been the country's over-reliance on oil and gas revenue to fund projects, salaries and services, with fears that unless the economy diversifies quickly, the country will run out of money within 10 to 15 years.
CNRT and Fretilin have been criticised for pumping too much money into large-scale infrastructure projects and not enough into basic needs such as education, health and sanitation.
Lindsay Murdoch The hero of East Timor's independence struggle Xanana Gusmao has resigned from the presidency of his party only days after national elections, throwing moves to form a coalition government into disarray.
Mr Gusmao, a former president and prime minister and still the most powerful figure in Asia's newest democracy, made the surprise announcement that his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party would not enter into a coalition with the leftist Fretilin party, which narrowly won the July 22 vote.
The parties have jointly ruled through a parliamentary majority alliance that Mr Gusmao set-up in 2015, saying at the time he favours a "government of national unity" for the stability it brings East Timor.
In a speech to a closed meeting of party officials, Mr Gusmao took blame for the party's loss and said the vote showed Timorese "do not trust the CNRT to govern," the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported from Dili. Related Articles
The CNRT won 29.5 per cent of the vote, down from 37.7 per cent in 2012, when it was the top polling party. Fretilin this time captured 29.7 per cent of the vote and its leader Mari Alkatiri claimed victory.
But Fretilin fell short of winning the 33 seats needed in the 65-seat parliament for one party to rule alone.
Some analysts say Mr Gusmao's resignation may be part of a negotiating ploy and predicted he would probably still cut a deal with Fretilin.
But Mr Gusmao said his party "will not accept proposals from anyone, nor invite any party to form a coalition because it does not intend to participate in government," Lusa reported.
"This is the right moment for Fretilin, as the winning party of the 2017 elections, to assume, and with full legitimacy, the reins of government," he said, adding the CNRT would serve in opposition "to contribute to the process of nation building, to consolidate the democratic transition in this country."
Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's former president and prime minister, praised Mr Gusmao for "gallantly" honouring the people's verdict by accepting defeat and responsibility for the election loss. "Xanana has elevated himself higher," Mr Ramos-Horta said on social media.
"Now it is simple. It is incumbent on Dr Mari Alkatiri to actively engage other parties in forging a government that will continue to consolidate peace and democracy in Timor-Leste (East Timor), build on many positive achievements the country has experienced, improve on what has been successful, change where it has to change," he said.
Referring to Fairfax Media's report that Mr Gusmao's decision has thrown moves to form a coalition government into "disarray," Mr Ramos-Horta said "Mr Murdoch like many other media cohorts never see anything positive whatever Timorese leaders do."
Many CNRT members believe Fretilin should allow the CNRT to name the next prime minister after the party supported Fretilin's Rui Araujo as the last prime minister and endorsed Fretilin's Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, who won presidential elections in March.
Mr Alkatiri said the day after the election that his party will "do everything to embrace anyone and will continue to work with Xanana Gusmao, the inescapable figure of the country, in order to respond to the clear message from our people."
Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, said Fretilin's narrow victory has made the outcome of negotiations to form a government less predictable. "But we should know the composition of a new government within a few days," he said.
Damien Kingsbury, an expert on East Timor from Deakin University, said East Timor went into the election with a general expectation that Fretilin and the CNRT would continue to dominate politics and return to the coalition that brought the country stability since 2015.
"That stability is now in question," he said. "Timor-Leste's political unity that promised such stability now appears broken," he said.
Mr Gusmao has been leading East Timor's negotiations with Australia over a maritime border between the two countries that will decide the future of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea.
With East Timor's income from existing oil and gas projects drying up in a few years, East Timor could be broke within a decade unless Greater Sunrise is developed.
Mr Gusmao has insisted gas from the field be piped to a yet-to-be built industrial complex in East Timor, but a Woodside-led consortium says this is unviable and wants to build a floating platform over the field.
Jun Suzuki, Dili China is increasing its influence in East Timor as the small Southeast Asian nation's relations with its traditional aid providers weaken.
East Timor gained its independence in 2002 and has since received assistance from Japan, the U.S. and Australia. Recently, however, it has been on a collision course with Australia over the development of natural resources, and its ties with Japan and the U.S. are fraying.
China is making overtures to East Timor through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new multinational lender that it spearheaded.
Now Chinese and East Timorese companies are building homes, commercial facilities, schools and other structures on 10 hectares here in the capital. The project will cost $60 million. A Chinese supervisor on the construction site was instructing local laborers on how to build walls for homes when the Nikkei Asian Review recently visited.
Across the border in Indonesia, people are wary of China's economic advancement and are unfriendly to Chinese workers. But there is no such atmosphere in East Timor.
The country sees China as an old friend and welcomes its assistance, said Xanana Gusmao, the country's independence hero and de facto leader, who currently serves as minister of planning and strategic investment. He was also the country's fifth prime minister.
East Timor has come to rely on China due to rifts created in its relations with its traditional aid providers. In particular, East Timor and Australia are growing antagonistic over the development of a large gas field and other problems.
In January, East Timor decided to tear up a treaty with Australia that called for looking into joint oil and gas exploration in the Timor Sea. It also called for putting off drawing a demarcation line in the sea between the two countries. East Timor now intends to set maritime borders with Australia through international arbitration and explore ocean resources on its own.
East Timor depends on oil and gas for 90% of its national revenue. But as existing oil fields are expected to run dry within several years, the country is stepping up efforts to develop alternative industries with the help of foreign capital. It is pushing ahead with road, harbor, airport and other basic infrastructure improvements to attract investment from abroad.
Even if East Timor cannot receive support from Japan and the U.S., "obviously, there is an alternative," said former President Jose Ramos-Horta, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. "The alternative today is always China." Ramos-Horta made the comment during an Australian television program broadcast in May.
In return for Chinese cash, East Timor is throwing its support behind China's Belt and Road project, a reimagination of the old Silk Road trade route.
