Freedom in the World Country Report East Timor (2008)
Capital: Dili Population: 1,000,000
Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free
Following an inconclusive first round, former prime minister Jose Ramos Horta won the presidency by a landslide in May 2007. Legislative elections in June yielded a political impasse between incumbent ruling party Fretilin and a coalition led by former president Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao’s new National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), with both sides claiming the right to control government. President Ramos Horta granted authority to the coalition, known as the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP), and appointed Gusmao prime minister in August, prompting violence in Fretilin strongholds that added to the numbers of internally displaced East Timorese. Fretilin lawmakers ultimately took up their seats but refused to recognize the new government.
Portugal abruptly abandoned East Timor in 1975, after four centuries of ineffective colonial rule. Indonesia, under the staunchly anti-Communist regime of General Suharto, invaded when the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared independence later that year, and East Timor became Indonesia’s 26th province in 1976.
Over the next two decades, Fretilin’s armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army (TNI), which committed widespread human rights abuses as it consolidated control. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 180,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.
International pressure on Indonesia mounted following the 1991 Dili massacre, in which TNI soldiers were captured on film killing more than 200 participants in a funeral march. In 1999, 78.5 percent of the East Timorese electorate voted for independence in a referendum approved by Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie. The TNI’s scorched-earth response to the vote killed roughly 1,000 civilians, drove more than 250,000 into Indonesian West Timor, and destroyed approximately 80 percent of buildings and infrastructure before an Australian-led multinational force restored order.
In 2001, the country elected a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. Fretilin’s representatives fell just short of the two-thirds majority required to give it absolute control. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, a former head of Falintil and chairman of Fretilin until he broke from the party in 1988 to form a wider resistance coalition, won the presidency the following year. Independence was officially granted in May 2002. Despite growing frustration with heightened unemployment and corruption, Fretilin’s strong party machinery brought it a solid victory in the country’s first local elections in 2004 and 2005.
The UN Security Council has authorized various UN missions in East Timor since 1999, charged primarily with maintaining security and overseeing reconstruction and institution-building. Responsibility for external defense and internal security was transferred from the United Nations to East Timor in May 2004.
Widespread rioting and violence erupted in the capital in early 2006 in response to the firing of 600 defense force (FDTL) troops as well as frustration over rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment. Clashes with the police resulted in numerous deaths and displaced 150,000 people, necessitating the deployment of Australian-led foreign troops to restore security. Allegations emerged that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had formed a hit squad to kill off his political opponents, and after a high-pressure political standoff between the president and prime minister, Alkatiri was forced to step down in late June. Nobel Prize winner and former foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta was then appointed prime minister, and the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) was established to help consolidate stability and rebuild the national police. A UN commission of inquiry blamed Alkatiri for the outbreak of violence, implicated the former interior and defense ministers, and called for those responsible to be prosecuted.
In February 2007, UNMIT’s mandate was extended until February 2008. Charges against Alkatiri were dropped the same month, but in March, former interior minister Rogerio Lobato was found guilty of arming a hit squad in the run-up to the 2006 violence. He was sentenced to 7.5 years in jail.
The 2007 presidential and legislative elections revealed a significant decline in public support for Fretilin. None of the eight presidential candidates who contested the first round on April 9 secured a 50 percent majority, necessitating a runoff on May 9 between the independent Ramos Horta, who secured 23 percent in the first round, and Fretilin party president Francisco Guterres, who won 29 percent. Collecting the lion’s share of votes from backers of the eliminated candidates, Ramos Horta scored a landslide victory in the second round and assumed office on May 20. Fretilin’s Estanislau da Silva assumed the position of prime minister until one could be appointed by the newly elected Parliament.
