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Critical junctures in Timor-Leste

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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.

The Santa Cruz Massacre in 1991 was another critical moment, refocussing international attention and disproving the claim that the Timorese had accommodated being part of Indonesia, and that Indonesia had similarly become a benign partner in Timorese development. The collapse of the Indonesian economy in 1997 sparked a political crisis, in part reflecting and in part precipitating the end of Indonesia’s Suharto regime. This event provided greater leverage to those in the international community seeking a mediated outcome to the Timor-Leste issue.

Australia’s then prime minister, John Howard, did not want Australia to be left behind by history. Howard wrote to Suharto’s successor, B.J. Habibie, suggesting a long transition to a vote on autonomy or, perhaps, independence. At his own critical juncture, Habibie responded by proposing a quick vote for autonomy or independence.

The UN administered referendum, on 30 August 1999, set against a background of state-sponsored violence, intimidation and destruction, produced an overwhelming vote in favour of independence. Indonesia’s unwillingness to reign in its military and their proxy militias led the international community to press for external intervention.

Thus, at another critical juncture, peacekeepers arrived, Indonesian forces left and the UN re-established itself amidst Timor-Leste’s smoking ruins. The vote in 2001 for a constituent assembly produced Timor-Leste’s constitution. The following year, Timor-Leste’s president was elected, with the constituent assembly transitioning into the new parliament, producing a new majority Fretilin government.

Post-independence environments invariably pit a high level of public need against a reduced level of government capacity, both in terms of experience and resources. This critical juncture of negative conditions set against improbably high expectations and simmering tensions derived from divisions during the occupation led, almost inevitably, to conflict.

If the events of 2006 were a critical moment in Timor-Leste’s history, they were also cathartic. The subsequent 2007 elections produced real change in Timor-Leste’s political landscape, differentiating political actors and re-allocating political power.

It seemed that Timor-Leste was starting to move into a period of reduced tensions, but a hang-over from the 2006 violence, in the form of dissident troops unreconciled to the new environment, changed all that. Just after dawn on Monday 11 February 2008, President Jose Ramos-Horta was shot and critically wounded by a dissident soldier loyal to rebel Alfredo Reinado, who himself had just been shot dead.

The people of Timor-Leste were shocked. Independence, they realised, had given freedom but, it seemed to some, not the responsibility to use that freedom wisely. The intoxication of the events of the previous few years was replaced, at this critical juncture, by a new sense of political sobriety.

The death of Reinado coincided with a brief spike in oil prices, producing windfall income for the new AMP government. The government used much of this windfall, and the end of the rebel soldiers’ movement, to resettle the 150,000 people displaced by the 2006 violence, to buy off the rebel soldiers and send them home, to pay out veterans of the resistance and to even produce a small pension for older Timorese.

Timor-Leste began to normalise, the drought that had affected livelihoods for years previously broke, the government introduced a subsidised rice program thus ending the ‘hungry season’.

On the back of these changes, Timor-Leste has just held the two rounds of its presidential elections, celebrated its 10 years of independence and now looks towards its parliamentary elections. The question is, then, if these elections and decade of independence mark a critical juncture.

Since the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1974, Timor-Leste has faced a series of critical junctures, coming through each influenced, changed and sometimes scarred. It is a very different place to that occupied by Portugal, under Indonesian occupation and even compared to the first years of independence.

The events of 2012 are a crucial step on Timor-Leste’s path to development and maturation as a state and as a people. As with plural political processes elsewhere, there continue to be often strongly competing ideas of how to best progress the state.

But the events of 2012 do not represent a critical juncture for Timor-Leste. The era of tumultuous change is, at least for now, behind it.

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