MANILA: East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, is the world’s newest democracy. It may have a population of less than one million, but it has a proud, heroic history and a rich culture built up over centuries of diverse ethnic and colonial influences. The island attracted Chinese and Malay traders in the 15th century. The Portuguese arrived not long after, and stayed 400 years. Now it is attracting attention as an example of United Nations-led nation-building.
The UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), headed by Atul Khare, consists of a civilian staff of 1,568, of which 334 are volunteers, and a police commissioner, Rodolfo Tor, with 1,623 police personnel from 39 countries. UNMIT’s main job is a difficult one: bringing about national reconciliation. While peaceful parliamentary elections were held on June 30, an atmosphere of apprehension has prevailed ever since. Neither the former ruling party, Fretilin, nor the newly formed CNRT, led by Xanana Gusmão, the hero of the resistance to Indonesia’s occupation, won an outright majority.
At first, the UN, like many Timorese, including José Ramos-Horta, the country’s Nobel Laureate president who won election last May, had hoped that a national unity government could be formed. But a month-long attempt to broker an inclusive government failed. So, in August, Ramos-Horta ended the deadlock by swearing in Gusmão, a long-term political ally and former president, as prime minister.
Gusmão had forged a coalition with three other centre-left parties. Together they won a narrow 51 percent majority of the popular vote, giving them 37 of the 65 seats in parliament. Gusmão’s main rival, Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s leader and a former prime minister, denounced Ramos-Horta’s decision. Fretilin, he said, would not cooperate with an “illegal and unconstitutional government. The constitution is open to interpretation, and he argues that Fretilin, which won the largest share of the vote (29 percent), should have been asked first to form a government – even a minority one.
Fretilin at first sought to fight the decision through non-violent means. But some of its supporters began venting their anger on the streets. Groups of angry marauding young men armed with stones and slingshots ran amok, setting up roadblocks and torching buildings.
But this did not last long, thanks to both the UN and the democratic processes it is helping to nurture. Of course, Timor Leste has been in something of a political limbo since last year, when clashes between rival factions in the security forces led to a brief breakdown of law and order. But with security now mainly in the hands of UN police and Australian and New Zealand peacekeepers, the political process is being given a chance to work itself out.
Gusmão will now need to prove himself at the head of an inexperienced government. One big test will be whether the estimated 100,000 displaced people, amounting to 10 percent of the population, many living in tent camps, feel safe enough to return home. If Fretilin persists in its decision to obstruct the government, instability will persist.
This is where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) can help. At the top of the agenda at Asean’s Leaders Summit in Singapore this month is the adoption of a Charter to embody its “One Vision, One identity, One Community concept for Southeast Asia. Timor-Leste is still only an observer in the Asean family, but it appears able to grasp – far better than Myanmar, an Asean member state – the need for a rules-based Asean that stands for democratic governance even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Indeed, the Timorese people have consistently shown that what they want from their government is openness, dialogue, and majority voting under the rule of law. Myanmar’s people want the same, but their country is being pushed towards collapse by years of political and economic crisis, and might well become Asean’s pariah, like Africa’s Zimbabwe. That should stand as a warning to Timor Leste’s clashing factions, lest any of them conclude that repression and dictatorship are the best solution.
Fidel V. Ramosis a former President of the Philippines. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.