Timor-Leste: Making strides after a troubled birth
Independence has not come easily to the people of Timor-Leste. In 1975 Portugal granted independence to its East Timor colony, but Indonesia (which had declared independence from Holland in 1945 and controlled the western end of Timor) occupied the territory. With a population that is 98 percent Roman Catholic and only one percent Muslim, the people were restless under Indonesian rule and in a 1999 referendum voted for independence from Indonesia.
But violence dogged the process and it was not until May 20, 2002 before the country became fully independent. Even then, disgruntled elements of the population opposed the government with protests and riots, which came to a head when the government dismissed a quarter of the Defense Force, and some of the former soldiers took up arms to fight the government.
The result was widespread terror and destruction, and in May 2006 an International Stabilization Force (ISF), headed by Australian troops, was sent to secure the peace. And in August that year the United Nations established the Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), with a UN police force of 1600.
In 2007 elections gave Jose Ramos-Horta the presidency with a 69.2 percent win, and Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao was appointed prime minister as the leader of the coalition of four political parties – Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) – in the unicameral parliament.
A small country about the size of Connecticut and with only 1.1 million people, Timor-Leste is now working to build a modern state. Most of the infrastructure was ruined by conflict, and needs rebuilding. More critical, for a new state it is essential to create institutional competency and to train personnel to run the country.
In a recent interview, Timor-Leste’s Charge d’Affaires in Washington, Jorge Camões, sat down with DiplomaticTraffic.com to explain the basis for tensions and conflict and to discuss the efforts his country is making, including how it plans to use the revenues from gas exports that are brining new wealth to Timor-Leste.
Q. You have had a troubled recent history. Did elections in 2007 bring peace finally?
A. Yes, the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections have brought some changes to the country. The people have shown confidence in the ability of the new administration to solve the outstanding problems, particularly the return of some 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), resolving the issue of army petitioners [about 200 objected to government decisions and were dismissed] and the Alfredo [commander of the armed group] case. It was not easy but things have been progressing very well and the security situation has been normalized. Most of the IDPs have returned to their homes and the militant petitioners have been willing to talk to the government and have abandoned their armed campaign.
Q. What went wrong in 2006?
A. The political crises started with a claim of “discrimination” within the Timor-Leste Defense Forces, particularly regarding promotions. The charge may have been true or untrue, but the central problem was a lack of leadership to deal with the problem. There was poor communication among leaders at the time. It proved a big lesson for everybody. The international community, particularly the United Nations, realized it had left too soon, before the Timorese were ready to take over the leadership themselves. However, now not the right time to blame each other but rather a time for deep and true reflection on what went wrong. The leaders have to recognize their mistakes, take responsibility for them and work for reconciliation so that we can build national unity. They should be the problem-solvers at times of crises. Our current president and prime minister, as well as cabinet members, are actively engaged in the political dialog and reintegration of IDPs into the community. I am confidence that we are on the right path to overcome challenges.
Q. Are members of the ISF and/or UNMIT still in Timor-Leste?
A. Yes. Some international forces including UNMIT officers remain in the country to help us overcome the challenges, especially in areas such as security sector reform. They are assisting us to screen and train our police officers and generally support the development of our justice system. There are about 790 ISF troops (from Australia and New Zealand), as well as hundreds of UN police still in Timor-Leste. UNMIT may continue a presence until 2012. We need international forces there for a while to give people confidence in the security situation.
Q. What is the state of infrastructure after the destruction of 1999?
A. There have been some changes in the country, but there has been no major infrastructure development since independence because the country has concentrated mostly on setting up state institutions, developing a constitution, writing and approving legislation and regulations, and capacity building for Timorese to be able to run state institutions. There has been some minor infrastructures development, but mostly rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, such as roads, ports and airports, and in some cases simply building temporary solutions to allow people to work and shop, and to enable children to attend school.
Q. What are the priorities of your government?
A. The government, through a broad consultation, has created a National Development Plan as part of Timor-Leste's Vision for 2020, with the following objectives:
- A democratic country with a vibrant traditional culture and a sustainable environment.
- A prosperous society with adequate food, shelter and clothing for all people.
- Communities should live in safety, free from discrimination.
- People will be literate, knowledgeable and skilled. They will be healthy, live long and productive lives. They will actively participate in economic, social and political development, promoting social equality and national unity.
- People will no longer be isolated because there will be good roads, transport, electricity, and communication in the towns and villages, in all regions of the country.