In East Timor's parliamentary election in July, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, the second largest party before the poll, emerged as the biggest winner, narrowly beating the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, headed by Gusmao. Neither party, though, won a majority of parliament's seats, and negotiations on a coalition government are underway.
But the country's foreign policy is unlikely to show any major change regardless of whether Fretilin or the CNRT controls the government.
East Timor sits at a geopolitically strategic point, between the Pacific and Indian oceans, and neighbors fear China will boost its presence in the country not only economically but also militarily. These are not unfounded fears Chinese warships paid their first visit to Dili last year.
As such, Indonesia and Australia will be paying keen attention as their young neighbor grows up.
Bec Strating Amid the celebrations of ASEAN's 50th birthday last week, the question of whether Timor-Leste will soon be granted full membership lingers.
ASEAN membership is the cornerstone of Timor-Leste's foreign policy. In March 2011, Timor-Leste applied for formal membership to ASEAN while Indonesia was chair. The 2011 Strategic Development Plan envisaged Timor-Leste possessing full membership of ASEAN by 2015, with Timor-Leste playing a key role within the organisation as recognised experts in 'economic development, small-nation management, good governance and aid effectiveness and delivery'.
The ASEAN Charter stipulates that membership is conditional on four factors: geographical location; recognition by other states; agreement to be bound by the ASEAN Charter; and ability and willingness to carry out obligations of membership. The key challenge for Timor-Leste has been proving its capacities to meet membership obligations to the ASEAN states.
ASEAN membership presents onerous requirements for small states, including the need for embassies in all 10 member nations. Timor-Leste has a dedicated government portfolio to ASEAN membership (the Secretary of State for ASEAN Affairs), and it established an ASEAN secretariat in Dili. As part of a charm offensive, former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao visited the ASEAN countries from 2013, using public speaking opportunities to praise ASEAN's role in regional and global affairs. In 2016, Timor-Leste held the ASEAN People's Forum (APF) for Southeast Asian civil society organisations because Laos as chair was reluctant to do so. Timor-Leste has hence devoted considerable resources to its pursuit of ASEAN membership.
In 2016, three independent studies on the implications of Timor-Leste's accession to ASEAN's political, economic and socio-cultural pillars were completed. The first two studies found that Timor-Leste's human resources needed 'capacity-building' to 'boost economic growth and skills'. A report by the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on the membership bid is currently underway. The 2017 ASEAN foreign ministers Joint Communique 'welcomed Timor-Leste's participation in relevant ASEAN activities within the context of its need for capacity building'. The language of 'capacity building' is similar to the ASEAN 2016 Joint Communique, perhaps indicating that Timor-Leste's application is being delayed.
Timor-Leste's primary motivation to join ASEAN is security and geopolitical interests. The perceived value of ASEAN for small states lies in its capacity to ameliorate regional security risks through collective security arrangements, and as a forum for promoting national interests in regional security discussions.
Second, Timor-Leste's representatives present ASEAN as a useful pathway for advancing its economic development plans. However, some critics have argued that Timor-Leste's economy would be better served by abandoning or delaying ASEAN accession plans. Sally Percival Wood, for instance, argued that as a country heavily dependent on imports, Timor-Leste risks being 'flooded with cheap goods from ASEAN countries', which could further stifle the development of Timorese industries.
Third, Timor-Leste's pursuit of ASEAN membership reflects its desired position in international relations. In terms of regional identity, Timor-Leste has long been described as being at geographical and cultural crossroads between the South Pacific region to the east, Southeast Asia to the west and the diffuse Lusophone community that emerged from Portuguese colonialism.
As a regional organisation, ASEAN sets identity boundaries as it is increasingly synonymous with 'Southeast Asia'. As a province of Indonesia, East Timor was included in the geographical region covered by ASEAN. As such, independent Timor-Leste has a strong claim to belonging to Southeast Asia. However, Timor-Leste acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as a state outside of Southeast Asia. As long as Timor-Leste remains outside of ASEAN, its sense of regional identity remains ambiguous.
On the cusp of independence, leaders had to make choices about the regional associations Timor-Leste would seek to join. Although ASEAN states were actively supportive of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor within the international community, Timor-Leste's leaders privileged ASEAN membership in foreign policy.
Finally, Timor-Leste and ASEAN share notions of sovereignty that reinforce the rights of member states to political independence, territorial integrity and self-determination, attendant rights to non-interference in internal affairs and non-use of force. The commitment to non-interference in domestic affairs needs to be understood in the context of colonial intervention, an important historical consideration for the twice-colonised Timor-Leste. Principles of non-interference and non-use of force also help alleviate the acute sense of vulnerability experienced by small states in the region regarding potential intervention from larger states.
The general feeling among the commentariat is that Timor-Leste's chances of joining ASEAN remain strong. The crucial players, however, are the 10 member states, which all must unanimously agree to its accession.
The public debates about Timor-Leste's ASEAN membership tend to focus on democratic credentials (see here, here and here). The problem with such discussions is that those credentials are largely irrelevant. ASEAN itself encompasses diverse regime types, including electoral democracy, competitive authoritarianism, military junta and absolute monarchy. ASEAN as an organisation is bound by norms of non-interference, including rejecting criticisms of states made on the basis of democracy and human rights.
Furthermore, the likelihood of Timor-Leste shining a democratic beacon to light the way for others within the ASEAN community seems a long bow to draw in the current global context. On the issue of human rights, for instance, Timor-Leste's representatives pragmatically softened criticism of Myanmar's human rights abuses for fear that it would jeopardise ASEAN membership prospects.
ASEAN's core concern is the avoidance of intervention and interference from players outside the region. Among ASEAN states, there still appear to be concerns about the weaknesses of Timor-Leste statehood. ASEAN states are also more cautious about general expansion, given the dilemmas presented by Myanmar's membership and demands for an ASEAN response to human rights abuses.
