As a still young state trying to establish itself, within itself and in the world, Timor-Leste’s commitment to recognising and upholding human rights, in particular civil and political rights, has been widely welcomed. For a people who have suffered such egregious human rights abuses, it is consistent that they wish to never suffer such abuses again.
One of the criticisms of supporting civil and political rights is that people also have other needs and rights, including the need for material well-being and related economic, social and cultural rights. What needs to be remembered, however, that not only are these two sets of rights not mutually exclusive, they are also mutually interdependent.
To illustrate this point, it is difficult to advocate for political and civil rights when one is starving. Yet it is also not possible to advocate for economic rights if one does not enjoy civil and political rights.
As Timor-Leste heads into the 2012 parliamentary elections, and having just celebrated its first decade of independence, there is a sense that the country is at a critical juncture. Political competition is again heightened, as parties compete for public support and seats in parliament.
But there is also expectation around the state’s political consolidation.
Many believe this is make or break time for Timor-Leste. But is this the point at which Timor-Leste succeeds or fails?
The idea of a critical juncture is one in which historical forces arrive at more or less the same time to produce a significant change. In living memory, Timor-Leste has seen such significant change.
Timor-Leste has transitioned from being a largely neglected Portuguese colony, having a brief moment of independence and then suffering under 24 years of Indonesian occupation. During this period, there were moments when the resistance came close to annihilation, and when it divided within itself.
Papua-New Guinea’s chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia, faces court today charged with sedition by a government that he and two colleagues have ruled illegal. The arrest of Sir Salamo and the impending arrest of his two Supreme Court colleagues follows their ruling, for a second time, that PNG’s ousted prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, be reinstated.
The court’s ruling incensed the de facto government of Peter O’Neill, in particular Deputy PM Belden Namah, who led police and soldiers in the judge’s arrest. How the subsequent charge of sedition against Sir Salamo is addressed in court today will have profound consequences for PNG and, to a considerable extent, how it engages with the wider world.
On Sunday 20 May, East Timor will celebrate ten years of independence. As a nation born from the ashes of destruction, its first decade has been marked by problems and set-backs. Many in East Timor, not least its outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, lament a lack of development since independence. Ramos-Horta notes that the international community has spent billions of dollars in East Timor, yet most East Timorese remain amongst the world’s poorest people. But a little over a year ago, Ramos-Horta said that the country had never been better. The question is, in part, whether the metaphorical glass is half empty or half full. It is also, in part, whether the speaker – in this case Ramos-Horta – had a political score to settle. In early 2011, Ramos-Horta was still firmly in Gusmao’s political tent. A year later, he is an ex-president outside that tent. Many East Timorese have also been disappointed with independence.
As Timor-Leste heads towards it parliamentary elections on 7 July, it is increasingly likely that no single party will receive sufficient votes to hold an absolute majority in parliament in its own right. Despite claims by some parties’ leaders about the extent of their impending victory, none is likely in the manner in which it is being touted. As a result, the next government can be expected to be formed through an alliance or coalition of parties. While the terminology is not the determining factor, within Timor-Leste, it is commonly assumed that a ‘coalition’ is a political agreement reached between two or more parties prior to an election. An ‘alliance’, on the other hand, is understood to be where two or more parties enter into a partnership following an election.
As Timor-Leste moves towards marking the 10th anniversary of its independence and completing the third round of its national elections, the question arises as to whether it has consolidated its democracy. The assumption is that consolidating democracy is a necessary step towards ending internal conflict and regularising the affairs of the state. But, the second question is, when one talks about consolidating democracy, what they mean by the term? Having three sets of elections at regular intervals is certainly a good sign of democratic consolidation in Timor-Leste. Yet elections alone do not comprise democracy. Indonesia had regular elections between 1977 and 1997 under its New Order government, yet it was very far from being a democratic state at that time. It is not enough to have the formal procedure of democracy; one also requires the substance, if the term is to have meaning.
Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, South-East Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a ‘courtesy call’ on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).
What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Ms Bishop outlined the Opposition’s policy on ‘sending back’ asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR Deputy Chairman, Hajriyanto Thohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Ms Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.
As Timor-Leste went to the second round of the presidential elections, the peace that marked the first round appears to be holding. Apart from an incident in Viqueque District, there have been no notable outbreaks of violence, so far, to mar this electoral process. Many have congratulated Timor-Leste for this important achievement.
The peaceful environment that has greeted these elections was in part as a result of an agreement between the leaders of political parties to restrain their supporters from attacking each other. This stands in marked contrast to the 2007 elections, in which there were few if any such restraints and violence and destruction were widespread, both before and after the elections were held.
Many of Timor-Leste’s friends wondered at this time what the purpose was of achieving independence if this was to be its result. Many in Timor-Leste asked the same question, and have since rejected violence.
States that have been colonised commonly reflect elements of their colonial past. Timor-Leste has the unusual distinction of having been colonised by two different powers in living memory, with each leaving significant elements of themselves imprinted upon Timorese society.
The imprint of Portuguese colonialism is officially recognised and embraced, not least through official language, architectural heritage, religion and a continuing affinity with Lusophone states. Even Tetum, an indigenous trading language developed from the older Tetum Terik, is heavily inflected with Portuguese, particularly in its courtesies.
Despite the often neglectful and sometimes brutal nature of Portuguese colonialism, Timor-Leste’s elites in particular retain fond memories of Portuguese paternalism. Their relationship to the other colonial power is more qualified, yet Indonesia has also left indelible imprints in Timor-Leste.
When East Timor’s outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, won office in 2007 by a crushing 69 per cent, many outsiders attributed the victory to his high profile as a campaigner for the country during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. There is no doubt that Ramos-Horta was well known and well liked within East Timor, as well as outside, but his first round vote was a more modest 21 per cent.
So, too, when Taur Matan Ruak stood for the presidency last month, he achieved a respectable but modest 26 per cent. On Monday, his voted jumped to just over 61 per cent. It was backing and organisation by Xanana Gusmao that elevated Ramos-Horta to his unassailable final position. It was Xanana Gusmao’s backing that also secured the Taur Matan Ruak’s victory over Fretilin candidate Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres.