The Necessity for a New Pragmatism in East Timor

East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has been strong-armed from office, though his many supporters may have trouble accepting his demise. He leaves behind him not only the difficult question of a successor, but four major crises that hang like heavy shackles from the country’s social and political limbs. Here are thumbnail sketches of each.


The quick arrival of international troops has brought Dili’s mayhem under control. But public security will remain a problem for the foreseeable future. The divisions exposed over the last two months have deep roots and will not go away quickly. Dangerous militia gangs have reappeared driven by ethnic loyalties and hatreds. Ominously, some of them may even have links to politicians. Despite confiscation of arms from army dissidents many firearms remain in circulation or hidden — not just modern “registered” weapons but leftovers from previous conflicts, as well as homemade firearms.

The military and police

Late last year age-old ethnic divisions rose to the surface in the East Timor Defence Force. Soldiers from the loromonu west of the country complained that lorosae easterners were being favoured in promotions and conditions. After demonstrating in defiance of their senior officers, almost 600 westerners — more than a third of the army — were abruptly sacked. It was this ill-considered action that triggered the current crisis. In the turmoil that followed there were armed clashes between easterners and westerners. The predominantly eastern remnant of the army turned on the East Timor police force, reducing it to organisational rubble in a few days.

The leadership of the armed forces has been seriously flawed. Former Defence Minister Roque Rodrigues was dismissed for his incompetent handling of the situation. His close protégé, armed forces commander Taur Matan Ruak acquired legendary status as a guerrilla leader during the resistance to Indonesia, but has turned out to be a weak leader of the post independence defence force.


Fretilin — the political movement that dominated East Timor’s struggle for independence — currently holds 55 seats in East Timor’s 88-seat parliament. The remaining seats are divided among a jostling crowd of small parties, none of which got more than 9% of the vote in the last election. But on the whole, living standards have not advanced for the country’s rural masses, nor for many of the youth in Dili. Although Prime Minister Alkatiri has lost his job and, prior to that, two senior ministers were sacked, the government bears a collective responsibility for the current crisis. Given this, it is inevitable that Fretilin will be punished by voters in next year’s general election. It may even lose its current majority. Fretilin will be forced to deal with smaller parties, a process that will prove to be painful for many Fretilin stalwarts. The sharp hatreds that the current crisis has exposed make power sharing a recipe for renewed instability.

The current crisis may also mark the beginning of the end for the Portuguese-speaking elite that dominates government. None of them has emerged from the current crisis looking good. Several leading figures — most notably Mari Alkatiri and Roque Rodrigues — have seen their careers hit a brick wall. Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta looked flaky by resigning from his ministry in a huff. Even the widely (but not universally) revered President Gusmao looked vacillating, threatening to resign then apparently having second thoughts about the threat.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

The Economy

A kind of myth has taken root in East Timor and among many foreign observers, that when the country’s oil revenue starts to flow in significant quantities all its big problems will be at an end. But repeatedly across the world (most notably in Nigeria), oil-rich countries plagued by ethnic rivalry and weak governance, as East Timor is, have found it difficult to manage their oil wealth efficiently, frittering it away in failed projects and corruption.

Given East Timor’s rudimentary level of education it may be necessary for large numbers of foreigners to come in to manage development projects. This may lead to the rise of a demoralising two-tier economy of the kind that was dramatically in evidence during the UN’s years of administration. East Timor’s need for a well educated workforce is not helped by the government’s bizarre insistence that secondary and tertiary education shift to Portuguese — a language that few people know at all, let alone well.

Apart from its considerable potential oil wealth, East Timor’s main sources of export income are coffee and tourism. While both domains of enterprise offer the hope of mass employment, it will be difficult to develop them quickly enough to mop up Dili’s large population of unemployed people. The quality of East Timor’s coffee is good but prices on international markets are notoriously volatile. The current crisis will scare tourists away in the immediate future and the possibility of future unrest will slow investment in East Timor’s still-rudimentary tourist infrastructure.

Some policy options

If there is one good outcome of the current crisis it is that a new pragmatism will be forced on the ideologues and bright-eyed activists whose rhetoric has concealed many of the problems now so dramatically evident in East Timor. A huge nation-building task awaits the country’s leaders. Some difficult decisions will have to be made if there is to be a long-term recovery from the current turmoil. Here are a few of the hard options that may have to be very seriously considered:

  • A permanent international police-military presence in the country such as has kept the peace in Cyprus for three decades.
  • The abolition of the East Timor Defence Force and the negotiation of a security treaty, probably with Australia. Possibly Brunei’s arrangements with the Britain could be a model. There will have to be long-term and well-funded retraining of East Timor’s police force.
  • The scaling down of the Portuguese language policy, with Tetum becoming the principle medium for primary and secondary education and English being the principle second language accompanied by the opportunity to study Portuguese and Indonesian.
  • Although there are dangers in the rise of a bloated public service, to widen employment opportunities the current policy restricting the size of the public service may have to be abandoned.