Singapore has been particularly opposed to Timor-Leste's membership, with concerns that Timor-Leste might burden ASEAN with requests for financial support and hinder the progress of ASEAN economic community building. Laos has also expressed concerns about Timor-Leste's economic capacities to fulfil membership obligations, despite Timor-Leste's greater GDP per capita than Laos, and its higher Human Development Index ranking than Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Finally, Timor-Leste's efforts to diversify its foreign relations through enthusiastic participation in organisations such as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) have also cast doubt over its commitment to ASEAN membership.
A key question is whether Timor-Leste will likely need intervention in the future. Given Timor-Leste's reliance on five UN missions, including a lengthy Australian-led intervention from 2006-2012, these are important considerations for ASEAN states. Further, ASEAN states might question whether Timor-Leste would be a drain on ASEAN resources. Without an agreement with Australia on the Greater Sunrise gas field, Timor-Leste may be broke within the decade. Will a weakened Timor-Leste provoke an intervention into Southeast Asia if an agreement fails?
Following the recent elections in July, Timor-Leste's political unity between Fretilin and CNRT has broken down. The Fretilin government is now in negotiations with minor parties to form government, raising questions about the stability of leadership and prospects for consolidation of institutions over the next five years.
This is a critical time for Timor-Leste's accession. This year, Philippines is the ASEAN chair, and it has been publicly supportive of Timor-Leste's bid for membership. Next year, however, the chair turns to Singapore, who has been publicly reluctant to permit Timor-Leste entry into ASEAN. Should Timor-Leste not become the 11th member by the end of 2017, momentum may be lost and Timor-Leste's accession indefinitely delayed.
Curtis Chin, Ainaro, Timor Leste (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network) =- Bright blue election boxes and indelibly inked index fingers. These are just some of the vivid colors of democracy that come to mind as I think back to something momentous that just happened in Southeast Asia.
When contemplating the future of the vibrant Southeast Asian region, the tiny island nation of Timor Leste is unlikely to be top-of-mind among the top diplomats who have gathered in Manila this week for the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting.
Yet this small country of some 1.2 million people is a remarkable testament to the transformative power of democracy in a once-turbulent region, and provides a powerful model for an Asia and Pacific that has encountered some worrying backsliding in recent years when it comes to democracy.
Indeed, as Asean celebrates five decades and faces new challenges, it is worth pausing to consider who's in and who's out of this grouping of now 10 nations.
I had the privilege of serving as an election monitor for Timor Leste's recent parliamentary election as part of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) election observation mission.
Throughout my visit, I was struck by the passionate commitment of the Timorese people to the democratic process, and inspired by their optimism about their country's future.
I believe that the country is in a strong position to continue progressing in its own development and make a positive contribution to the development of Southeast Asia. Timor Leste deserves Asean support for its efforts to further integrate and engage with the wider region.
After regaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, Timor Leste's government declared its desire to join Asean and applied for membership in 2011. While its ultimate accession is likely, there is a chance that the delays that have arisen over the past six years may persist indefinitely.
Such a development which would not only deprive the Timorese of a much-needed chance for further development; Asean would forgo an opportunity to bring a country further into the Asean community that can serve as a valuable example of a successful democracy to fellow member states.
Over the past 15 years, Timor Leste has grown into a well-functioning democracy where citizens actively engage with their government. The country was ranked as the most democratic in Southeast Asia by the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2016 Democracy Index, and 43rd in the world an impressive feat given the country's traumatic experience during the 24-year Indonesian occupation.
One of the important ways Timor Leste has been able to deliver sustainable democratic reforms has been through its openness to regional and international support.
To this end, organisations like IRI have worked with civil society, government bodies and political parties to help them represent Timorese citizens responsively and effectively.
Likewise, when I served as the US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and traveled to Timor Leste in years past, I saw the importance of regional and international economic assistance to this and other developing countries first-hand.
The ADB has supported infrastructure expansion, macroeconomic capacity-building and community-based development in Timor Leste, and is well-positioned to assist not just in improving the country's roads, but also its water supply and sanitation systems. I grew to appreciate the complementary nature of different types of development assistance, and found that the aid provided by the ADB complements the kind of assistance provided by organizations like IRI, and vice-versa.
As Asean continues to grow in importance, it is vital that its members collectively pursue policies that advance the region's development in a sustainable manner. At a time when democracy is backsliding in much of the region, Timor Leste's accession to Asean would provide the region with a valuable example of how citizen-centered democracy can deliver a brighter, more prosperous and stable future.
Additionally, Timor Leste's accession to Asean would be economically beneficial to the region. Despite its small size, Timor represents a relatively untapped market for Southeast Asian trade; likewise, Southeast Asia represents a largely untapped market for Timorese goods. In short, this would be a win-win situation for the entire region, and an important example for how inclusive economic development can sustain growth that benefits all.
During the lead-up to the election, election administrators, political parties and other stakeholders worked collaboratively to ensure a credible electoral process. This commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions bodes extremely well for Timor Leste's potential as a cooperative and responsible member of ASEAN.
Now is a time for coming together. We owe no less to the many people who across Asia's newest nation proudly held up an indelibly-inked finger as a mark and proof of democracy in action.
Dili, East Timor The prime minister of East Timor, Rui Maria de Araujo, said the country is "ready to become a member," with regard to the state's aim to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.
Furthermore, as the prime minister reflected on the state's recent history including provisional rule under the United Nations and independence from Indonesia in 2002, he commented, "(With regard to) human rights, peace, democracy and so on... these are the things we can bring (to) the table to share our experience with other countries" emphasizing that despite its small size, East Timor is able to contribute to ASEAN.
However, as ASEAN marks its 50th anniversary this year, it is uncertain whether all 10 member nations will recognize East Timor's accession to the association.
