11 January 2009

The tragedy of East Timor

Jesse Wright, Foreign Correspondent January 11. 2009 - DILI In late 1999, following Indonesia’s ousting, East Timor was abuzz with optimism and hopes for a brighter future.

“After centuries of neglectful colonial rule under the Portuguese and more than two decades of submission to Indonesia, East Timor’s vote on autonomy promised a new beginning,” the BBC reported at the time.

But 10 years on, Timor is one of Asia’s developmental nightmares. The country’s economy is moribund; its education, health and basic infrastructure are still largely dependent on foreign aid workers and the UN, while few Timorese enjoy so much as proper sanitation.

It is not a matter of money. Annually the UN mission in Timor spends hundreds of millions of dollars, and the aid agencies USAID and AUSAID spend hundreds of millions more. Timor itself has just under US$3 billion (Dh11bn) in the bank from oil reserves and expects millions more in 2009.

Timorese leaders, who a decade ago were feted by the media as freedom fighters coming home from years in prison, exile or jungle camps to rule their newly independent country, have instilled doubt about their ability to govern.

A few months ago, the prime minister and former guerrilla leader, Xanana Gusmao, told local media he was ready to become a dictator as he sought to ban a planned peace march supported by the opposition. Mr Gusmao said he would unilaterally curtail the right of assembly and speech to prevent the march, which was eventually cancelled.

And the president and Nobel laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta, signed off on an unprecedented mid-year budget adjustment that Timor’s highest court found illegal in November because it used more money from gas revenue than the constitution allowed. But rather than cancel the budget, Mr Gusmao, Mr Ramos-Horta and the president of the parliament demanded the ouster of the court’s president; meanwhile, the illegal budget continues to be spent.

And the Timorese are wondering what it is being spent on.

Most people complain of unemployment, lack of education, insufficient access to health care and little hope for improvement. It has been a long time since the media wrote about the hope of Timor.

Late last year, Lusa, the Portuguese news agency, wrote: “Timor is not a failed state. It is worse.”

So what happened to the new beginning?

Monica Byrd, who declined to be identified by her real name, has worked in Timor since 2001, first as a foreign diplomat and now as a Timorese government adviser. She said that from the outset expectations for Timor were too high. “I think lots of people were naive about how quickly this place could be developed.”

Part of the problem is education. Under Portuguese rule there was very little time or money spent on the sector and under Indonesian rule, war and paranoia prevented most Timorese from getting a good education or joining the top ranks of government. During the occupation, all Timorese civil servants above the lowest levels were vetted to ensure their loyalty to Indonesia – so that when the national government came to power, the majority of the country’s skilled public workers were laid off.

From 1999 until the country gained full independence in 2002, the United Nations managed the country as a transitional state and was supposed to have trained future ministers and directors. But Ms Byrd said many UN staff who were holding top positions did not train their Timorese counterparts. When the UN handed over the country on May 20 2002, those counterparts had to lead – ready or not.

“I think it was naive to think that someone who had never been in charge of anything before could suddenly be in charge of whole departments and quite big budgets,” Ms Byrd said.

Few are so naive now.

Jesse Shapiro, a US water and sanitation engineer who has worked in Timor since 2005, said that despite the government’s considerable budget, most improvements in water and sanitation come from aid agencies.

Mr Shapiro said the National Directorate of Water and Sanitation Services (DNSAS), had a budget of more than $3 million in 2008, but by November it had only spent only around three per cent of that. This year’s budget is likely to be sharply reduced because so little was spent last year.

Mr Shapiro blames the country’s lack of education.

“The average person in East Timor doesn’t recognise the connection between a clean latrine and diarrhoea,” he said. “The directors and all the ministers, they’re all at the same level of understanding.”

The UN declared 2008 to be the worldwide Year of Sanitation and Mr Gusmao has declared 2009 to be the Year of Infrastructure in Timor.

“There were zero dollars spent [by DNSAS] on sanitation both this year and for 2009,” Mr Shapiro said. “There is zero sanitation staff in the directorate of water and sanitation.”

Meanwhile, the illegal 2009 budget devised by Mr Ramos-Horta and Mr Gusmao includes a heavy oil power plant deal and subsidised imported rice, as well as cars for parliamentarians and the introduction of Christmas bonuses for employees of government ministries.

All this threatens to bankrupt Timor’s oil fund – its greatest source of revenue – and plunge the country into long-term poverty.


Men seek warmth from a fire on the beach on a chilly morning in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Ed Wray / AP

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