Actually, my first visit to Timor Leste was in 2000, when I was representing Indonesian People’s Solidarity Struggle for Maubere (SPRIM) to attend a conference held by the Asian Pacific Coalition for East Timor (APCET) in Baucau.
Yes, my organization was part of the solidarity movement to support the Timor Leste independency a couple of years ago.
At that time, together with the progressive element in Timor Leste, we envisioned a prosperous and just Timor Leste without Indonesia occupancy. I still keep that vision in my head, and I believe my friends in Timor Leste also still keep fighting for it.
Timor Leste is one of the world’s most crude oil-export dependent countries, next only to South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea.
In 2011, 81 percent of its economy was derived from oil and gas, and about half of the remaining “non-oil GDP” came from state spending, itself almost entirely dependent on oil income.
Driven by oil wealth, the government’s budget in Timor Leste is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Government expenditures have more than quadrupled since 2007, and continue to grow by more 20 percent every year. The state budget is now almost twice as large as the country’s non-oil gross domestic product.
Still, more than 50 percent of the population now lives in poverty, receiving less than $1.33 per day.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program estimates that 85 percent of the people experience “multi-dimensional poverty” or are “vulnerable to multiple deprivations”. Poverty is concentrated in the countryside, where more than 70 percent of the people live. Most depend on subsistence for their livelihoods, and many experience periods of food insecurity.
The country ranked close to the bottom of the 2012 IFPRI Global Hunger Index, and its food security situation has been categorized as “alarming”. The World Food Program has found that one third of people regularly experience food shortages.
Health and education are also major concerns.
As the World Bank notes, although important indicators for infant and maternal mortality have improved, others such as for child nutritional status have deteriorated. Timor Leste has the world’s highest prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years old.
The only growing sectors of the economy are government and construction, driven by state spending.
Big projects to which the state allocates 40 percent of its funds mainly benefit foreign contractors and show little evidence of results or returns.
Productive sectors are stagnating or in decline. Tourism and hospitality, which make an important contribution to the economy, have seen little or no growth. Manufacturing remains tiny. Agriculture is in decline.
As a result, the country is highly dependent on imports, even for products like bottled water and basic food items. Imports were worth $670 million in 2012. This dwarfed the $31 million made from exports in the same year, mainly in coffee.
There is a lack of effort to develop productive sectors of the economy or to mitigate environmental degradation, which threatens food sovereignty.
For example, in 2014 only 2.3 percent of the state budget is allocated to agriculture, which is the livelihood of 75 percent of people.
Agricultural policies have also been criticized for relying on a “high cost, high input” model that requires the import of tractors and inputs, and do not properly consider local needs and capacities.
How about the investment to the next generation?
In 2013 Timor Leste invested only 8.4 percent of its budget on education and 4.2 percent on health — less than half of global norms. These issues are even more urgent, given that the country has one of the highest birth rates in the world.
Meanwhile, a huge proportion of the government budget — 15 percent, or $222 million — is dedicated to social assistance in 2014, more than what is spent on either education or health.
The $87 million allocated to veterans alone is larger than annual expenditures on health and is paid to only around 1 percent of the population.
In the meantime, there is little public recognition that Timor Leste faces a future in which it can no longer rely on oil and gas income, let alone any debate about what this will mean.
As the nongovernmental organization La’o Hamutuk (Walking Together) notes, this is a key sign of the “resource curse,” of which other symptoms include unrealistic planning, spending and borrowing, inflation, import dependence, inequality, and failure to develop the non-oil economy.
It can’t be denied that those issues mention above happen around the world. Every country has problem with it. But have Timorese started to discuss and overcome all of these issues? As far as I can see, the space for dynamic public debate is getting limited.
Parliament is mostly passive, with its members lacking resources to scrutinize legislation.
Like Indonesia, government legislation, parliamentary debates and decisions are not always open to consultation or scrutiny. The media is not that critical and does not take on a watchdog role. NGOs previously active in policy discussion and advocacy are said to have become more fragmented and less critical.
Several NGO leaders in Dili said that this was attributed to the drain of NGO staff to government posts or an increased sense of factionalism within civil society after the 2006 crisis. Some also question the credibility of critics from civil society, pointing out that NGOs are unelected, poorly managed and not transparent.
Almost all the former activists I met share their anxiety about the future of Timor Leste. They realize that they can do much more.
Therefore two months ago, several former activists have started to reconnect and re-consolidate through a monthly meeting they call the “fullmoon discussion,” a place to discuss the future of Timor Leste.
I am glad to hear this. To be honest I really don’t want to see that spirit disappear. Timor Leste people have showed us their persistence to fight against oppression, something that we, as Indonesians, still need to learn from them.
It is the Timorese who should decide on which path they want to walk.
I just want to remind everybody that we still have the same dreams, a just and sustainable prosperous country.
If in the past the Timorese people had the courage and spirit to fight against injustice and against Indonesian occupancy then right now I believe that the Timorese have the militancy and power to overcome their internal problems.
However, as a good friend I just want to simply say: please don’t follow Indonesia’s way in managing the country.
Tunggal Pawestri is program officer for rights and citizenship at the Hivos regional office of Southeast Asia.