Commenting on the intra-ASEAN conflict over member countries' positions on the South China Sea dispute, the leader said, "Timor Leste (East Timor) position was made clear. It's still very important to have international laws (on) conflict of resolution and the second thing is... talk to each other."
With regard to the dispute, it is thought that East Timor will distance itself from China, which did not accept the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejecting China's asserted interests in the region. East Timor itself filed for international court arbitration in April last year over its own dispute with neighboring Australia. The prime minister's comment can be interpreted as the country's intention to adhere to the court's ruling in the future.
If East Timor is accepted as an ASEAN member, it will have the smallest economy and the second smallest population, at 1.21 million, out of all member nations. In addition, other ASEAN members are concerned that East Timor "does not have the capacity to host major international conferences."
In response to such concerns, the prime minister points out that East Timor has hosted international conferences between 2014 and 2016 for the nine-member "Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa" (the Community of Portuguese Language Countries), adding, "We hosted many (conferences) of up to 19 to 20 countries." The prime minister insists that East Timor's accession would not hinder the association.
As for the relationship between East Timor and Japan, he touched on the helpful support received from the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Asian Development Bank needed to shape up for ASEAN membership, explaining that, "Japan has been doing a lot particularly helping us to diversify our economy."
Adam Henry Archival documents show the British Government like Australia and the U.S. actively assisted Indonesia cover up crimes against humanity in East Timor. Dr Adam Henry reports.
In recent research in the National Archives (UK) regarding the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and East Timor, three things emerged repeatedly.
The first was that the British had clear information (both from their own sources) and by liaison with friendly Embassies (such as the Australian) on almost all events and developments inside East Timor before and after the Indonesian invasion of East Timor of 1975.
Second, the British (like their Australian counterparts) were very well informed about numerous human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military during and after the invasion.
Thirdly, the British (like their Australian counterparts) were committed to undermining the question of East Timorese human rights in favour of expanding diplomatic and economic relations with Jakarta.
Here we have an example of nations particularly fond of lecturing others about human rights knowingly and flagrantly enabling crimes against humanity (if not genocide) to occur.
The United States, along with Australia, Britain, Japan, Europe, Canada and others, were committed to expanding ties with the Suharto regime the perpetrators of great crimes. Indeed, the U.S. and UK (including Australia) maintained military ties, vital weapon sales and continuously provided diplomatic cover for the Indonesian military while it committed these crimes. Without such support freely given and blatant in its near total ethical disregard for spirit of international law the Indonesian military could never have seriously contemplated any war of aggression against East Timor, let alone a 25-year occupation claiming the lives of up to 200,000 men, women and children.
It is important to emphasise that the information about events in East Timor was most often highly accurate. This is not only demonstrated by the documentation with have in the present about what occurred between 1975 and during 1999 when Indonesian authorities orchestrated one last crime against humanity following the independence referendum but in the Australian, British and American archives.
There were two shields that protected the perpetrators in East Timor. The first was that they were actively supported by the Australians, British, Americans, Japanese, Europeans and so on. The second was that the Indonesians were hostile to any independent witnesses (media or any other organisations) likely to report critically on what was occurring. Once in occupation, the Indonesians virtually cut East Timor off from the outside world (other than officially approved visitors).
Notoriously, five Australian, New Zealand and British born journalists were deliberately murdered by Indonesian special forces (and axillaries) in Balibo during December 1975, while another Australian journalist Roger East was later murdered in Dili by Indonesian forces and thrown into the harbour.
Despite the severe restrictions placed on East Timor, testimonies, refugees and other sources continued to provide accurate information for human rights supporters and advocates outside. Journalists such as (IA contributor) John Pilger even secretly entered the territory and filmed the documentary Death of a Nation highlighting not only the human rights catastrophe, but the complicity of the Australians, British and Americans. Other journalists such as Max Stahl and Amy Goodman were instrumental in filming and witnessing the Dili Massacre. However, there were also others extremely well informed about events within East Timor and Indonesia in general the governments of Australia, Britain and the United States.
Grassroots human rights advocacy on East Timor faced a major challenge in the UK, as it did in Australia and the U.S., but not because of the threat of official violence or oppression. The activities of the East Timorese Information Network, for example, in Australia (and similar organisations in Britain) assembled an impressive array of analysis and publications. Friends of East Timor groups (and other human rights advocates) in both nations were never short of information to highlight the plight of Portuguese Timor or physically prevented from making their information public.
There are of course numerous individuals who tirelessly advocated and supported the cause of human rights in East Timor, many more then could be named in one short article. But a few examples highlight the detailed accuracy of the information they provided on the topic. For example, James Dunn's research and analysis of Portuguese Timor (at all stages) highlighted the ethical issues at stake often in painstaking detail. Also, Carmel Budiardjo, who founded the TAPOL organisation in 1973, who documented the clear and ongoing oppression suffered by political prisoners in Indonesia and human rights abuses in East Timor, West Papua and other provinces.
Others, like Hugh Dowson, whose personal commitment to human rights in East Timor not only inspired serious research uncovering the complicity of the British government, but conducted a hunger strike in order to bring attention to the cause. The late Dr Andrew McNaughton was not only dedicated to the cause of human rights in East Timor risking his own life to document human rights abuses he produced documents demonstrating direct culpability of the Indonesian authorities.
It is difficult to imagine from archival sources (particularly diplomatic) that there was much reported about East Timor from non-official sources that was unknown or particularly surprising to the Western diplomatic establishment. When "power" is not only well informed about various crimes, but becomes actively complicit in these crimes then those 'speaking truth to power' merely become an irritation to be managed.
From the very beginning (even before the Indonesian invasion) the concern regarding Indonesia was to continue building the relationship with President Suharto and the Indonesian military. Neither the massacres of 1965-1966 (where an army led slaughter of at least 500,000 people occurred), or The Act of Free Choice in West Papua in 1969, had dented the enthusiasm of Canberra, London or Washington for Suharto.
