Region: East Timor - Facing The Future


Professor James Fox

The East Timorese have every right to celebrate. Their independence was a hard won struggle. But when the celebrations end and the last of the visiting dignitaries leaves, they must begin a new struggle.

The next three to four years will be lean and difficult. Popular expectations are high. Relieving poverty, educating a young population, maintaining minimal health standards and continuing to rebuild infrastructure must all be done at once. Yet for the immediate future there is too little revenue on which to frame a sound budget.

The constitution is an incomplete and untested document. It is ambiguous on the division of power between the president and the parliament. This could lead to a tug-of-war for influence between the President Xanana Gusmão and the Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Although he has little official power, President, Xanana Gusmão has enormous popular support and substantial personal authority. He has said repeatedly that he intends to be the spokesman for the people - their voice in times of difficulty. The skill with which he exercises his authority will be the key to future stability.

Unlike Gusmão who carried on the struggle for liberation in the mountains of Timor, Mari Alkatiri spent his time in Mozambique. On his return, as General Secretary of Fretilin, he has relied on other East Timorese from Mozambique. This ‘Mozambique clique’ now exerts its authority through Fretilin’s overwhelming control of government. Half of the newly appointed cabinet ministers are members of this clique.

A chief concern of the population is over land and land rights – issues so fraught with controversy that the United Nations could do nothing about them. There is yet legislation to settle an increasing number of local land disputes. Without clear legislation on land and property, the prospects for private investment in East Timor are limited.

Lawlessness is a mounting problem, especially in Dili where as many as 70 per cent of the population are unemployed. Discontent has given rise to an assortment of local martial arts groups and new quasi-militia claiming connection with former Falintil veterans and clandestine operatives. UN police will be phased out over the next eighteen months but the new East Timorese police force will have its hands full dealing with crime in the towns and land disputes in the countryside.

While Fretilin controls government, the Democratic Party and Social Democratic Party endeavour to provide an opposition. The two parties together have a greater range of talent, especially from the younger generation than the government party. How far Fretilin will tolerate a loyal opposition remains to be seen. Issues such as the use of Portuguese are potent sources of conflict. Some members of the Mozambique clique speak no other language but Portuguese, while a majority of the younger generation in the Democratic Party speak no Portuguese.

WATCHPOINT: The task ahead is made formidable by a host of problems that the new nation will face.


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