The massive but, happily, largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions of people in Aceh reliving the nightmare the engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004, when a similarly large but different type of earthquake sent a wall of water across the lowlands, killing around 180,000 people.
That the earthquake and fear of another massive tsunami came just two days after a local elections and a major political upheaval only added poignancy to the otherwise frightening occasion. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) reached a peace agreement with the government in Jakarta, ushering in a period not just of rebuilding but of relative peace and electoral politics.
Contrary to such opinion that exists on Aceh, the peace agreement was not a consequence of the tsunami as such. Rather, and agreement to start peace talks had been reached just days before the tsunami struck.
Informal results show that elections in Indonesia’s tsunami-devastated and war-ravaged province of Aceh have dumped the incumbent governor and put in office the political party of the former separatist guerrilla movement. This outcome marks a major victory for the political vehicle of the former separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the Aceh Party (PA).
In a sometimes violent campaign process, in which 13 people were killed and intimidation was widespread, preliminary results show that former GAM ‘foreign minister’ Dr Zaini Abdullah and his deputy, former GAM military commander, Muzakir Manaf, won 54% of the vote in a five cornered contest. Incumbent governor and former GAM intelligence chief, Irwandi Yusuf, secured 34% of the vote.
As Timor-Leste goes 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.
Indonesia’s province of Aceh goes to the polls on Monday, in what has been a bitterly contested election for the position of governor. In Indonesia’s other provinces the position of governor is important but, in the autonomous province of Aceh, following a three decade long separatist war, it is critical.
As a result of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, Aceh was also the site of the world’s largest ever emergency relief program, at $9 billion. The tsunami devastated large areas of the heavily populated coastal regions of Aceh, leaving around 170,000 dead and missing.
As Timor-Leste heads towards the second round of the Presidential elections, many are wondering who, ultimately, will become the new figurehead leader of the nation. While the role of the president is largely ceremonial, it does have some important powers, its symbolism is an important unifier in a country still developing a coherent national identity, and how votes are allocated will start to identify the shape of the next parliamentary government.
Importantly, while in the 2007 elections there was a backlash against the incumbent Fretilin government and the second round of presidential voting saw the formation of two clear blocs, the 2012 elections are more ambiguous. In particular, the announcement by the out-going President, Jose Ramos-Horta, and the Democratic Party (PD), that they would remain neutral and not allocate preferences in the second presidential round, has increased the sense of uncertainty as to its outcome.
Jose Ramos-Horta’s decision to support the Democratic Party (PD) in the parliamentary elections has two sets of implications for Timor-Leste’s politics. The first and most obvious will be the effect that this has on the outcome of the parliamentary elections and in particular the level of success of PD. The second, less obvious, implication will be for the next, second round of the presidential election, for which Ramos-Horta was unsuccessful.
Assuming that votes for candidates will be translated, more or less, into parliamentary votes, based on Ramos-Horta’s support, with his 18% added to PD’s 17%, PD can expect to receive around 35% of the vote which, extrapolating from first round presidential figures, is likely to make it Timor-Leste’s single largest party and hence in a dominant position to form a majority alliance in parliament.
Following Timor-Leste’s presidential election last Saturday, the two leading candidates, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao-backed Taur Matan Ruak, will now progress to a second round of voting in mid-April. Their success to date reflects perhaps more the relatively high level of party loyalty within Timor-Leste than support for the two as individuals.
At 28%, Lu-Olo’s vote was almost exactly the same as in the first round of the 2007 election. Ruak’s vote reflected support in 2007 from the main government party, CNRT, for outgoing president Jose Ramos-Horta, then at 22 per cent. At that time, CNRT was a new party and has since had time to consolidate in office, reflected in Ruak’s 25% vote.
Both Lu-Olo and Ruak are well known in Timor-Leste, but neither is especially well known outside the country. That will no doubt change for one of them after April.
Amongst Timor-Leste’s traditions, there is none more central to how Timorese understand themselves in relation to their world than that of lulic, or that which is ‘sacred’.
While a sense of lulic is not always visible, especially in life that is affected by elements of modernity, such as in a town or in Dili, it continues to lie under the surface for many, perhaps most, Timorese.
The idea of lulic can apply to place, to the relationship between things, such as the sun and the moon or the earth and the sky, to relationships between people, to life and death and social obligations and to symbols of authority and social organisation.
As traditions evolve and change to incorporate new elements, so too has lulic changed to incorporate such symbols.
Old Portuguese swords may be considered as lulic, as can flags that have a particular value or importance.
The dog was sleeping, its head on its paws, in the middle of the road leading from the airport. As we approached in a four-wheel-drive, it looked up, gauged the situation and put its head back on its paws and closed its eyes. This sleeping dog was let lie.
Apart from horrific moments of violence and destruction, East Timor has otherwise been a pretty laid back place, as it is now.
The pigs that used to wander the streets just outside of the main commercial precinct are only a little less common than they once were.
Yellow taxis ply the streets at the slowest possible speed to conserve fuel. Sunday c-ckfights and wet season thunderstorms are often as exciting as it gets.
When things are normal, life tends to move at a pretty slow pace. It is only when violence erupts that East Timor goes from a lazy day dream to a frantic nightmare.
Timor-Leste has emerged from its dark past and extremely low levels of development with some cause for optimism. A range of human development indicators, from infant mortality to longevity and education, have all begun to trend more positively, government programs have alleviated some of the worst effects of poverty and infrastructure is being developed.
But Timor-Leste still faces significant challenges, which its new government, no matter who is elected this year, will have to deal with. These challenges fall into three categories; the environment, the resources curse, and human capacity.
At one level, Timor-Leste has a physical environment that is set. The soil is relatively poor, especially on the north coast, its capacity to produce crops is limited and its rainy season is usually brief, in regional terms, but often very heavy. Added to the mountainous nature of the land, cropping is difficult, poor seasons are common and torrential rains can wash away crops in a day.