Timor-Leste: Popular Dissatisfaction Boils Over Into Violence


Professor James Cotton

East Timorís capital, Dili, experienced its first really violent incident since October 1999, causing questions to be raised about the governmentís capacity to govern and concerning the extent of popular disaffection. The East Timor international donors conference met on 10 December in the aftermath of demonstrations in Dili that saw two demonstrators killed and property, including the Prime Ministerís house and an Australian-owned store and guesthouse, destroyed.

Accounts of these events vary, with many analysts pointing to the prevalence of youth unemployment especially in the capital, and also to the unpopularity of the police force, given the fact that some of its members were formerly employed in the Indonesian police force prior to 1999. The seriousness of the unemployment problem cannot be overstated, but in this respect East Timor resembles other under-developed nations with high birthrates and very little industry. The particular restiveness of East Timorís youth can be attributed both to the legacy of UNTAET and the current immobility of East Timorese politics.

Many East Timorese came to observe, and perhaps also to envy, the first world lifestyle of UNTAETís numerous international personnel, many of them concentrated in the capital. UNTAETís leadership was slow to address many of the problems left by the departing militias - initially administering the territory without directly involving Timorese personnel. UNTAET also spent lavishly on its own members, while failing to reconstruct much of the countryís infrastructure damaged or destroyed in 1999. Belatedly recognising the contribution of FALINTIL, the armed wing of the resistance, UNTAET then oversaw the creation of a well-provisioned Timorese national military force where membership was attained on the basis of non-transparent criteria. Demonstrations by disgruntled veterans have been a feature of life in Dili for some months, adding to the general sense of dissatisfaction with the government.

Timorese have also been frustrated by the lack of resolve shown by their own leadership. Since independence in May 2002, the new government has been slow to deal with the many challenges facing the new nation. The most influential members of the cabinet, under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, are members of a group of people who spent the years since 1975 not in the resistance but abroad, mostly in Mozambique. Their ability to inspire and mobilise the East Timorese remains in doubt. The decision to impose Portuguese as the official language of East Timor was particularly unpopular, given the fact that few under the age of 50 speak it, and many of the youth consider that their sacrifices were crucial in forcing the Indonesian occupiers to accept an international ballot. Despite a clear majority for the ruling FRETILIN party, the parliament has been ineffective, taking a monthís break from its work in 2002 and failing to pass much needed legislation. President Xanana Gusm„o himself has publicly criticised the government for its inactivity while pleading with his countrymen for patience. There is no doubt that some individuals who were formerly members of the pro-Indonesian militias played a part in the events leading up to the violence. However, the fact that demonstrators could be so easily mobilised and foreign property targeted in their activities is a sign of the extent of popular dissatisfaction. Clearly, East Timor is at an important crossroads.

WATCHPOINT: Can the government restore popular confidence in its capacity to deal with East Timorís most pressing problems of poverty and unemployment?


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