Thursday, June 01, 2006

toughing it out in East Timor

Cool it, lads

Was up last night catching up with events in East Timor, thanks mainly to the work of Ken Parish,
here and here, and his links - this one in particular.

I must say that when I heard Howard saying that East Timor was 'poorly governed', my suspicions were raised. We've been copping flak [is that how you spell it?] for pushing East Timor to stand on its own feet without outside support, for reasons more to do with saving our own money and resources than a genuine interest in and belief in East Timor's future. The 'penny wise, pound foolish' remark seemed a reasonable summation, and it would be par for the course for Howard to blame the victims.

Having now familiarised myself a bit more with the crisis at the top at least, my views are, I suppose, a little more nuanced but not substantially changed. Sure there are problems at the top. Mari Alkatiri, their PM, is seen as something of an outsider [he was in Africa - Angola according to one report, Mozambique according to another - during the referendum and subsequent violence] who hasn't really experienced the suffering of the people. He's not popular, according to all accounts, yet he was democratically elected - presumably because, for some reason or another, he was chosen to head the popular Fretilin party. Recently, he fended off a challenge for the Fretilin leadership by Jose Luis Guterres (ET's UN ambassador), and he appears to be a hang on at all costs kind of guy.

Jim Dunn, former adviser to the UN mission in ET, elaborates on the 'poor government' claim
here. According to him, the ET government has focused too much on 'structural economic and political development' (by which he appears to mean the kind of economic development that has no effect on people's living standards, at least in the short term), to the detriment of the immediate needs, both material and psychological, of the people. The much more popular and laid-back Xunana Gusmao chose not to embroil himself in party politics and took up the largely ceremonial role of President of ET. Apparently, he and Alkatiri can't stand each other, and with the crisis growing, some of Gusmao's friends and advisers, Jose Ramos Horta among them, have been trying to push him forward to test the Presidential powers under the new constitution. According to Parish and others, though, the constitution provides little room for Gusmao to manouevre, so we appear to be left with something of a stalemate.

Now, irrelevant desk-bound pundit that I am, I can't help but feel that the mistakes made in government by the East Timorese hardly warrant the criticism it has suffered, particularly from the Australian government. This criticism, I feel, was largely for Oz domestic consumption (we did our best for them and they still can't manage, maybe they're just innately incompetent - don't worry folks, we're not going to get embroiled in ET like we are in Iraq). The fact is that this is ET's first ever government, a government that has, from the first, had to preside over a traumatised, impoverished, deeply divided people. The Australian government has never been faced with anything like what the ET govt has had to face. The consequences of its mistakes are far far greater than the consequences of our govt's mistakes. The AWB scandal has barely touched our govt, even though it's clear enough to everyone that they were deliberately turning a blind eye for self-serving reasons. Imagine if the ET govt was caught up in something similar - the screams about corruption and dishonesty from without and within wouldn't have subsided until the government was brought down.

In short, to blame the ET government solely for ET's knife-edge situation displays extraordinary insensitivity to the difficulties it faces. I'm sceptical, too, about complaints over the constitution - I'm familiar enough with the politics of even the smallest communities to realise that, when there's serious conflict, the group's rules and constitution
always let it down. ET hasn't been around long enough as a political entity to develop the kind of unwritten but fiercely adhered to conventions that enable - with the odd exception - the smooth running of public affairs. ET needs support, but it isn't a basket case. It's in our interest to help it out - and it's certainly a more ethical involvement than our involvement in Iraq. Oh, and just to give an example of the difficulties it faces - one thing that has apparently detracted from Xunana's popularity is his
'refusal to pursue the issue of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military during their brutal rule', as reported here. I think I can follow his reasoning - and how can we forget that he was imprisoned by the Indonesians himself? He has probably felt that bad blood between ET and Indonesia would be more disastrous for his struggling little nation than just about anything else. The Indonesian reaction to Australia's acceptance of a few Papuan asylum seekers is testimony to the sensitivities involved, and ET's position is a thousand times more vulnerable than Australia's.

Having said that, I don't myself agree with Xunana's position (for what it's worth). For internal political reasons it might be better to have these things out, but above all it's a matter of simple justice.

It's easy for me to write these things though. Jim Dunn's final lines strike me as typical pundit-speak. He was talking about the East-West divide in ET, and said: 'it's a tricky situation but it should have been dealt with long ago'. Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah, bla bla bla bla.

There's an interesting-sounding site here, a policy report on Australia and the security of ET, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, published back in 2002. I'm about to read it in detail, but I note in passing that it highlights some problems with the constitution.



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