In The News

Timor-Leste’s Attraction: 10 Years after Independence

September 2, 2009

Earlier this week on August 30, under clear blue skies and a hot Dili sun, President José Ramos Horta delivered remarks at the official ceremony of Timor-Leste’s 10-year anniversary since the popular consultation, when nearly 80 percent of the people voted for independence from Indonesian occupation.

In front of a military parade and stands filled with ministry and political party officials, dignitaries of the foreign diplomatic corps, senior representatives of multi-lateral donor institutions, and past and present United Nations missions to Timor-Leste, President Horta pleaded for all to lay aside grievances against governments that were directly or indirectly responsible for the serious human rights abuses carried out between 1975 and 1999. Dr. Horta also asked the international community and the peoples of Timor-Leste to forgive Indonesia and called for the UN Serious Crimes Unit to be disbanded.

In sum, regarding the prosecution of war crimes, he asked the international community to back off – Timor-Leste would respond to its own problems in its own way. One would expect foreign governments to be glum. After all, it has been 10 years and not a single perpetrator of heinous crimes has been brought to justice. The UN Commission of Inquiry of the 2006 crisis, identified the lack of progress in the prosecution of war crimes as one of the factors weakening rule of law in the country and undermining the work of hundreds of millions of dollars of development assistance.

But this raises the question: If the international communities’ prescriptions are not being followed, what keeps the doctor coming back?

During an April 2009 meeting for development partners, attending delegates offered broad support to the government of Timor-Leste to make further strides in its development goals. Although the government holds $4.2 billion in its bank coffers, it netted $221 million in confirmed funding from the 31 countries represented at the meeting. With an estimated 1 million people, this makes Timor-Leste one of the highest aid-per-capita countries in the world.

Why Timor-Leste? It’s popular to think of aid as an industry, perpetuated by its own set of vested interests. This perspective coincides with the World Bank’s own estimates that consultants take $20 billion a year or 40 percent of the total annual amount given by the industrialized world for overseas development. Should Timor-Leste be any different?

Half the Timorese population lives on less than 88 cents a day, seemingly a perfect feast for international donor commitments. The donor community has spent $2 billion in Timor-Leste in the past 10 years, yet poverty has increased.

According to World Bank studies, the impact aid has on growth is often ambiguous. At best there appears to be an insignificant positive impact. Likewise, while Timor-Leste has experienced a 12.5 percent growth in non-oil GDP, there is little evidence of the economic benefits outside of its capital Dili.

Less-than-desired development results are clearly not for a lack of trying. Donors, including USAID and AusAID, have shifted aid spending strategies to better address rural development needs.

At the development meeting, President Horta pointed out, “Development partners have problems elsewhere in the Middle East or South Asia that require greater attention for the international community because they have greater security implications for all.”

With the exception of Australia, the President’s statement rings true for the major donors – there are bigger, more pressing problems in other parts of the world than in Timor-Leste. So, why do donors seem disproportionately attracted to Timor-Leste?

The top five bilateral donors to Timor-Leste in 2008 comprised two-thirds of all bilateral donors. The National Directorate of Aid Effectiveness chalked up Australia for $52.9 million, Japan for $21.3 million, Portugal for $20.4 million, the European Union for $19.9 million, and the U.S. for $18.3 million.

Many in Timor-Leste would say the generosity of certain donor countries, such as Australia, the U.S., and Japan is based on Big Oil. After the 1999 referendum and until Timor-Leste persevered and secured ample rights to its oil in the Greater Sunrise Oil Field, Timor-Leste was reliant almost entirely on foreign aid. Almost overnight development aid shifted from budget support to technical assistance. Key commercial stakeholders in the Greater Sunrise project are Australian, U.S., and Japanese companies such as Woodside, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and Osaka Gas.

In 2008, Timorese oil revenues accrued at over $100 million a month and today petroleum revenue represents about 95 percent of total government income. Yet this accounts for a meager one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s oil production. While oil revenues are likely to shape the relations between Timor-Leste and foreign donors, oil is unlikely to be the most significant reason for donor countries to provide Timor-Leste with assistance.

Enter the heavy burden of history. Portugal has played a pivotal role in Timor-Leste’s history. With its traders arriving in Timor-Leste in 1511, Portugal maintained colonial authority from 1640 to 1975 and supported the Timorese resistance struggle against Indonesian occupation until 1999. As a result, the nation is 96.5 percent Catholic and Portuguese is one of the official languages of Timor-Leste.

However, the administrative control of the Portuguese colonial administration, though often times brutal, remained limited outside of Dili. Today, less than 3 percent of the national public say they prefer to speak Portuguese, according to The Asia Foundation’s 2008 Law and Justice Survey in Timor-Leste.

For Australia, its strongest bonds with Timor-Leste were forged during World War II, when it sent a commando force in to slow the Japanese advance and occupation of the half-island. The Japanese seized food supplies and destroyed villages friendly to the Australian forces. Between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese died as a result of the war. In Australia today gratitude is still felt toward the Timorese whose valor helped in the commandos’ survival, perhaps mixed with guilt over the extensive suffering they left behind.

For the U.S., on the eve of Indonesia’s full-scale invasion of East Timor, President Ford and Secretary Kissinger were told of Indonesian’s plans by President Suharto. According to official transcripts, Ford replied, “We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have.” Knowingly, U.S. military hardware and training was used by the Indonesians during the invasion and during the 24 years of occupation of Timor-Leste in which over 100,000 died.

Is it poverty, oil, or guilt that drives donor support for Timor-Leste? No reason for donor largess is likely to be sufficient without appreciating the determination, dignity, and friendliness of the Timorese people. Through their bravery and their diplomacy, the Timorese people drew the attention of the world to their struggle for independence. Timor-Leste counts among its friends and supporters foreign dignitaries, Hollywood actors, pop stars, authors, journalists, religious leaders, academics, and prominent statesmen.

Nobel Prize winner President Horta himself symbolizes the appeal to higher ideals for the Timorese and for the rest of global society. Perhaps donor countries feel they have not lived up to these ideals, or perhaps in Timor-Leste, donor governments feel that they can. In either case, donor support for Timor-Leste does not appear to be waning.

“Many of you present here in this room, your respective countries have put enormous investments here. Do not feel that your taxpayers money, in investing in this country in various fields, have been wasted because of the failure of the Timorese political elite,” said President Horta, in April at the development partners meeting.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at severett@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Silas Everett | Bio

Topics:

Countries:

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available