- Production and employment will increase in all sectors – agriculture, fisheries and forestry.
- Living standards and services will improve for all, and income will be fairly distributed.
- Prices will be stable and food supplies secure, based on the sound management and sustainable utilization of natural resources.
- The Economy and finances of the state will be managed efficiently, transparently and will be free of corruption.
- The State will be based on the rule of law. Government, private sector, civil society and community leaders will be fully responsible to those who chose or elected them.
In addition, the capital city, Dili, is currently over-populated. It needs to be developed through a plan that will require a more even distribution of the population.
Since independence most Timorese have taken their own initiatives to develop or rehabilitate their homes.
Q. You are extracting gas and piping some of it to Australia, earning significant revenues. How do you use the Petroleum Fund?
A. Gas from Bayu Undan is piped to Australia, and currently this is the main source of revenue for the country. Modeled on Norway’s sovereign fund, The Petroleum Fund has earned us US$3 billion so far, of which, by law, three percent (3%) goes into the general budget to be used for infrastructure, health, education, training and rural development, and also to combat generalized poverty. This government is keen to invest the fund in order to benefit current and future generations. The government has to invest to create a better future. However, it cannot allow this generation to live in absolute poverty, victims of starvation, disease and neglect. The government has a responsibility to create the conditions for prosperity. It has to invest now to develop qualified human resources for the future. Otherwise, the dreams of the people who fought for our country's liberation will never come true, and our Vision 2020 mission will never be realized
Q. How do you plan to develop the economy?
A. Timor-Leste currently relies primarily on its gas and oil revenues from the Timor Sea but it has other potentials and natural resources that need to be developed to avoid dependency on hydrocarbon resources. Agriculture, tourism and other sectors can all be developed through investment. We plan to be self-sufficient in rice production by the end of 2009.
Q. How will you reduce unemployment from its current 50 percent?
A. Currently the State Secretary for Vocational Training is conducting vocational training for about 6,000 Timorese youth. They are prepared to respond to labor needs in the marketplace, both at home and abroad. The government is in close contact with foreign countries to arrange for them to use the Timor-Leste labor force, but so far only South Korea has been able to help. Other countries we have approached to invite our workers for seasonal work include Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. However, there are still procedures to be put in place before these discussions can bear fruit.
For the fiscal year 2009, the government has planned major public infrastructure development projects around the country, including the construction of roads, bridges, buildings, ports, etc. I am certain that most of our unemployed people will be recruited to respond to that great need. Timorese who currently work outside the state can return to help it develop.
Q. What are you doing to encourage foreign investment?
A. The government is preparing legislation to encourage foreign and domestic investment in the development of the country, particularly to create more jobs.
In addition, the government is offering resettlement funding for IDPs, enabling individuals to rebuild their homes. This process will also help create new jobs.
Q. You had a GDP growth rate of almost 20 percent in 2007. Can this be sustained?
A. The high GDP growth rate was due to the high prices for oil and gas. However, if you remove energy exports from the GDP figures, growth is very low, with GDP per capita only $400, not the $2700 published figure.
Q. What are major issues with Washington?
A. The United States is a very important ally of Timor-Leste. The US plays a significant role as a force for stability in the region. We want Washington to recognize us as a valuable strategic partner. Furthermore, we appreciate the support we have received for capacity building, and have applied for assistance to the Millennium Challenge Corporation for capacity and infrastructure development aid. We are hoping this will be approved.
A brief bio of Jorge Camões
Mr. Jorge Trindade Neves de Camões is Charge d’Affaires ad interim of the Embassy of Timor-Leste in Washington, DC, where he was posted in 2007. He joined the Timor-Leste Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it was first established, in 2001, and was previously posted to the embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.
He was born in Lautem, East Timor, on February 18, 1969 to Mr. Luis de Camões and Mrs. Rosentina Neves de Camões. He is the second oldest son of 12 children. He attended elementary and high school in Dili and Baucau respectively and proceeded to Jakarta, where in 1996 he received his BA in Social and Cultural Philosophy from the Driyarkara School of Philosophy.
He has attended specialized training in English, human rights, information technology and international diplomacy, in Timor-Leste and abroad, in Australia, Norway, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea.
Prior to his service at the Foreign Ministry, he worked with BIAHULA Foundation, a leading Community Development Project, primarily funded by Australian Development Aid, from 1997-1999.
Mr. Camões is married to Mrs. Zelinda Fernandes, and they have an infant son.