Insights and Analysis

A Look Back at 10 Years of Independence in Timor-Leste

May 30, 2012

By Mario Filomeno da Costa Pinheiro

Timor-Leste marked 10 years of independence over the past weekend, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commending Asia’s newest nation for its “impressive advances,” and congratulating the new President, Taur Matan Ruak, on his inauguration. While many are reflecting on the nation’s great achievements, others are also asking, how much real change has the preceding 10 years really brought to the citizens of Timor-Leste in terms of the economy, political participation, justice, and other social aspects of life?

Timor wall graffiti

Over the past three years, Timor-Leste has logged double-digit economic growth figures. However, some are concerned that this growth largely remains concentrated in the capital, Dili. Photo by Molly Mueller.

Indeed, Timor-Leste has seen many changes over the past 10 years since independence was restored following a landmark referendum. For starters, it has managed to build the state, from scratch, following the devastating scorched-earth campaign by military backed pro-Indonesian militias. The efforts to build state institutions, by nature, have a fair share of sweet success and bitterness. Timor-Leste’s journey was tarnished by some early setbacks beginning in 2002 with the burning of the then prime minister Alkatiri’s house and Hello Mister, the biggest supermarket at the time in Timor-Leste. These events were followed by ethnic conflict in 2006 which resulted in the displacement of more than 100,000 people from their homes, hundreds of which were destroyed. In 2008, the country had the world on the edge of its seat with the alleged assassination attempts on both former president Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. The incident resulted in the death of Alfredo Reinaldo, the leader of breakaway military faction and Ramos Horta shot and seriously wounded, while Prime Minister Xanana escaped unhurt.

Despite these setbacks, the last 10 years have also brought some very positive economic changes. Over the past three years, Timor-Leste has logged double-digit economic growth figures (although some do doubt how long the government can sustain the current level of spending in the absence of a viable private sector, as the country’s economy is still heavily subsidized by the government). Also, most of this exponential economic growth remains concentrated in the capital, Dili, despite efforts by the current government to offset this imbalance through a wealth redistribution policy.

A growing concern among private business owners is that the adoption of a free market economy at the small business level has made even the smallest businesses, such as local shops, face stiff competition from foreign nationals, mostly Chinese. This is forcing some local competitors into “survival mode” as they struggle to compete with the influx of well-funded, business-savvy foreigners, resulting in the closure of many local businesses. Governing small business ownership by foreign nationalities will be an important task for the new government.

In the justice sector, there have been many achievements in the past 10 years:  from the enactment of important legal frameworks, such as a witness protection law and money laundering law, to the growing number of trained lawyers and judges. One remaining challenge is that the judges and lawyers need to build their capacity to deal with growing social problems, which have lead to an increase in court cases.

Questions on justice for past atrocities still resonate strongly among victims – estimates suggest that 183,000 East Timorese lost their lives from fighting, disease, and starvation during Indonesian occupation. Despite this contentious issue, Timor-Leste is currently heavily reliant on import products from Indonesia, and not surprisingly, the government is deeply concerned about maintaining relations with Indonesia. Any policy decision that could upset the Indonesian government could lead to destabilization in the border area. Moreover, Timor-Leste is keen to join ASEAN and sees Indonesia as a strategic partner that could assist in Timor-Leste’s ASEAN accession process.

However, despite the country’s violent history with the Indonesian occupation, recent civil unrest, and attempted assassination against top leaders of the country, four years of relative stability and peace has given citizens a great deal of hope for the future.

At the same time, the government has made efforts to fight corruption, starting with establishing an official anti-corruption body in 2008. While some remain skeptical about the body’s ability to be impartial, others say it has done an excellent job. Since its inception, many accused of corruption are now under investigation, most notably the recent suspension of Justice Minister Lucia Lobato accused of corruption and abuse of power. Another minister is about to face court soon, while a local newspaper recently reported that the anti-corruption body is to question the president of the National Parliament on the purchase of 65 luxury cars for members of Parliament. This is a step in the right direction. Regardless of the body’s imperfections, for a new country and a newly set up body, this is an achievement in itself. This past four years has set a good precedent in the fight against corruption, and has sent the message that no one is untouchable, be it a minister or the president of the National Parliament.

The national strategic development plan announced by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has set a clear path for Timor-Leste in the next 10 to 20 years. The nation must now concentrate on laying the groundwork for achieving those goals. Looking at Timor-Leste’s current condition, it is on the right track. However, we must ensure that security and stability remain intact in order to continue in a positive direction.

Mário F. Costa Pinheiro is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Parliamentary & Ministerial Strengthening Programs in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. For all the achievements since independence, it is sad to see the country descend again into violence this weekend after the 2012 parliamentary elections and the formation of a coalition government that excluded Fretilin. We hope that that was only a temporary aberration and things will return to peaceful stability again soon.

    Editor, East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin

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