Reports of the massacres and oppression in West Papua becoming little more than a public relations issue. There was no intention of ever seriously pressing Suharto or the Indonesian military over their human rights record. Therefore, East Timor merely continued an established paradigm around the relationship with Suharto which was the primary concern irrespective. The publication of critical material highlighting human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in East Timor (as it was elsewhere) was problematic because Canberra, London, Washington etc. were determined to carry on the relationship with Jakarta.
Crimes against humanity as serious as what had already occurred in 1965-1966, West Papua and then later East Timor could each have warranted prosecutions under international law and justified the diplomatic isolation of Suharto's Indonesia. The rationale for adhering to international law being more than an adequate explanation for punishing the perpetrators of these crimes. There is an important difference: Indonesia under Suharto, and the military, were cultivated as an important diplomatic and strategic ally, and "their crimes" were not merely ignored they were supported. Therefore, information highlighting the reality of Indonesia's human rights record (and its array of crimes in East Timor) were to be managed while trying to minimise potential diplomatic damage.
This pattern was held virtually until the very end of Indonesian rule in 1999 and was only broken then when the public outcry over Indonesian actions following the referendum demanded action. Within the Australian or British documents, there seems to have been very little internal questioning about the ethical or moral propriety of associating so closely economically, militarily, or diplomatically with those responsible for a systematic crime against humanity over such a long period of time (1975-1999).
In examining Australian and British diplomatic documents on Portuguese Timor, the major concern of the Australian and British governments was clearly not "human rights" or "international law", but the relationship with Suharto. Although Suharto is long gone, the Indonesian military continue an established pattern of abuses in West Papua. The question of "human rights" were largely irrelevant to official policies, apart from (as already noted) the question of the public embarrassment certain revelations might cause. Human rights abuses in East Timor committed by the Indonesian military and security forces were known to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and others. Archival documents show beyond any shadow of doubt that the British had little to no concern about what the Indonesians would and then did do in East Timor.
Even the deliberate murder of two British born journalists, (members of The Balibo Five) was treated as a potential public relations obstacle. So much so, that despite two of the murdered journalists being UK born, the British wanted nothing to do with the matter, leaving all responsibility for investigation to Canberra. The Australians, of course, had little bureaucratic or diplomatic enthusiasm to confront the perpetrators of the crime and only the potential public outcry (and ongoing advocacy) forced them to carry out any investigations at all. The inadequacies of Australian investigations (or cover up) were clearly demonstrated by the Pinch Coronial Inquiry into the death of Brian Peters.
The British archival documents also show the PR strategies of the FCO designed to undermine human rights advocacy on East Timor, cast doubts over Indonesian human rights allegations and minimise public knowledge regarding the true intentions of British foreign policy. At the core of these were British trade relations with Jakarta (particularly opportunities to sell UK arms). This PR strategy required no serious questioning of the information provided about human rights allegations. Instead, the FCO could smear the reputations of human rights advocates, such as James Dunn or Carmel Budiardjo, with internal gossip and hearsay. Detailed human rights allegations were belittled as not being particularly serious, that the worst of these excesses had now passed and things were improving, or that advocates for East Timor were in some way driven by an irrational or unreasonable mission.
The PR strategy revealed in the British archival documents is striking; in some cases the FCO seemingly sought out the Indonesians themselves about human rights allegations. Presumably, the Indonesians could then supply the FCO their rebuttals, which would naturally be quoted in official correspondence. The FCO also provided detailed internal information guidance to various politicians to help shape answers regarding East Timor and human rights. A particularly ferocious advocate defending the Indonesians was Baroness Vickers in the House of Lords.
While public declarations of Britain's long standing commitment to international law and principles of self-determination were reassuring, they were a gross misrepresentation of the true British position on East Timor. The FCO reaction to queries and reports about the human rights situation in East Timor sought to explore ways to sideline and indeed publicly sidestep the validity of the criticisms, but again they understood very well from a range of sources (including their own) most of these reports highlighted real abuses.
The ongoing dedication of those supporting human rights in East Timor were then an irritation to be managed, and for a great deal of the period in question, the public profile of East Timor was not high in mainstream coverage. Sir Allan E. Donald, Assistant Under Secretary FCO Asia/Far East, South East Asia (1980-84) and later Ambassador to Indonesia (1984-1988), annotated a 1981 FCO document highlighting the lack of media interest in East Timor. This was no doubt pleasing to the FCO.
In terms of sheer scale, the atrocities committed by the Indonesians between 1975 and 1980 alone, the ability to overlook such crimes against humanity required great commitment from the Australians, British and Americans to maintain their relationship with the perpetrators. At least 80,000 Timorese (possibly much higher) died as a direct and indirect result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation during these years alone. In that time, the Australians, British and Americans had not only acquiesced to the Indonesian invasion, provided diplomatic and material support for the occupation, they also sought to further their own interests by expanding the relationship with Suharto.
For the British and Americans, this involved the sale of weapons which would be used directly in East Timor and West Papua. For the Australians, this would involve providing de jure recognition of the Indonesian occupation in return for beginning negotiations over maritime boundaries in 1979. By closing the Timor Gap, the Australians would eventually gain access to Timorese oil and gas. Archival documents show that the British were concerned to explain to the Indonesians that, while they supported and, indeed, agreed with the Australians moves from 1978 to offer de facto and then de jure recognition in 1979 they could never publicly do likewise. Publicly, the British would maintain the fiction of supporting the principle of self-determination, privately they would do nothing to regarding the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. The British wanted the Indonesians to understand that they wished to avoid any UK overseas territories or colonies coming under scrutiny regarding self-determination. The lives of the East Timorese being obviously irrelevant to such thinking.
