East Timor: From Resistance to Independence
Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, 16th June, 2002
It is only necessary here to provide a capsule history of East Timor as nearly all present will be aware of most of contemporary history. Briefly then, it is recorded that the Belu Tetun paid tribute to China before 1566, when Portuguese Domincans arrived. The Belu Tetun, "people of the plains" had established a kingdom over most of the isle under the liurais or kings.
With Dutch and Portuguese imperialists competing over the sandalwood resource, the island was divided in two. The Portuguese ruled East Timor for almost 450 years under a policy of "benign neglect". When the fascist regime in Portugual was overthrown, East Timor enjoyed mere days of independence under President Xavier do Amaral before it was invaded by the Suharto government in Indonesia. In 1974, the last official Portuguese census, the population was 680,000. In 1980, according to the census conducted by Indonesian authorities, the population was 555,250.
For more than twenty years, under most difficult circumstances, armed resistance to the Indonesian occupation continued. Only Indonesia and Australia ever recognised the annexation, with Australian capital benefiting from a favourable Timor Gap Treaty, which was subsequently quashed as contrary to international law. Through military, economic and diplomatic pressure and with the tenacious spirit of the East Timorese, the United Nations sponsored in 1999 a popular consultation among the East Timorese for self-determination as either an autonomous province within Indonesia or for independence. With some 78.5% of the population voting for independence Indonesian-backed militia forces wrecked revenge on the nation. An estimated one thousand people died, eighty percent of the infrastructure was destroyed and some two hundred and fifty thousand fled to West Timor.
In 2001, Constituent Assembly elections were held with 57.5% percent of the population voting for FRETILIN, or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor. In April this year, Presidential elections were conducted by the United Nations with a overwhelming vote for Xanana Gusmao. As an international observer to those elections I would like to concentrate on the current situation and future prospects rather than the capsule history just given. That is, East Timor from resistance to independence.
My own stay in East Timor was relatively brief - a matter of mere weeks. However, I immersed myself quite deeply from arrival, well-aware of the possibility of living in 'Western isolation', that is, among the small commercial strip of Dili and staying in modern-style hotels. I found myself staying in the outskirts of Dili, a region known as Ailok-Larang among a family which included recently returned refugees from West Timor. During my time in Dili, which included the formal duties as an observer, I took the opportunity to meet with the founder of LAFIET (their equivalent of the ACTU), Eusibo Guterres, their Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Fernando de Araujo and Dr. Lucas Costa, rector of the Institute of Higher Economics and Management, Mariano Subino Lopes, leader of the Democratic Party and Pedro Martires de Costa, leader of the Socialist Party of Timor.
When considering the current economic situation of the East Timorese, the recent United Nations report summerises the conditions quite succinctly: it is the poorest nation in South East Asia and it is one of the twenty poorest in the world. Everything is in short supply. The visible scars in Dili, the dozens of burnt out buildings, the hurried construction of concrete brick and corrugated iron shedding for homes bear real witness to the extent of the destruction. When I am asked: "is there is something that the East Timorese are not short of of? Rocks perhaps?" I've responded "no, basic building material is in short supply". Even the aforementioned Economics Institute is run out of two-story building where every window has been broken and large sections of the roof have been destroyed.
Current population estimates place the population of East Timor in the vicinity of 800,000 with significant ethnic diversity. There are some fifteen indigenous languages spoken in East Timor from the Austronesian, Papuan and Waima'a language groups with a significant use of Bahasa, Portuguese and English. The new official languages are Tetun, the most common indigenous language, and Portuguese.
Bahasa, the language associated with the occupation, is spoken by some 85% of the population, but is now in decline for obvious political reasons. Tetun and Portuguese were banned throughout the education system since 1975, although both languages were kept alive by cultural practise, the armed resistance and the Roman Catholic Church. East Timor's literacy rate is 41%, mostly in Bahasa. Portuguese, spoken by a mere 10 percent of the population, has been in decline for some years, but is now been rapidly introduced to the education sector. There is some resentment among East Timorese youth who have not had the educational experience in this language among those who see it with the taint with colonialism.
In terms of health nutritional studies suggest that 3-4 percent of children aged 6 months to five years are acutely malnourished, while one in five are chronically malnourished. Tuberculosis, endemic malaria, pneumonia, parasitic infestations, skin infection, leprosy, severe anemia, lymphatic filariasis, are endemic. Only approximately thirty five East Timorese doctors remained after the militia violence and only one at specialist level.
Functional unemployment is estimated to be in the vicinity of eighty percent. The Gross National Product is around $400 US dollars with more than fifty percent living on less than $1 US dollar per day. This economic comparison is literal of course, as East Timor currently uses the US dollar as its currency. This is critically important, as unless the East Timorese have their own currency they will be unable to direct their own monetary policy. In effect, they will be the economic servants of those who control the supply of the U.S. dollar. The current GNP is my opinion therefore an over-estimate, inflated by the influx of foreign visitor expenditure on the menial service economy.
