At 500 Km from the coast of northern Australia, East Timor, though limited in extent, has a broad variety of languages and cultures. This is a diversity that not even the long period of Portuguese dominion (1702–1974 regarding its government, preceded by an active presence since 1515) could affect. Even though the rival British and Dutch fleets in the area had left Lisbon the control of this outpost towards the Pacific, its domination was, for centuries, nothing more than nominal and did not succeed in affecting the cultural characteristics, leaving untouched the majority of the population of the interior. Catholic influence, too, though largely and habitually accepted by the population, adapted to local customs.
The role of the colonial power was more significant and it was because of more strict controls involving, among other things, the cultivation of coffee and increased taxes that, in the 20th century, provoked a number of riots. The biggest of these was that led by Dom Boaventura. Starting from Manufahi, it involved a large part of the colony. In an attempt to keep control, the Portuguese depended on local leaders, providing incentives for their loyalty but also opening greater interior conflict with divisions that served the interests of the colonial power.
These divisions, however, had serious consequences both by prevention of social cohesion and by discouraging any commitment on the part of the East Timor people to exploit the evident crisis of the colonial government.
This crisis had its roots in the European motherland, in a country weakened by being under military dictatorship from the 1920’s to 1974 when the Carnation Revolution restored Portuguese democracy. However, those were decades in which the regime not only used repression to maintain power but also ignored pleas for independence from the colonies, considering them to be an integral part of the metropolitan territory. Portugal was, in fact, the last of the colonial powers to grant independence to its colonies after the Second World War.
The conflicts, especially in the African colonies, were by then an endless source of problems for the country and after April 15, 1974, one of the guiding policies of the revolutionaries was precisely de-colonisation. This was obviously well received by the Timorese. The promise of elections in 1978 with the prospect of independence, was followed by conflict between the two larger movements, the East Timor revolutionary Front (FRETILIN) and the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) and the start of Indonesian incursions from the western part of the Island.
On 28 November, 1975, FRETILIN proclaimed independence and nine days later the Indonesians launched an invasion and the repression meant to force many Timorese leaders either to resign or go into exile. The following declaration of annexation as an Indonesian province (Timor Timur) opened the way for intransigent rule and the start of clandestine armed movements of liberation.
The prospects of the country
Uncertainty is the distinguishing trait of the East Timor situation in which the parliamentary elections of 2001, 2007 and of March, 2012, and the presidential elections that closely followed them in the same years, reflect more a redistribution of local interests than a truly democratic exercise. At present, what are the real prospects of this country? An attempt to answer this question was made by Damian Grenfell, an Australian researcher from the University of Melbourne, an expert in developmental problems who worked in Timor from 2003 to 2011: ‘On the internal level, it is necessary to aim at civil society which has played a major role in controlling the government. Furthermore, civil society was essential to providing support and assistance of all kinds to the East Timorese in a period in which the State was unable to develop the necessary infrastructure’.
‘On the level of the economy, one of the major challenges Dili had to face was the use of the massive income from offshore oil which ought to be used to create jobs, to build infrastructure and – in the short term – to alleviate poverty. The danger, however, is that this may lead to total dependence on income from oil permits without developing other sectors of the economy. Or that the income from oil may be used prematurely or in way that does not make a difference in the long term’.
‘On the international front – Grenfell believes – we may foresee that in a few years, East Timor becomes the eleventh member country of the Association of South-East Asian Countries (ASEAN), but it is also possible that the present situation, in which East Timor seeks to maintain its own policy, positioning itself among the competing interests of the United States, China, Australia, Indonesia and, to a certain extent, of Cuba (which created close relations with the distant Asian country especially in the field of medicine and health), given that the international situation may evolve in the direction of a closer alliance with one of the regional powers’.
The reconstruction of East Timor has turned out to be the most costly operation of its kind ever undertaken by the international community: $12 billion or an average of $8,000 for each inhabitant. The results have been rather scant since 41% of the population still live in poverty, the majority of whom are between 15 and 29 years old.
Today, the priorities of the country are: the fight against poverty, security and administration. While money has flowed in abundantly in recent years, not least from governments that have opened their vaults to invest in local oil, much of the population still live in rural areas and eke out their existence from highly subsidised agriculture. There are also periods of the year, sometimes for several consecutive months (the infamous ‘hunger season’), when the population has not enough food. As well as that, key infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, markets and roads are still in a precarious condition ‘inherited’ from the devastation of 1999.
In a situation of this kind, the construction industry depends almost exclusively on the availability of public funds and the help of foreign organisations. It is no accident that 58% of families live in inadequate housing conditions with no access to clean water or sewerage. At the same time, a great number of prefabricated houses, the result of a government campaign launched in 2011 to achieve the millennium objectives of development, remain empty due to lack of infrastructure, since only 20% of the planned public works have so far been carried out.
The Timorese budget relies on the Oil Fund that manages more than $14 billion of income from oil and gas deposits. Resources which – estimates indicate – will run out by 2025 without any present initiative to replenish them.
This is yet another reason why stability, social peace and a pragmatic but active economic policy are not options but necessary for the country to have a future of relative prosperity instead of further poverty.
In terms of security and administration, customary local law has shown itself to be much more effective in providing basic stability than that which, since independence, has tried to build a modern State, not always in line with real potential or possibility. The national structures have, in fact, for some time been infiltrated by traditional tensions and feuds as well as ideological and political interests. This situation is evidenced by the violence that struck the country in 2006 and 2007, with the army and police fighting among themselves and the private militias of members of parliament, and the revolt of Major Reinado that, in 2008, almost cost the life of President José Ramos-Horta and Premier Xanana Gusmão. (S.V.)