In no page of the many documents examined at the UK National Archives is there even the slightest concern or contrition over the fate of the East Timorese only the problem of how to continue the relationship with the perpetrators. There is little doubt that East Timor is more significant demographically and statistically than many other terrible modern examples often labelled "genocides" or "ethnic cleansing". It is telling that human rights advocates discussed in the FCO documents provided information that was not only highly accurate at the time events were occurring, but that governments all well informed of the realities of East Timor remained steadfast in their determination to ignore their work.
Human rights advocates, therefore, should not assume that in speaking truth to power they speak to the ignorant as Noam Chomsky has noted such people already possess a far more complete truth particularly when they are closely complicit to the crime. However, in bearing public witness, this can be a catalyst for public action and organisation. Continued advocacy highlights that those hoping to hide their complicity behind weasel words find this advocacy simultaneously irritating, provocative, and potentially personally embarrassing. It is therefore important to carefully document the true record of "power" over issues like East Timor reminding those who would prefer to forget their actions of their selective disregard for human rights in pursuit of base self-interest.
Curtis S. Chin A decade ago, I traveled to East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, to look at the condition of roads and other infrastructure in Asia's newest country. I was working with the Asian Development Bank at the time, and returned in 2010 for a follow-up visit. It was not until July this year that I returned again this time as an independent election observer, to witness firsthand the country's ongoing journey to democracy.
Just like the country's roads, that voyage remains a work in progress, undoubtedly with more bumps and twists along the way. But in a world awash with cynicism, and with democracy under pressure in so many countries, I found hope in this young nation of some 1.2 million people.
The parliamentary election that I observed and a presidential poll held in March were the first run without international assistance since a United Nations mission left in 2012. A Portuguese colony for 273 years until 1975, East Timor was forcibly occupied by neighboring Indonesia until 1999, and regained its independence only in 2002 after a transition administered by the U.N.
My election day began before dawn, to the sound of roosters, in the small mountain town of Ainaro, where I stayed in a guesthouse a short walk from a beautiful colonial church. For most of the day, with my interpreter Arianto, our driver Angelo and a smartphone app that showed polling stations, I traveled on roads good and bad, and crossed rivers on bridges new and old, throughout the region.
Ainaro district, some 4-5 hours' drive from the capital Dili, is a special place. Here, Xanana Gusmao, who would become the first president of East Timor, spent many years directing resistance to Indonesian occupation. During World War II, Ainaro was where Imperial Japan's efforts to conquer this region came to an end.
In contrast to the mayhem and violence back then, the scenes I saw were festive and peaceful. Voters waited quietly at polling stations that opened promptly at 7 a.m. Until the polls closed early afternoon I saw voters coming on foot, by motorcycle and by bus or truck to cast their votes. Young or old, each showed a voter identification card, had his or her name confirmed on voter rolls and entered an election booth to mark a choice from some 21 political parties. A nail was provided to punch a hole in the ballot. Afterward, each voter dipped an index finger into a well of indelible ink to help prevent double voting.
Weeks later, national pride in what happened on that sunny Saturday election day can still be sensed, even as political parties jockey for position in the formation of a new government. "Once again, we have shown the world that Timor-Leste is a democratic country," my interpreter, and now friend, Arianto Martins de Jesus told me. "The election has brought new hope for Timor-Leste's people, no matter who leads the government."
As with all governments democratically elected or not a key challenge will be delivering on people's hopes. Running an election can be the easy part, in contrast to forming a government and running a country. But hope there is, even if at first glance East Timor is struggling on several fronts. Poverty remains high, as does youth unemployment. Oil and gas reserves, the government's primary source of revenue, could well be depleted by 2022.
Yet notable strides have been made in the last decade to improve living conditions and increase economic opportunities. The Dili I visited in July is a far cry from the one I first saw a decade ago. Plans for East Timor's first internationally branded hotel, a Hilton, have just been announced, and the international franchises Burger King and Gloria Jean's Coffees are already in Dili. The infant mortality rate has almost halved since East Timor regained independence, and malaria cases have declined dramatically. Although not all in the region yet agree, East Timor's accession to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is richly deserved, and would help to lock in progress.
Before making the long road trip back to the capital after election day, I stopped in the old church in Ainaro and caught the start of Sunday service. Much was in the local language, but now and then I heard the word "Alleluia." Praise and celebration were certainly in order. There may be challenging times ahead for East Timor, but the country's commitment to the rule of law, peace and democracy bodes well for its future. This tiny young nation is an example to much larger neighbors which are still struggling, or even stalling, on their own bumpy paths to democracy.
Today, the 30th of August, is a bittersweet day for the Timorese. It is the anniversary of the Popular Consultation, the UN sponsored referendum held in 1999 that finally gave the Timorese people a chance to vote for their freedom.
And vote they did, overwhelmingly for self determination. This courageous act unleashed a terrible tirade of violence that saw over 1,400 civilians killed, some 200,000 Timorese forced into West Timor by Indonesian troops and paramilitary gangs, and the destruction of the capital Dili.
In October 1999 after spending seven years in an Indonesian prison Xanana Gusmao, the Commander in Chief of the resistance flew home to his beloved people now once again on a path to freedom.
And where is Xanana today? Surely he is amongst his people on this important day of commemoration?
Instead he is thousands of kilometres away in Europe battling with Australia, to finally establish a maritime border that gives the Timorese people what is their right under International Law.
What an appalling state of affairs.
While we can only speculate on what is happening in the secret United Nations Conciliation meetings now underway, one fact is beyond speculation it is time for this sorry story of Australian greed and arrogance to come to an end. To finish this without delay with a final chapter that tells a story that shows integrity and demonstrates friendship and respect.
I have written before about the opportunity that now exists for Australia to set an example in the Timor Sea.
The President of East Timor in a televised address to the nation on the 21st of August made plain the commitment of the State:
"Because this negotiation is intimately related to the sovereignty of Timor-Leste, as one of our national interests, as the Head of State, I want to express my full support to the government of Timor-Leste, through our brother Xanana Gusmao, who is leading and will continue to lead the negotiation with a view to achieving a result that is fair to us, in accordance with international law."
