08 May 2010

An East Timorese perspective on the role of the international community in East Timor

By Fausto Belo Ximenes 11 April 2010 - I do agree to a certain degree that the support from the international community has been very limited. Yet it is paramount importance to understand the nature of the so-called international community and to what extent it could be influential in the world politics.

The international community functions largely [if not fully] on moral grounds, that is to say it operates based on the sense of shared-humanity, brotherhood, etc. Most importantly, however, the international community is neither the world’s government, nor is it legally bound to assist any country particularly in circumstances where the interests of both the international community and sovereign nations are non-parallel. The paradox here is the very fact that the interests of international community and the nation-states do not always collide which constitutes an illuminating evidence that should not be overlooked in our effort to understand the work of international community.

As an East Timorese who has worked a couple of years for the UN offices in Timor, and recently been an employee of non-governmental organizations [both local and international], I believe we should not point our collective fingers solely at the international community. Yes, I do agree that there is an ambivalent attitude of international community towards Timor Leste’s problems, but so has it always been in the past. When in the history of Timor Leste has the international community been united under one banner to support the Timorese struggle for Independence? NEVER!! Not even the countries that were later applauded to be the [reluctant] saviours of the tiny island in the period leading up to and following the declaration of its independence. Neither the UN for its failure to fully recognize Timor Leste when it declared its independence in 1975 coupled with the fact that it took 24 years to finally intervene in the systematic right violations that took place throughout Timor Leste.

But, as a young East Timorese, that is not what I regret the most. History has been written and harms have been done to our beloved nation, the scars of which will be carried by all and every generation of East Timorese. What is most upsetting here, however, is the fact that our leaders constantly fail to learn from the past. Instead of trying to unite the country as one, our political parties and their leaders are surrounded by an aura of their own importance, sagacity, and omnipotence which unfortunately mystify their ability to identify the real concerns and problems faced by Timorese in their day-to-day life.

From time to time, I always find it very disturbing how a tiny country like Timor Leste is way over politicized. While this does not imply my denunciation of political system and/or political parties as I do hold an unquestionable belief that political competition is necessary [in fact it is a prerequisite] in a democratic setting, it is paramount to understand that at this point of time what Timorese really need is their very own survival; that is their ability to bring food to their families, education to their children [the right of which was denied during the colonial times], access to medical care, roads that connect villages to the cities, thus allowing poor farmers to sell their potatoes and oranges to the urban communities instead of importing them from Australia or Indonesia.

These are practical matters that do not require a political adviser from Harvard or Yale University to figure out. And indeed, there’s no doubt that the economic constraints [such as lack of jobs, high rate of unemployment, poverty, etc] are few of many important contributors that underpinned the recent political turmoil. Thus until our government realizes and addresses the major triggers contributing to the political and civic instability in Timor Leste, one could expect neither peace nor stability to prevail on the island- at least not for a while. As I have previously said, there are way too much political quarrels among our leaders as if Timor Leste is on the brink of becoming the world’s next superpower. Again, politics and political system are vital, yet they have to be designed in a way that optimize their efficiency and effectiveness in a given circumstances – and in Timor Leste- what is most needed now, in my opinion, is a system that could [among others] elevate people out poverty, minimize illiteracy rate, ensure the enforcement of the rule of law, and one that provides a good healthcare system etc. This does not involve heavy political decisions.

Therefore, to go back to the issues concerning the involvement of international community in Timor Leste; I do not think we should blame the community particularly in respect of the recent political crisis since it was largely internal with a very limited [if any] outside backings. For example, one could ask why was the allegation of discriminatory treatments among the defence forces left uninvestigated until it eventually erupted into violence. If murder was a crime, why did government let Alfredo and his men wandering freely in the mountains? Or was the outside force so powerful and predominant that it numbs our government leaders to a point where they could no longer sense the difference between criminal and non-criminal acts? Or was it something else? Why is amnesty always the first to come in mind whenever we are confronted with politically driven-crimes? Are we trying to enhance a culture of immunity that we determinedly opposed during the colonial periods? This has little to do with international community, and I hope we are not trying to set up an outside target ready to be blamed for our internal civil and political strife as doing so would simply be disastrous.

Also we have to keep in mind that this is not the first political unrest that has ever occurred since we declared our independence. If we all remember, there have been times when Parliament House was attacked, former PM Alkatiri’s house was set on fire, conflicts between police and the defense. In each of these situations, the government established the Commission of Inquiry whose tasks were to investigate and bring to justice those who were accountable for these incidents. But the fact is that the general public are still not told of who were responsible for these incidents, what were their motives, whether the actual perpetrators and those operating behind the scene have been brought to justice, etc. The commissions that were established never reported their findings back to the public who had to endure both physical and psychological sufferings as result of these incidents. This pattern of immunity provides an incentive for others to follow because they knew they could get away with the crimes committed. The government simply gives too much leeway to the alleged criminals. Our leaders need to make up their minds and stop messing with alleged criminals who may turn against themselves [which as a matter of fact has occurred]- and again, this has little to do with international community. I personally still find it difficult to understand why a minor who probably steals a packet of noodles be arrested and reported on the newspapers, while the politically related crimes go unexamined.

The main point I am trying to make is that our government is responsible for a large portion of what happened in our beloved country in the past couple of years. It is not incorrect to say that the international community has done little- but my argument is that the international community was there to give us a hand, not to give us handouts- those are two different things that need to be distinguished. Moreover it was our own government that asked the UNTAET to pack and leave. As an independent nation, we cannot simply rely upon the handouts of others, not to mention the fact that Timor Leste is not the only country in need of international aid. The Timorese leaders, like in a movie, are the main actors who play main role and hold ultimate responsibility for the success of the nation. Others such as international community are only extras with limited role to play. Thus the political parties and their leaders need to learn how to really work together if they indeed care about their constituencies and the country as a whole. As an energetic teenager filled with optimism at the time Timor Leste was internationally recognized as a new nation, I had this firm belief that we were not going to make same mistakes as countries in Africa and other places in the world characterized by never-ending civil and political unrests, corruption, military coups, etc. I believed that we would learn from these experiences to avoid making the same mistakes, but I guess not.

This 2008 post was written by Fausto Belo Ximenes, (Timor-Leste). Fausto works with the Judicial System Monitoring Programme as a legal researcher, where he undertakes monitoring of both the Special Panels and the district courts of East Timor, as well as monitoring legislative developments. Before that, Mr. Ximenes also had worked with different offices within the UN Missions in East Timor including the UNTAET Office of Communications and Public Information in Ermera district and Dili District Human Rights Office where he directly involved in court and prison monitoring and delivering human rights education to the civil society. Mr. Ximenes holds a Bachelors Degree (Hons) in Political Science (International Relations and Comparative Politics) from Stony Brook University (New York) and is currently completing his Masters Thesis on human rights and business at Gothenburg University, Sweden. His current interests are politics of the third world countries, business and human rights, transitional justice, war both classic and contemporary and terrorism.
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