Thursday, June 9, 2016

East Timor: independent under despair

Despite 14 years of independence in East Timor, only few have been enriched. While East Timor (Timor-Leste) won a hard and long fought-for independence more than a decade ago, the human and economic development of its people has languished.

Independence was formally restored to East Timor in 2002 after the people were permitted to decide their own fate and end a quarter-century of Indonesian military rule through the ballot box under the auspice of the United Nations in 1999.

The first general election to elect the President and Parliament was held in the same year. Since then, the East Timorese people have cast their vote three times. In the time since independence significant amounts of state budget have been approved by the Parliament every year, but no demonstrable change has been achieved in terms of human development and economic growth.

According to Agio Pereira (the Minister of State and of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers), East Timor has enormous economic growth compared to other underdeveloped countries. While East Timor’s giant neighbor Indonesia has projected 7 per cent economic growth per year, East Timor has achieved an average non-oil growth of 11.9 per cent between 2007 and 2017. This figure has been projected to rise steadily to 14 to 15 per cent in 2016 and  2017.

And yet the economic achievement portrayed by these figures does not represent the reality on the ground. The vast majority of people, almost 68 per cent, are still living in extreme poverty on a basic income of less than one dollar a day. Roughly 54 to 55 per cent of children are malnourished and stunting. The latter figure is the highest in the country’s immediate region.

Most state revenue comes from petroleum and there are few attempts by the government to develop renewable resources in order to avoid too much dependency on oil. Little attention has been paid to investment in agricultural production and huge landmasses in the countryside remain uncultivated, making East Timor one of the biggest importers of rice in Southeast Asia. Most basic goods are obtained from Indonesia, Australia and Singapore. Despite being hailed as one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its huge petroleum revenues, the fact of the matter is East Timor has become heavily dependent on the outside world.

Today, East Timor is reliving the experience of many other oil rich nations, of booming natural resource-based revenues but abject poverty among the general populace. Government institutions cannot absorb the demand for employment as the number of fresh graduates is rising significantly at the end of every academic year. As the World Bank notes, “with 60 per cent of the population under 25 years of age, Timor-Leste is one of the youngest countries in the world.”

Last month, the 14th commemoration of the restoration of independence was held in the district of Ermera, in the western part of East Timor. Ermera is well known for its coffee plantations, a cash crop introduced by Portuguese colonialism in the 16th century. Despite most of the population being coffee growers, the people in Ermera live in serious poverty.

This is because a coffee duopoly has been guaranteed by the government of East Timor to two big multinational companies: NCBA from the United States and Timor Global, managed by Singaporean East Timor’s descendant Bobby Lay Ny Sing. Coffee farmers must sell their coffee to the aforementioned companies rather than linking up directly with the market on their own.

Compounding these issues is the flow of internal migration from the districts into the main town of Dili, scaling up the concentration of the population in the centre and increasing the number of shanty towns on the outskirts of Dili. During the night, unschooled kids sell newspapers, calling cards, and pull rickshaws full of fruit and vegetables. Some of them even lay down in the corridors of minimarts or whatever place they can find that’s comfortable to spend the night. The phenomena of street children and prostitution is gathering momentum.

In the education sector, most of the basic infrastructure was set ablaze when the Indonesian military left East Timor in the aftermath of the restoration of independence. Many qualified teachers and lecturers also departed. Significant sums of money have been allocated to the educational sector, but the Government’s long-term plan to enhance the quality of education is still a long way off due to the lack of human resources and the paucity of teaching materials, from basic education through to higher education.

Even though health care is free for every citizen, and further treatment for serious illness abroad, the local health facilities, including qualified medical personnel to provide treatment for those suffering a variety of different diseases, have deteriorated.

The challenge ahead for economic development is how to deal with the Australian Government to secure the maritime boundary which is, as Xanana Gusmao, the Chief negotiator of the Timor Sea, aptly called it ‘the matter of life and death’.

Australia and East Timor have been engaged in a long-running dispute over rich offshore petroleum resources in the Timor Sea. A series of treaties has been agreed over the years to try and resolve the issue but Australia is resisting East Timor’s push to agree a permanent maritime boundary and has recently called on the United Nations to intervene in the dispute.

The East Timorese Government’s struggle to push the Australian Government to the negotiating table is bearing fruit as the Australian Government has delegated two representatives for the conciliatory approach proposed by the East Timorese Government through Xanana Gusmao.

The East Timorese Government has secured about US $17 million from the oil revenue in the US Federal Bank and all of the state budget to fund development has been withdrawn from this saving.

Nonetheless, there has been serious concern among civil society that revenue from oil production will run out and that East Timor will fall into the grip of a ‘resource curse,’ given the minimal attempts from Government to diversify the economic sector such as by building up basic infrastructure to boost agricultural production, develop community-based tourism, promote historical sites to the outside world and attract more foreign tourists.

The restoration of independence has been celebrated every year in a different site. The common aim of every commemoration is to bolster the sense of nationalism and re-invigorate the energy of independence. But the irony is that the huge and costly festivities are at odds with the reality on the ground. Needy people in remote areas are still fighting to make their life better through whatever means they find available to them while members of parliament and government officials are engaged in a ‘one night show’ of long speeches to encourage the people to remain strong and have patience amid the hard times.

Despite 14 years of independence and a booming oil revenue in East Timor, only the few have been enriched while the many have fallen further behind. With only a year and a half left before the next general election, the record must be set straight and a future elected government commit to avoid inflicting further damage on the East Timorese people’s expectation of a better life.

Ivo Mateus Goncalves is an independent researcher based in Dili, East Timor.

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