Where is East Timor heading?

By Jon Lamb

East Timor has passed through the first year of “stability” since the failed assassination attempts in February 2008 on East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Last year was marked by continued bickering among the East Timorese political elite, with the main opposition party, Fretilin, still regarding the Gusmao-led Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) coalition as only the “de facto government”. For the mass of East Timorese, dire poverty continues to dominate their lives.

A report co-sponsored by the World Bank and the East Timorese finance ministry released last November titled Poverty in a Young Nation, found that half the country’s population lives on less than US$0.80 per day and a third of those poor live in conditions of “extreme poverty”. Poverty is most severe in remote and rural areas where access to adequate health, housing, education and other social services is extremely limited. One social indicator of the extreme poverty conditions is the high number of maternal deaths during childbirth — one in 35. According to a report published in January by the United Nations Children’s Fund, women in East Timor are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in developed countries.

Despite the deepening international recession, East Timor’s economic prognosis for 2009 is relatively high growth. Horta told the UN Security Council on February 19: “Our economy is doing very well with more than 10 percent real growth at the end of 2008. With a 2009 budget of $680 million and $200 million in donor programs, I believe we will be able to maintain two-digit growth in spite of the international financial crisis.’’ While East Timor’s national budget is heavily reliant upon oil and gas export revenue, it is expected that falling commodity prices will be reflected in reduced cost of imports. The International Monetary Fund, however, expects that the 10.5% growth rate experienced over 2008 will contract to at least 7.8%.

Security threats

The UN Security Council on February 26 voted to extend the presence of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) for at least another year, with a resolution noting that the situation in East Timor is generally calm but that security “remains fragile”. Similarly, a report released by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on February 9 noted some improvements in the security situation and that the government “does not seem to be facing any serious threat to its survival”, having “at least temporarily, been able to address several of the most pressing security threats, in large part by buying off those it sees as potential troublemakers”.

The ICG report also noted that, “the current period of calm is not cause for complacency. Security sector reform is lagging, the justice system is weak, the government shows signs of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and it has not got a grip on corruption. These problems, which have been at the root of the instability facing Timor-Leste since independence, must be tackled if the country is to escape the cycle of violence.”

While the ICG report accurately highlights these serious problems, it fails to mention the conditions under which East Timor gained its independence from Indonesian rule, including the mismanagement and distortions of the UN transitional administration, which was established after the 1999 independence referendum and ruled East Timor prior to formal independence in 2002. It was over this period, and through to the present, that the Australian government bullied and undermined the East Timorese political leadership for attempting to assert East Timor’s sovereign rights in the Timor Sea over significant gas and oil reserves. It is these two factors that are at the root of the threat of violence between the different factions of the East Timorese political elite.

The Rudd government has recently announced further reductions in the Australian military presence, bringing the Australian contingent in the International Stabilisation Force (ISF) down from 1100 in early 2008 to around 650. The Australian troop presence has been highly controversial since it arrived at the request of the East Timorese political leadership, church and non-government organisations during the violent political crisis of May-June 2006. There have been numerous incidents and allegations of intimidation and heavy-handed responses by Australian troops, including bias against the former ruling Fretilin party.

Canberra has consistently refused to place Australian troops under UN command, despite requests to do so by the East Timorese government and community organisations. This gives Australian troops almost total immunity for their actions, whether on or off duty. A submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence last December by the prominent East Timorese NGO, Lao Hamutuk, called for a “clear, independent and transparent process for Timorese citizens to report to resolve complaints against the Australian military”. Lao Hamutuk also noted that “[Australian soldiers carrying assault rifles] at all times, on and off duty, even where there is a low security risk, such as speaking to small children, playing sport, shopping in [a] supermarket, eating at a restaurant or relaxing at the beach, is inappropriate and insensitive to a population traumatised by a brutal military occupation”.

Conflict over oil & gas

The apparent improvement in security conditions has brought to the fore the key question of East Timor’s control of its gas and oil resources and the struggle against Australian-owned corporations operating in the Timor Sea. A central point of dispute is over where gas from the large Greater Sunrise field will be processed. Greater Sunrise is estimated to contain reserves of gas and oil worth in the order of US$90 billion.

Horta and Fretilin have strongly argued that the gas should be processed in East Timor, at a processing plant proposed for the country’s southern coast. Woodside, Australia’s second largest petroleum exploration corporation and a major partner in the consortium developing Greater Sunrise, is opposed to this, preferring re-processing in the Northern Territory. Woodside’s position has been strongly supported by both the NT and federal governments.

The February 9 Australian reported that the Woodside-led consortium is now considering using a floating liquid natural gas plant (FLNG). According to Wood Mackenzie energy analyst Richard Quin, “One of the possible ways of lessening the debate as to where the LNG plant should be located would be to proceed with an FLNG development”.

Last July, Woodside announced that is was no longer prepared to pursue a pipeline option to East Timor, stating that “the Sunrise joint venture will not conduct any further work on the Timor Leste option. The extensive work that we’ve done shows it carries the highest capital cost, longest schedule and the most risk of the remaining options.” Unperturbed by Woodside’s position, the East Timorese government has continued with its own feasibility studies and research. The results of an East Timorese government commissioned survey and study undertaken by the US-based Deep Gulf Incorporated have found that a pipeline to East Timor is technically feasible.

The East Timorese leadership is not backing down from its position. Horta used an address to the NT parliament last October to denounce Woodside over its stand. “Timor Leste cannot and will not bow to pressures of the Woodside CEO millionaires”, stated Horta. He added that Woodside’s CEOs were being “dogmatic and political” and that, “We will not bow to unilateral decisions made by these CEOs that manage or mismanage multinationals”.