He went on to say: That 'one day' is long overdue.
The fact that today, of all days, Xanana is on the other side of the globe continuing the struggle for Timor's sovereignty so that the Timorese people can finally enjoy their rights under international law is an indictment on Australia's poor treatment of its near neighbour.
Damien Kingsbury Although unlikely to be formalized before 22 August, the shape of Timor-Leste's next government is starting to become clear. It appears that Fretilin, as the 'most voted' party, will form a minority government, probably in alliance with the 'youth' party, KHUNTO. This alliance will give the government 27 seats in the 65 seat parliament.
The new Popular Liberation Party (PLP), with eight seats, will not join the government but has agreed to not block the budget or to force early elections. Fretilin will therefore be able to count on a minimum of 35 votes to pass the budget and, presumably, any other essential legislation.
CNRT, with 22 seats, had held discussions with Fretilin but has reached no agreement to join in what had previously been expected to be a Fretilin-CNRT alliance. CNRT leader Xanana Gusmao said that CNRT should remain in opposition, although he did leave the way open for CNRT members to be appointed as ministers.
The fifth party in parliament, the Democratic Party (PD), met with Fretilin but made a claim for ministries which Fretilin could not agree to. It is therefore expected that PD, which in the past had an antithetical relationship with Fretilin, will also remain in opposition.
Fretilin will be asked to form government under Section 106 of Timor-Leste's constitution, which says that the president calls on the person who heads the 'most voted' party or who can form a majority alliance to become prime minister. The prime minister then recommends ministers to the president, who in turn appoints the ministers.
The 'most voted' aspect of Timor-Leste's constitution was tested, controversially, in 2007, when Fretilin was also 'most voted' but did not have a parliamentary majority. CNRT was able to form a majority parliamentary alliance and, on that basis, Xanana Gusmao was appointed as prime minister by then President, Jose Ramos-Horta.
Fretilin argued at that time that it could form a minority government and still gather enough parliamentary support to pass a budget. President Ramos-Horta's decision to support a majority alliance in parliament led to entrenched political division in Timor-Leste, following the violence of 2006.
The appointment of a CNRT-led government, however, did usher in a period of greater political stability, much of which was purchased by the new government's spending program in excess of the country's sovereign wealth 'petroleum' fund's sustainable limits. In 2015, CNRT invited Fretilin to join in a government of 'national unity', with Xanana Gusmao stepping down a prime minister, elevating Fretilin's Rui Araujo to that position.
CNRT thereafter supported Fretilin's Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Guterres for the presidency in the March presidential elections, in which he was successful. It was expected, with CNRT supporting Fretilin, that the two parties would continue in alliance following the parliamentary elections on 22 July.
Many in CNRT believed that, after supporting Araujo as prime minister and Guterres as president, it was CNRT's 'turn' to be allocated the prime ministership. However, with CNRT achieving a vote 0.19 per cent behind Fretilin's 20.65 per cent, it appeared that any understanding that may have existed prior to the elections was ended.
Importantly, while this situation could have led to confrontation, it does not now seem that will be the case. There now appears to be a broad commitment to continuing Timor-Leste's political stability.
The question will be, however, how the incoming government addresses Timor-Leste's increasingly troubled financial future. Without another major source of income, which does not appear likely at this time, there will need to be significant cuts to the country's national budget.
Depending on which areas of the budget are cut, many people who currently receive pensions or who benefit from subsidies may find their lives becoming harder rather than easier. Cuts to major infrastructure projects would therefore be more politically palatable, if reversing recent policy and slowing overall economic growth.
Following this year's elections, Timor-Leste now has a way forward. After some initial concern about the country's future, it now appears that Timor-Leste may be able to continue to avoid internal dissent and conflict, and instead consolidate its peace and stability.
Damien Kingsbury Timor-Leste came through the 2017 parliamentary elections with a general expectation that the two major parties, CNRT and Fretilin, would continue to dominate the small country's politics and return to the coalition they had since 2015. That coalition gave Timor-Leste stability and promised stability into the future, if at the expense of a viable opposition.
That stability that looked likely only recently is now in question. The head of CNRT, Xanana Gusmao, has resigned as party chair and declared that CNRT should not enter into a coalition.
Fretilin won a plurality in the election, with 29.7 per cent of the vote, 0.2 per cent ahead of CNRT which lost 7 per cent of its vote. Fretilin took 23 seats in the 65 seat parliament, with CNRT taking 22, a loss of eight seats. Fretilin appears to have the support of the rising 'youth' party KHUNTO, but will require either the Popular Liberation Party (PLP) or the Democratic Party (PD) to join it to form a parliamentary majority. PD is antithetical towards Fretilin while PLP is a possible but unlikely coalition partner.
In 2015, Xanana Gusmao stood down as prime minister, putting Fretilin's Rui Araujo in his place, creating a new coalition with Fretilin. This was cemented with CNRT's support for Fretilin's Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Gueterres successful bid for the presidency in May this year.
The widespread assumption was that, with an agreement around power sharing, Fretilin and CNRT would return to their coalition following the elections; Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri said as much in a pre-election speech.
In 2016, Fretilin's political nemesis, the Democratic Party, left the coalition, and is now cooperating with the Popular Liberation Party of outgoing President Taur Matan Ruak to support PD candidate, Antonio da Conceicao, for the presidential elections in May.
Guterres won the presidency with 57 per cent in the first round. That was a convincing win, but it demonstrated that either Fretilin or CNRT has lost some of what should have been, on 2012 figures, a voter base of 66.5 per cent. As it turned out, it was CNRT that overwhelmingly dropped its vote, with Fretilin again holding its resilient support base.
