Young, Restless--But Not Failed Yet


Over coffee in a noisy Dili cafe, Fretilin spokesman Jose Texeira is quick to share a litany of complaints about Timor-Leste’s government–from its management of the budget to human rights, from food security to its tourism policy.

Of course, this kind of feisty, partisan display is only to be expected from an opposition party still smarting after an election defeat in 2007. But what is perhaps less expected is his upbeat overall assessment of Timor-Leste, ten years after its vote for independence.

‘We’ve made a fairly successful transition from a conflict to a post-conflict society,’ says Texeira, an Australia-trained lawyer and former government minister. ‘Another big plus is we’ve managed to establish basic national institutions, a functional civil service…It has its weaknesses and shortcomings, [but] we’ve also established quite lot in the legal system.’

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Texeira’s assessment echoes the growing, albeit cautious, mood of optimism in Dili, where residents believe that Timor-Leste has put the worst of its political instability and civil unrest behind it. But such optimism has not come easily, with the turbulent past decade seeming at times as though the country was taking one step forward and three steps back.

Indeed, more than once, Asia’s newest nation teetered on the brink of disaster.

In 1999, after 25 years of brutal Indonesian military occupation (which cost anywhere from 100,000 lives to as many as 250,000 by some estimates), the Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence. Their reward was a devastating campaign of violence and destruction waged by departing Indonesian troops and pro-Indonesian militia. More than 1000 lives were lost, while three quarters of the population were driven from their homes. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure were destroyed, and it was only armed intervention by international troops and the United Nations that brought the carnage to an end.

Still, in 2002, Timor-Leste became the world’s newest nation. International goodwill was universal, and aid and other support poured in. But the brief independence honeymoon period was shattered in 2006. Sparked by tensions within the national security forces, communal rioting swept the nation and devastated Dili and many other towns. The fledgling economy was pole axed–GDP contracted by almost six percent, while tens of thousands fled their homes for the safety of makeshift camps and shelters.

The violence was stemmed by the deployment of Australian and international troops, but burnt-out houses and buildings across Dili remain as reminders of how close Timor-Leste came to becoming another failed state.

Against the odds, the 2007 national elections for the presidency and parliament were largely incident free and generally seen as free and fair. Yet, the threat of serious instability resurfaced in early 2008, with the unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Once again, though, the nation weathered the storm, and relative peace has held since. Ramos-Horta confidently told the UN Security Council early last year that stability and security were much improved in Timor-Leste, citing an International Crisis Group assessment.

Stability has been matched by a rebounding economy. In 2008, the economy grew at an impressive rate of 12.8 percent, while the IMF has forecast GDP growth of just over seven percent for both 2009 and 2010.

Damien Kingsbury, a professor at Melbourne’s Deakin University, says the country is in a much better state than it was in 2006. But he says he’s still cautious about the future. ‘There’s still potential for Timor-Leste to fall down,’ he says. ‘It’s fragile, and it faces enormous difficulties.’ But he adds that predictions of it joining the ranks of failed states are ‘unnecessarily alarmist.’

Kingsbury says Timor-Leste has three things working in its favour–a determination by the international community to not let it fail, a functioning institutional and governmental framework and also resilient democratic processes. ‘The parliamentary process and the electoral process are working extremely well,’ he says. ‘And the people’s embrace of the process is also very impressive.’

But years more of stability and economic good fortune will be needed if the country is to tackle the daunting economic and social development challenges it still faces.

Timor-Leste’s list of challenges includes all the usual suspects–inadequate infrastructure, a relatively inexperienced civil service and weak public sector institutions. Law and order still depend heavily on the high profile of troops from the international Joint Stabilisation Force and large contingents of UN police and other international security personnel. The 2006 riots were the result, in part, of tensions within the national armed forces and fledgling police force. How these national bodies will perform after the inevitable withdrawal of international personnel is one of the biggest question marks hanging over Timor-Leste.

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