I was very active between 1991 and 1999 in the international solidarity movement for Timorese independence. During that time, I worked with a variety of Timorese individuals and political groups. Based in Sydney, as a member of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), I worked closely with the local Fretilin committee, comprising Timorese exiles and their children. Some had come to Australia in the 1970s, others in the 1990s, after the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili.
As a member of ASIET, and as an academic writing about Indonesia, I also often visited Indonesia during the 1990s. It was in Indonesia that I first met the Timorese socialists, whose leader was Avelino Coelho. Avelino was in Jakarta, working clandestinely for the Timorese resistance while studying. He had been active in the resistance in Timor in the 1980s also. He formed a small group of Timorese socialist activists in Bali, Java and Timor. I maintained contact with Avelino throughout the late 1990s, including after he moved back to Dili prior to the 1999 referendum.
After Xanana Gusmao returned to Dili, Avelino was appointed a member of the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), an unusual move by Gusmao, because the Timorese Socialist Party (PST), which Avelino led, was not a member. The CNRT was the shadow government during the period of United Nations administration, up until the formation of Timor’s first elected government.
I first met Avelino inside Timor itself, along with other members of the PST, in 1999, just after the Australian army, in the form of Interfet, had entered Timor and the Indonesian army and its militias had withdrawn. The PST was the first political or activist group to set up an office in Dili, squatting in the building of the old Indonesian Department of Public Works. It still occupies the building today – although it was badly damaged when “unknown elements” set fire to it after Avelino joined the Xanana Gusmao government in 2008. I spent two weeks with the PST in Dili, also making some visits to village areas. Their energy was astounding, and their office was a hive of activity, while other groups and NGOs waited for the UN to arrive before setting up operations.
I kept in touch with Avelino over the following 12 years, writing articles based on phone and email communications. Although I visited and lived off and on in Indonesia during those 12 years, and occasionally also bumped into Avelino in Indonesia, I did not return to Timor until 2010, when President Jose Ramos Horta invited me to come and see the country whose independence I had supported in the 1990s. Once again I was able to meet up with the PST and Avelino, in both Dili and the countryside.
Participation in elections
The PST participated in both the 2002 and 2007 parliamentary elections, and Avelino stood in the presidential elections. In 2002, the PST garnered 1.8% of the vote, but in 2007 it dropped to 0.96%, although the vote for Avelino as a presidential candidate reached 8338 or 2.06%. At the time, Avelino told me that the party organisation had collapsed, revealing that a large proportion of the membership had been recruited on an insufficiently serious basis. Even in 2007, however, the PST increased its vote in the six villages where it had started. In a recent email interview, a leading PST militant, Constancio dos Santos, known as Aquita, explained: “In the previous Fretilin-dominated parliament, an amendment to the electoral law was passed setting a threshold of 3% as the minimum national vote required for any party”. In 2002, the PST won one seat in parliament and under the old law would have won two seats in 2007. However Fretilin’s amendment, seemingly aimed at keeping out new, smaller parties, meant that the PST no longer had parliamentary representation.
After the 2007 elections, Xanana Gusmao, who had formed and led the new National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), was able to forge a majority coalition in the parliament, and thus form government. Gusmao became prime minister at the head of the Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) government.
Although the PST was not a member of the AMP and never attended AMP meetings, Gusmao offered Avelino the position of secretary of state for energy policy, essentially a lesser ministry, but with a seat in the Council of Ministers, i.e. the cabinet. Avelino accepted. In that position, he has been responsible for formulating and then implementing policies for bringing electricity into rural villages. More than 8000 households (probably 40,000 plus people) have been given access to electricity, through solar panels, bio-gas or bio-energy under this ongoing program, despite the ministry receiving a very small budget. The villages receive the electricity free, and there is no private sector involvement in the implementation. Electricity for a national grid and in the towns is the responsibility of other ministries.
While holding the energy policy position, Avelino has continued to lead the rebuilding of the PST after the disappointing results of 2007. According to Aquita, “The PST will stand in the 2012 elections. We still have a strong base in the original six villages where we started, and we now have 60,000 dues paying members overall. In addition, there are another 250 villages where there are strong emotional ties between the village and the PST president ... We are confident we can win at least five seats in parliament.”
According to Aquita, Avelino may not stand as president this time, but may support the candidacy of Taur Matan Ruak, the former guerrilla leader who recently resigned as commander of the armed forces. The PST is still considering whether or not to work in a coalition with the CNRT. Jose Ramos Horta is the current president but has repeatedly stated that he will not stand again.
Aquita added that the PST will campaign using its 2007 program, which emphasised the development of cooperatives, especially agricultural, and a strong public sector. “The campaign slogan we have already been using is ‘Land for the farmers, and ownership in the factories for the workers’ or ‘Shares for the workers’, he told me via email. “We have also been campaigning to convince people of the prospects for industrial type development for water, coconut, kemiri nuts and jatropha, among other crops, as well as for better development of paddy rice.” As a part of its education and campaigning on cooperatives, the PST requires every village base committee to form agricultural cooperatives to set an example.
Aquita also emphasised two specific policy demands, clearly aimed at rectifying previous government policies. “We want the repeal of the law that granted pensions for life for all members of parliament and other state officials, passed by the first parliament, dominated by Fretilin. This happened during the prime ministership of Estanislau da Silva from Fretilin”, he said. “In 2003 Fretilin reinstituted into the constitution a clause, taken from colonial law ... that made all homes and property from the Indonesian and Portuguese periods private property. The constitution had stated that all land and property left from the Portuguese and Indonesian periods should become state property.”
“The people need to make a judgement on the politicians in 2012; there has to be a sorting out of the national leadership, as, despite some positive developments under this government, there have also been quite a few negative developments.” Aquita sees the “populist” and “humanist” aspects of the Gusmao government as positive: pensions and better conditions for old people, disabled people and people with mental disorders. “But more needs to be done, in terms of work opportunities and better housing for these people.”
Aquita also thinks that the government’s policies of providing funds for middle class, or “petty bourgeoisie”, to carry out business projects and accumulate capital has some humanistic features. “However, this is also creating a big wealth gap. These middle class people are not re-investing their money [to increase production]. The money just goes on buying all the major basic commodities, which come from Indonesia.” These policies are made possible by very large increases in government revenue, from royalties on oil and gas in the Timor Sea.
“There must be policies and laws to enable workers to own their own industries”, Aquita said. Agricultural cooperatives and worker-owned manufacturing – even in the small scale processing of agricultural products, including coffee – are what the PST emphasises as the necessary policies to develop Timor and to break from what Aquita calls “the dependence created during the UN transition period, and based on World Bank policy advice. The people don’t have economic liberation.’’