Having supported a Fretilin member as prime minister and a Fretilin candidate as president, there was concern among the membership of CNRT that the party was missing out on leadership positions, based on its dominant 2012 position. The expectation was that, following the 2017 elections, CNRT would be elevated back into a position of leadership.
With CNRT's vote only just below that of Fretilin, it appears that any agreement in principle that had been reached between Gusmao and Alkatiri was nixed. Almost two weeks after the elections, with no statement of a new coalitions being formed between Fretilin and CNRT, Xanana Gusmao resigned as head of CNRT and said the party should go into opposition.
Whatever the agreement Gusmao thought he had with Alkatiri, it was obviously void. On the strength of just a 0.2 per cent vote difference, Alkatiri was clearly playing a high stakes political game.
Fretilin will be asked by the (Fretilin) President Guterres to form a government. Fretilin will likely ask the rising 'youth' party KHUNTO, to join it in a coalition, giving a total of 28 seats in the 65 seat parliament. CNRT's 22 seats with PLP's eight seats and PD's seven seats give what looks like will now be the opposition a majority.
Under Timor-Leste's constitution, if the party with the most votes does not have a majority of seats in parliament, the president can appoint the party with a plurality (the greatest minority) as government. This was argued by Fretilin in 2007 when it had a plurality but not a majority, and when then President Jose Ramos-Horta eventually appointed Xanana Gusmao as prime minister at the head of a majority coalition government. That decision promoted violence on the streets of Dili, and elsewhere. It was that division which Gusmao hoped to resolve when he brought Fretilin into government in 2015.
If Fretilin does decide to form a minority government, given what looks to be a broken agreement between Alkatiri and Gusmao, a Fretilin minority government may not receive majority support for Timor-Leste's next budget. If the budget is refused twice, the president is required to call fresh elections. If such elections are called, they are less likely to be the friendly, relaxed elections of 2017, and more like the fraught elections of 2007.
The next government's budget will have to address the country's budgetary spending vastly in excess of its sustainable income. It will now likely be doing so from a minority position.
Those budgetary decisions will, alone, be unpopular with ordinary East Timorese who do not yet understand their country will, at present spending, be bankrupt within a decade. Yet spending in excess of sustainable income was always Xanana Gsmao's policy. CNRT will therefore have politically legitimate, if not economically sustainable, grounds for opposing a Fretilin budget.
Assuming President Guterres asks Fretilin to form government, and the process fails, he would then ask the leader of the next major party after Fretilin - whoever heads CNRT (and it may again be Gusmao) - to try to form government. Gusmao has said that CNRT should not form a new coalition, even though he could likely do so with former president Taur Matan Ruak's PLP, PD and KHUNTO (who will go with whoever offers them a position), creating a coalition with 42 of 65 seats.
While Gusmao reckons that the situation in Timor-Leste is not the same as it was in 2007, following the 2006 violence, his opposition to forming any coalition will create an impasse. The situation in Timor-Leste is, as Gusmao said, different now from that in 2007. But Timor-Leste's prospect of a stable government is starting to recede.
It may be that Fretilin can form a minority government and receive enough support in parliament for its major bills to pass. But this is far from guaranteed.
Timor-Leste's political game is still in flux and it may be months before it is clear how it plays out. But at this stage it seems that Timor-Leste's much vaunted political unity has now ended.
In her new book Crossing the Line Kim McGrath exposes Australia's brutal opportunism towards East Timor, and the atrocities we were willing to condone to serve our national interest.
Kim McGrath, once a Bracks-Brumby government staffer in Victoria and a former long-standing adviser to the East Timor government, has written a booked called Crossing the Line, about Australia, East Timor and the petroleum industry. It was recently launched in Melbourne by Kim's old boss, former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. Here is an edited version of the author's launch speech.
Crossing the Line tells the story of Australia's secret history in the Timor Sea. A story successive Labor and Liberal/National coalition governments have schemed to keep hidden.
We can mock Donald Trump for his references to "alternative facts", but the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has been spinning an "alternative history" over the last fifty years. An alternative history, in which the potential oil wealth of the Timor Sea north of the median line between Australia and Timor and we are talking about an area that contains potentially billions of dollars of oil and gas supposedly had no influence on Australia's foreign policy towards our neighbours to the north.
Yet I found hundreds of files in the Australian National Archives that show Australia's diplomats, senior public servants and politicians invested an enormous amount of time and energy, in securing rights to oil and gas resources north of the median line. I also found hundreds of documents in which those same officials and politicians were downplaying or denying reports of mass starvation on our doorstop. And documents showing that the advice the Australian embassy in Jakarta provided Canberra, in bland bureaucratic language downplaying or denying reports of mass atrocities and starvation, often as not came directly from the very Indonesian generals responsible for the murderous campaign in East Timor. The files showed that simultaneously Australian bureaucrats were dealing with increasingly frustrated oil companies who wanted Australia to provide certainty for their permits by recognising Indonesia's illegal occupation. Many of the files concerning Australia's oil interests in the Timor Sea, some dating back to the early 1970s, contain big black redactions covering up paragraphs that if declassified would apparently still be a threat to Australia's national security.
So, the ugly story I tell is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. I am indebted to Dr Sara Niner at Monash University. Her biography of Xanana Gusmao, that details the harrowing reality of Xanana's life post the Indonesian invasion in 1975, kept coming to mind when I read the cables and ministerial briefs in the archives. While Crossing the Line will be of interest to many Timorese, my target audience is Australians. The immorality of our government is something we need to own and address. Our inhumane refugee policies have not come out of a vacuum. I also want to acknowledge Helen Campbell. Serendipity led me to interview her late husband Doug, who was the first solo Australian diplomat to visit East Timor following the Indonesian invasion. Doug was responsible for aid in the Jakarta embassy in the late 1970s and he was clearly still distressed by the Australian government's failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis in East Timor when I interviewed him nearly forty years later.
I hope you read Crossing the Line and feel as enraged as I did writing it.