It is always risky to make predictions in politics, particularly at this time. Consider some relatively recent shockers: the vote in favor of Brexit and the subsequent political fallout in the United Kingdom; the accession of Donald Trump to the White House; the assumption of the French presidency by a 39-year-old political “newbie,” Emmanuel Macron. The unexpected is becoming the new normal. That said, I would like to hazard a forecast on the upcoming parliamentary elections that will determine the shape of Timor-Leste’s government for the next five years.
Twenty-three parties are registered to contest the polls slated for July 22, 2017. The party that garners the most votes shall have the right to appoint the prime minister, who will lead the government.
Among the Timorese citizens eligible to vote, there will be 17-year-olds exercising their right of suffrage for the first time. When these teenagers were born, Timor-Leste was not officially a country. They would have been born in the aftermath of the terrible violence and destruction that surrounded the 1999 independence referendum, which set Timor-Leste on the course to statehood.
These young men and women can be counted fortunate not to have experienced the horrors associated with the birth of our nation, and with the quarter-century occupation of our land. Their parents and elders, however, would certainly remember the trauma of those dark times. Timor was a land of blood and ashes.
I grew up in Timor during the Indonesian occupation and was in the capital Dili throughout the period of the independence ballot when the stench of fear and death permeated every corner. Amid the panic and chaos, my family fled the capital to escape the carnage. I took the decision to remain in Dili to help the masses of people who had been displaced by the violence.
Pro-integration militia on a rampage of murder and rape shot into our school, put guns to children’s heads, and threw grenades into our hiding places. My parents thought I had been killed. I hid for days. I scavenged for food for myself and others. With two friends, I dug a grave and buried a woman – at night, while bullets flew. She had died naked and had started to decompose. We were just 14. We were the lucky ones.
The Timorese diaspora returned to a shattered country after more than two decades in exile. There were rivers of tears. Many were shocked beyond tears. Entire clans and villages had been wiped out. Everyone had lost family members during the occupation. Some returned to discover themselves all alone in the world: every single member of their family either dead or “disappeared” amid the barbarity of war.
To this day, it remains difficult to speak of the brutality of those times. Some scars are visible to the eye, others are less obvious.
If we do not recount the trauma, it is because words somehow feel trite next to the enormity of the horror. If we grin and carry on, it is because our dreams and ambitions for the future are greater than the desolation of the past. If we laugh uproariously, it is to repudiate the history that conspired to snuff us out.
Our thirst for life, and our sense of responsibility toward those who have sacrificed everything for the nation’s freedom, propel us forward. The knowledge that we have endured and survived is the source of our strength.
Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002. Four years later, discontent between factions within the country’s armed forces led to clashes which displaced some 150,000 people, rendering them refugees in their own country. As the Timorese leadership moved to restore order, and to provide shelter and care for the displaced, they came to realize that it distresses the people to see their leaders in open political conflict. The crisis of 2006 was the million-volt jolt – the wake-up call to the leadership that we needed to invest in consolidating peace in our country, and to build trust with one another, before we can build anything else.
In the years following 2006, Timor-Leste’s leaders have endeavored to work together across party lines in an inclusive and consultative way, recognizing that the great challenges that confront the country require a concerted, cohesive approach. We are proud of our leadership for this. We do not take this comity for granted. There are many countries in the world today where peace and hope are elusive. There are democracies much older, bigger, more powerful, and more advanced than Timor-Leste that are paralyzed by discord, disrespect, and dysfunction.
Those who disparage Timor-Leste’s “consensus politics” may be fortunate not to live in a post-conflict environment, and not to have experienced the societal disintegration wreaked by occupation and war. Timor-Leste needs to stand united for we have greater battles: the development of our nation, and the completion of our sovereignty in the delimitation of permanent maritime and land boundaries.
Forging forward, Timor-Leste chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation with our former occupiers and among ourselves (there were Timorese that supported independence, and those who favored integration with Indonesia). In our fight for justice and for our sovereign rights today, Timor-Leste has not sought a war crimes tribunal, nor reparations from those that have been complicit in, and who have profiteered from the illegal annexation of our territory. We demand only the land and seas that are rightfully ours in accordance with the principles of international law. In this, Timorese of all political stripes are completely united.
When Timorese go to the polls on July 22, there will be no shortage of choice. The political parties will certainly campaign with vigor and likely a healthy dose of drama. It is politics, after all. FRETILIN and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), thanks to their Resistance pedigree and numbers, remain the leading parties.
I offer the following prediction: whatever the result of Timor-Leste’s elections, regardless of which party dominates, the outcome will be unity in Timor-Leste. This is because we have learnt from past mistakes: internal division opens the door to external manipulation and exploitation.
It is also because we recognize that we are still fighting: for justice for our nation, for our sovereign seas under international law, and for the right to control our God-given natural resources in order to develop our country. In this fight, we are completely united.
Iriana Ximenes is National Technical Advisor to the Minister of State and of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers of Timor-Leste. The opinions expressed are entirely the author’s own.