As part of strengthening its push for the pipeline and plant option in East Timor, the East Timorese government announced on November 21 that former prime minister and Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri was being appointed to manage and co-ordinate negotiations. The move also appeared to be a reproachment between Alkatiri, Horta and Gusmao, who share a common view on where the gas should be processed. A presidential press release stated: “The three leaders shared opinions and positions relating to Greater Sunrise and valued the knowledge held by Mari Alkatiri regarding the Timor Sea.” Alkatiri’s role in the negotiations, however, has been revoked following a spat in December between Fretilin and parliamentary members of CNRT, the party Gusmao heads in the AMP coalition.

Anti-Alkatiri coup?

The move to involve Alkatiri in the negotiations is a curious one. Many observers on the left and pro-Fretilin supporters in Australia argued in 2006, and since, that Alkatiri was ousted as PM as part of an orchestrated coup, involving the collusion of the Australian government, Horta, Gusmao and others, in large part because of Alkatiri’s hard negotiating stance with the Australian state and the Australia-based oil and gas corporations. They argued that Horta and Gusmao were more amenable and subservient to Australian big-business interests.

One example of this line was contained in an article in the Socialist Alternative magazine in April 2007 titled, “A colonial army on the warpath”. While correctly noting some of the heavy-handed actions by the Australian military against East Timorese, the article claimed this was driven by the Australian capitalist rulers’ desire to stamp out the influence of China and other foreign investors in East Timor. According to the article, “The growing Chinese presence could alter the balance of power in the region and threaten Australia’s economic and strategic interests. The prospect of China getting effective control of East Timor’s sea lanes, for example, is the stuff of nightmares for the Australian ruling class. So Howard essentially organised a coup against Alkatiri, backing the more right-wing and compliant Jose Ramos Horta to take his place.”

Yet investment from China and from rival imperialist powers to Australia has not diminished following the alleged coup against Alkatiri, which the Howard government is supposed to have engineered in order to halt the growing influence of these foreign competitors. In April 2008 East Timor purchased two Chinese-built patrol boats. Two of the largest construction projects in Dili — the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building and the new presidential palace — have been made possible with Chinese assistance. Investors from Singapore and Macau have also been pursuing development opportunities, including a $250 million tourist resort, and Chinese capital has been responsible for many of the new shops and restaurants in Dili.

Last October the Gusmao government announced it had awarded a $390 million tender to the Chinese Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Company for the construction of two new electricity generating plants. The controversial announcement followed an intense debate over the budget and how funds from the Petroleum Fund should be disbursed. The Court of Appeal on October 27 upheld a petition from Fretilin and other opposition MPs opposed to the tender and funding process.

Since the AMP government took office in 2007, East Timor has also strengthened ties with socialist Cuba. These ties were initiated by the previous Fretilin-led government when Horta was foreign minister. At the centre of this relationship are the community health and literacy programs being undertaken by 300 Cuban doctors and medical technicians in East Timor, along with the training of around 700 East Timorese health professionals in Cuba (and 100 in East Timor). This relationship with Cuba has also been attacked by conservative forces within East Timor — most notably those connected to the Catholic Church — but has been strongly defended by the “more right-wing and compliant” Horta.

Last November, Horta also sent a message to US president-elect Barak Obama calling for him to end the 47-year US economic blockade against Cuba, describing it as immoral and politically senseless. Horta also called for this blockade to be lifted in his addresss to the UN General Assembly in September.

The strengthening of ties between East Timor and Cuba and the potential of Cuba’s socialist example gaining more influence across different sectors of East Timorese society is as much a concern for the Australian capitalist ruling class, if not more, than the increasing investment from rival companies. According to the schema of Socialist Alternative and others on the left in Australia, the “coup” against Alkatiri ought not to have to seen such developments take place under the “more right-wing and compliant” Horta-Gusmao administration.

War crimes

There is one significant political issue where the East Timorese political leadership share a common interest with the Australian imperialist state and its allies, which is not to pursue an International War Crimes tribunal to bring to account the Indonesian military and civilian figures responsible for orchestrating the carnage that destroyed over 70% of East Timor’s infrastructure after the 1999 independence referendum. Such a tribunal would expose the complicity of the imperialist powers, not just with respect to the events of 1999, but also the role they played in giving financial, military and diplomatic support to the 24-year Indonesian military occupation. While initially supporting such a tribunal, Horta, Gusmao and Alkatiri have all retreated from pursuing one, preferring to restore friendly relations with the Indonesian political elite for pragmatic reasons — East Timor relies heavily on Indonesia for imports of food, fuel and other essentials.

This back-down has deeply angered many East Timorese and contributed to their estrangement from a political leadership that appears incapable and unwilling to pursue a transparent process of justice. On February 18, a statement signed by East Timorese human rights groups, along with international solidarity organisations and supporters, called upon the UN “to seriously examine the recommendations of the [UN] 2005 Commission of Experts report and Chega! (Enough!)”, the final report of East Timor’s Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They argued that prosecution of the war crimes orchestrated by the Indonesian occupation authorities in East Timor would support democracy and accountability in both Indonesia and East Timor.

The statement also noted that, “Events between 1975 and 1999 continue to have an impact on the people of Timor-Leste. One of the underlying causes of the 2006 crisis in Dili was that its people continue to suffer from largely-unhealed mass trauma. The manifest failures of local and international justice processes are creating a culture of impunity, in which perpetrators believe they will not be held accountable for murder and other crimes, and where victims often feel that the only justice possible is what they do with their own hands. This attitude contributed to the attempted assassinations of Timor-Leste’s President and Prime Minister just one year ago.”