Outgoing president Gusmao launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), in April to contest the June 30 legislative elections, which initially yielded no clear victor. While Fretilin received the greatest percentage of the vote (29) and number of seats (21), it fell short of a majority in the 65-seat legislature (and far short of its 57 percent victory in 2001). The CNRT secured 24 percent of the vote and 18 seats. In July, the CNRT announced that it would form a coalition, the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP), with three smaller parties to attain a total of 37 seats. Both Fretilin and the AMP claimed the right to control government based on distinct constitutional provisions. Deadlock ensued, and Ramos Horta asked the CNRT to form a government, before incumbent Fretilin, which Fretilin perceived as bias. Neither the AMP nor Fretilin was able to bridge their differences and form a unity national government. In August, President Horta appointed Gusmao prime minister and granted authority to the AMP, ushering in an era of coalition politics. Violence erupted among Fretilin supporters in Dili, Lautem, Manufahi, and Viqueque districts, adding thousands to the number of displaced East Timorese, while Fretilin lawmakers contested the legality of the decision and refused to recognize the new government. However, they took their seats by early fall.
With a 50 percent unemployment rate, 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line, and more than 100,000 displaced persons, East Timor remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia. Revenue from oil and gas is expected to increase in the next few years, and the new government will face the challenge of managing it effectively through the Petroleum Fund, established in 2005. The country’s interest in becoming a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Indonesia is a key player, continues to influence relations with the regional organization. Bilateral ties with Australia remain strong, although some East Timorese resent the continued presence of Australian troops, partly because of perceived bias against Fretilin.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
East Timor is an electoral democracy. The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments, although President Jose Ramos Horta has pledged to make the post more active. In line with the constitution’s five-year terms, elections for the presidency and the unicameral Parliament were held in April and June 2007, marking the country’s first direct legislative elections since the Fretilin-dominated Constituent Assembly automatically became the Parliament after writing the charter in 2002. Some 3,000 international observers deemed the legislative elections free and fair, although there was some violence; CNRT and Fretilin supporters clashed in May, and a CNRT supporter and a policeman guarding outgoing president Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao were killed following a CNRT rally in June. Personalities and old loyalties tied to the resistance of the 1970s influenced political outcomes more than issues, as evidenced by Gusmao’s and Ramos Horta’s retention of the country’s two top executive posts.
A code of conduct was established among parties in May 2007, and electoral reforms passed that month reduced the total number of seats in Parliament from 88 to 65. Contradictory provisions in the constitution and electoral law regarding control of Parliament led to confusion following the June legislative elections. The constitution ultimately authorizes the president to appoint and swear in the prime minister, but Fretilin immediately claimed that Gusmao’s appointment was unconstitutional and illegal.
Despite the initial impasse, the legislative elections ultimately brought greater pluralism to Parliament and an end to Fretilin’s dominance of government. While Fretilin continues to be the largest single party with 21 seats, it is outnumbered by the CNRT-led coalition’s 37 seatsthe CNRT has 18, the Democratic Party (PD) holds 8, and the Social Democratic Association of Timor–Social Democratic Party (ASDT-PSD) has 11. However, the new government is less unified and enjoys only a slim majority, giving Fretilin, which continues to deny the new government’s legitimacy, significant leverage as an opposition party.
In 2005, the World Bank identified corruption as one of East Timor’s greatest challenges, particularly as it affects the allocation of oil revenues. Frustration with persistent corruption has been cited as one of the key reasons for Fretilin’s relatively poor showing in the 2007 elections. Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked East Timor 123 out of 180 countries surveyed.
The slightly improved security situation brought a modest improvement in freedom of expression in 2007, although heightened political tensions yielded some attacks and threats against journalists. In March, Fretilin members beat a Timor Post journalist for photographing them while they were being searched at a checkpoint. In April, a Fretilin lawmaker threatened a journalist and cameraman from National Television of Timor Leste (TVTL) for covering legislative activity following allegations that Parliament members’ involvement in the presidential campaigns was preventing plenary sessions from being held. The office of Suara Timor Lorosa’e, a major newspaper believed to favor the CNRT, was attacked by a group of unknown men in August following Gusmao’s appointment as prime minister. In February, officials reopened the investigation into the deaths of the “Balibo Five”Australian and British journalists who had been killed in 1975 by Indonesian troops and Timorese paramilitaries preparing to invade the territory. Witness testimony during the year revealed that the Australian government knowingly withheld information proving the Indonesian army’s responsibility; the former army officer in charge of the attack was arrested in March.