The most immediate effect of this non-sovereignity of national currency is the misallocation of labour resources. For example, there is an enormous need for employment in civil works and large scale unemployment. The solution would seem obvious and indeed would be, if it were not for the status of the currency. But there is of course those who wish to turn East Timor into a neo-liberal experiment, whereas I suspect the Timorese are a little tired of being experimented on and would like to make their own economic decisions. In a national survey conducted last year, the Timorese themselved determined that expenditure in education should the first economic priority, with agriculture and roads also rating significantly.
The prospects for future financial prosperity seem to hinge on the outcome of Timor Gap negotiations, however the Australian government has been obstructionist in this regard, unilaterally withdrawing from the International Court of Justice with regard to the maritime boundaries. In other resources valued to the economic system, the world's last sandalwood woodlands exist in the Timor Island, fortunately coffee seems to be the most significant cash-crop.
Politically, East Timor is prospectively a model democracy. Indeed one is given the impression that if Indonesia continues as a centralist government, dominated by a military that has complete disregard for national and international law that the Indonesian people may view the East Timorese with some envy. Although FRETILIN overwhelmingly won the Constituent Assembly elections there was a significant array of political opinions all with the following winning Assembly seats and receiving the following votes:
Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, FRETILIN (57.37%), Democratic Party (8.72%), Social Democratic Party (8.18%), Social Democratic Association (7.84%), Democratic Timorese Union (2.36%), Timorese Warriors Association (2.13%), Timorese Nationalist Party (2.21%), Socialist Party of Timor (2.01%), Christian Democratic Party (1.98%), Poor Party of Timor (1.78%), Liberal Party (1.10%), Democratic Christian Party (0.66%). These results both reflect the diversity of views prevalent and tolerated in East Timor as well as the deep-seated factionalism.
I would like mention two wild cards, which may prove to be critical in the future, development of East Timor. The first is the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the second is the status of women.
During the lengthy policy of neglect in East Timor by the Portuguese, the overwhelming majority of the population continued their animist and mythic faiths. On the eve of the Suharto Indonesian occupation, only 25% of the population were claimed as belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. However, during the occupation the Church proved to be an effective human rights advocacy organisation, the cultural protector of the Tetun and Portuguese and, under too many circumstances, a haven. Thus, during the occupation claimed Church membership increased from 25% of the population to an estimated 75%. This does not, of course, represent a sudden change of faith from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity; they did not change their religious-cultural practices, beliefs, rituals or mode of consciousness. The decision of the East Timorese to turn to the Roman Catholic Church was a conscious and practical act which both reflected the political realities of the occupation and the use of liberation theology by the Catholics.
What the future for the Roman Catholic Church is in East Timor is therefore far from certain. There can be no doubt that conservative elements will seek to convert their influence achieved during the resistance to one of political power and the right to intervene in issues related personal moral affairs - pre-marital relations, homosexuality, abortion and so forth. Such a project is ill-advised at best. The East Timorese adapted to Catholicism because it helped in the practical tasks in keeping people alive, not because of a peculiar normative code. Indeed, it is more likely that the East Timorese would continue with nominal Catholicism if the Church continues with a non-judgemental social welfare orientation.
The second and to an extent related issue of future note is the changing status of women. The traditional East Timorese societies had, like all such societies, a significant division of labour between male and female roles, with public leadership reserved as patriarchy. This, of course, satisfied the existing Roman Catholic traditional concepts of the role of women and the systematic patriarchy within that institution. Under the period of occupation, there was of course, very little role for advancement in the role and interests of women. Military occupation is hardly conducive for progress in the status of women and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor is no exception. The population is still recovering from nearly a quarter of a century of forced sexual exploitation.
Nonetheless, with egalitarian formal political rights in the new democracy and a weakening of external forces and threats, the confidence of women in participation in public life has increased significantly, both in national and regional institutions and in particular, the management of non-government organisations. This has been further assisted by the positive and public use of women in military, paramilitary and policing roles by forces under the United Nations auspices, particularly those from Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, and in closing, I would like to make mention of the secrecy that still continues to exist over events in East Timor. One of the most disturbing of contemporary times are the reports in the Sydney Morning Herald that state the Australian government was aware of impending Indonesian-backed militia violence prior to the declaration of the UN popular consultation in 1999. Not only has the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that leaked intelligence material reveals that Australia knew that of the impending violence, they also linked it directly to ministers in the Habibe government. Australia however decided not to inform the East Timorese of the threat or even the United Nations who were conducting the referendum. If the claims are true, then the government is complicit in the death of 1,000 people and the destruction of a nation's infrastructure. For their own part, the government has claimed that there is no leak, but they've announced an Australian Federal Police investigation into the leak that apparently doesn't exist. Perhaps it would be preferable, for all parties concerned, to reveal their intentions and knowledge in future in a manner that welcomes the East Timorese to the world community with the respect and honesty the people of this tenacious nation deserve.