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Timor Leste’s struggle in sustaining democracy amidst developmental challenges

  • After 15 years of its restoration of independence, Timor Leste is a country that remains unknown to many of us in the Southeast Asia region. Geographically, it is located on the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. As a small state, the country has a population of only 1.2 million people.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

After 15 years of its restoration of independence, Timor Leste is a country that remains unknown to many of us in the Southeast Asia region. Geographically, it is located on the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. As a small state, the country has a population of only 1.2 million people.

Prior to the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999, Portuguese colonized Timor Leste from 1515 onward. Timor Leste declared itself independence from Portugal in November 1975; however, it only lasted for nine days, before it was invaded by Indonesian military and continues to be occupied by Indonesia until 1999. The country then achieved its restoration of independence in 2002 after a major independence referendum that was assisted by the United Nations (UN) mission.

It was estimated that one third of the country’s population died during the occupation and as much as 70 percent of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.

History tells us the independence struggle of Timor Leste is heavily build upon the sentiment of nationalism. As a post-conflict small state that achieved full independence only in the new millennium, it is a huge challenge for its nation-building and state-building process.

My first trip to Timor Leste was dated back in 2013; a year after the UN Integrated Mission in Timor Leste completed its mandate on 31 December 2012. I recalled that I was immediately smitten the moment I stepped into the country, with an attraction of its rich culture and beautiful landscape.

While I was there again in 2016, I made a visit to the former Comarca Balide Prison, which is now a heritage site that reminds the atrocities during the 24-year Indonesian occupation in the country. Graffiti and paintings created by the former political detainees revealed the torture that they had suffered. Former detainee, Filomena da Silva Ferreira named the prison, a “Sacred Building” describing it as a place of courage for the liberation of the Timorese and the country, and how the nationalists back then fought hard for the next generation.

This year, Timor Leste underwent two elections, one was the presidential election on 20 March and another one is the parliamentary election on 22 July. This election was the first election that has been run without international assistance. Although there have been some minor technical problems; it has been overall considered, a successful process.

To some extent, democracy is flourishing in Timor Leste, for instance, a total of 21 political parties were registered to contest in the Timor-Leste parliamentary election on 22 July. The political society, in the sense of multi-party politics and public elections, has functioned somewhat well, for instance, with reasonable high voter turnouts. The Democracy Index 2016 as published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in January this year has ranked Timor Leste as the top country in the Southeast Asia and fifth in Asia based on five variables - electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of the government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.

But at the same time, its democracy is also suffering in many ways. Led by Mari Alkatiri, secretary-general of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) for the second time as the prime minister, the Seventh Constitutional Government of Timor Leste finally sworn in on 15 September, albeit few more portfolio to be filled up. It has been a long-awaited government since its parliamentary election on 22 July as it is facing huge challenge in forming a government. Given the fact that Alkatiri who is a Muslim in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, it is an important signal that shown the value of the Timorese in appreciating differences.

But, the reality of having emerged from conflicts in the late 1990s, Timor Leste finds itself in a challenging position to be on par with other countries on developmental issues. The inequality and disparity between the living conditions remain glaring. Unemployment is high, as job opportunities remain limited. With growing globalization around the world, the force of globalization can turn into a threat to the country if there is no consistency in strategic planning. These are some of the issues cannot be neglected in Timor-Leste’s political discourse, as the problems are obvious in every part of the country. In economic and social terms, sustainable transformation in Timor Leste requires continuous investment in the capacity building and empowerment of its own people.

My job brought me back to Timor Leste several times and I have observed some considerable progress in the city itself since 2013. However, what saddens me is the unbalanced development in the country. It is a challenge for many countries to balance development and economic growth. That’s even more for Timor Leste. As one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world, its immediate challenge is to avoid the resource curse. As it is now, it is a land that many other countries eyeing at in term of investment simply because of what the country could potentially offer.

Having restored its independence in 2002 from the Indonesian occupation, Timor Leste is one of the newest nations of the 21st century. Timor Leste has indeed come a long way to where it is today. Their independence however came at a high price. Now, the country is gradually moving from its fragility to a country that is consolidating and strengthening the necessary foundation of a state, but that is not without any obstacles.

This young country is still searching for its own story. My hopes for the Timor Leste lie with its young generation and that remains the real task for the government of Timor Leste. As the country earnestly opens up to foreign investment and international aids, it is important for the leaders and policy-makers to avoid any form of exploitation at all costs, so that a rise in standards of living does not come at the expense of its environment and most importantly, its unique cultural values.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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