A revised penal code that would criminalize defamation and allow fines and jail terms of up to three years for anyone who publishes comments deemed harmful to an official’s reputation has remained with the Ministry of Justice for consideration since February 2006. The criminal defamation provisions of the Indonesian penal code continue to apply until a new East Timorese penal code is promulgated.
East Timor is a secular state, but the Roman Catholic Church plays a central role; 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Church rules prohibit persons living under religious vows from holding political office. There are no significant threats to religious freedom or clashes among the country’s different groups. Religious education is compulsory in schools. There is a small minority of Muslims, mostly from Indonesia, and a growing number of evangelical Christian denominations. The practice of indigenous rituals remains strong, despite the dominance of the Catholic faith. Academic freedom is generally respected.
Freedoms of association and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed, yet the 2004 Law on Freedom, Assembly, and Demonstration regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations aimed at “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials. The law requires that demonstrations and public protests be authorized in advance. Thousands of supporters of escaped rebel Alfredo Reinado launched violent protests in March 2007 after international troops raided his hideout. Reinado rose to prominence in 2006, fighting against the Fretilin leadership over the issue of treatment of the military; many East Timorese considered him a hero despite his use of violence.
East Timor’s labor code, which is based on International Labor Organization standards, permits workers other than police and army personnel to form and join worker organizations. It also guarantees the rights to bargain collectively and to strike, although written notice must be given 10 days before a strike. Foreigners are barred from joining unions. Unionization rates are low due to high unemployment and the fact that more than 80 percent of the working population is employed in the informal sector.
The country suffers broadly from weak rule of law, a prevailing culture of impunity, and inadequate security forces. Many of these problems stem from the lack of accountability for abuses committed during the period of Indonesian rule and the country’s struggle for independence. The legal system is fragile, with thousands of cases backlogged. The rights to due process and an expeditious, fair trial are often restricted or denied, largely because of a lack of resources and trained personnel. The conviction and imprisonment of former interior minister Rogerio Lobato in March 2007 was hailed as a victory for the justice system. However, the Fretilin-dominated Parliament passed a clemency law in June that would allow criminals to apply for clemency for “appropriate crimes” committed between April 2006 and April 2007. While justified as an effort to help the country move forward from the 2006 crisis and avoid further overcrowding the country’s prisons, President Ramos Horta opposed the law and in July sent it to the Court of Appeals for constitutional review, where it remained at year’s end.
The UN police force (UNPOL) assumed full control of national policing in September 2006, and UNMIT has been charged with reforming and rebuilding the national police force (PNTL). An additional 140 UN police were brought in to help maintain law and order during the 2007 elections. Neither the PNTL nor the military enjoy the trust or confidence of the population, and significant tensions dating back to the independence struggle persist between the two. An Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) has been charged with supporting UNMIT and maintaining security since May 2006. The Gusmao government has called for the ISF to remain throughout 2008 and UNMIT through 2012 in order to fully restore security and allow the tens of thousands of displaced people to safely return home.
In 2007, ISF efforts focused on capturing Reinado, who led a raid on police posts along the Indonesian border in February, threatening to draw the country back into large-scale violence. The manhunt ceased in May when he agreed to many of the conditions for his surrender. East Timor continues to face the challenge of balancing the interests of justice against the need to reconcile with Indonesia, whose goodwill is essential to the poverty-stricken nation’s economic growth. Efforts to prosecute and convict Indonesian officials for past abuses were halted in 2005, and the Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF), a body without the power to prosecute, was established. Despite persistent UN pressure to seek accountability, President Ramos Horta agreed in June 2007 to extend the CTF’s mandate for another six months and to grant amnesty for perpetrators of crimes against humanity on the condition that they publicly confess to the commission. CTF hearings were held in September and October and commissioners met with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono regarding the production of a final report.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, yet domestic violence remains a persistent problem. The country’s weak legal system, coupled with the prevalence of customary law at the local level, means that abuse is rarely prosecuted. While women’s participation in government remains much lower than that of men, women secured 18 out of 65 seats in Parliament in the 2007 legislative elections, one of the highest such proportions in Asia.