Reflections on East Timor after Independence: An Opposition Leader’s Perspective

Fernando de Araujo describes the problems of constructing a democratic infrastructure in the wake of the devastation wrought by Indonesia on his island nation.

Former political prisoner, Member of Parliament, and Leader of the Opposition Platform in East Timor, Mr. Fernando de Araujo had a one-day visit at the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies December 9. During his visit he addressed a forum co-sponsored by the Urban and Global Studies Initiative at the University of Southern California. De Araujo was in Los Angeles not only to give a lecture about the state of East Timor, a year after it gained its independence, but also to conduct a brainstorming session on how to strengthen a civil society in his newly independent country.

Many of the issues East Timor is facing are not unique. As in most countries that have recently become independent, security problems, economic exploitation from developed countries, unstable political leadership, the danger of corruption, lack of infrastructure, and rampant poverty make up only some of the struggles this new country is facing. The tiny island country has a recent history of extreme suffering and destruction of its human and physical resources. A Portuguese colony from the sixteenth century, it was granted its independence in 1975 only to be invaded and later annexed by Indonesia. (The island was divided in half, with West Timor remaining part of Indonesia and East Timor as an independent country.) As many as 200,000 East Timorese, nearly a third of the population, were killed or died of starvation during the next 24 years of Indonesian rule. Under UN pressure, Indonesia permitted a referendum on independence in August 1999, but when almost 80% voted for an independent East Timor, pro-Indonesia militias backed by the Indonesian army burned or destroyed roughly 70% of all the buildings in the territory. They drove some 400,000 people from their homes, and killed some 15,000. On September 20, 1999, a UN-sanctioned force went to East Timor to restore order. Fernando de Araujo has been at the center of these turbulent events since his youth.

Born in Manutasi, Ainaro district, in 1963, Mr. de Araujo was secretary-general of the pro-independence student group RENETIL from 1988 to 1998. In 1991, he was arrested by Indonesian authorities, charged with "subversion" and imprisoned for almost seven years, along with other East Timorese political prisoners. In the run-up to the 1999 referendum on East Timor’s political status, he was one of the people in charge of organizing the campaign for independence. In 2001, he was elected as the president of the newly formed Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

In the August 2001 Constituent Assembly elections for a National Parliament, the PD was the second largest party, but it trailed the ruling Fretilin by a large margin and faces two other minority parties of essentially its size. Fretilin received 57.37% of the vote and 55 seats in the 88 seat parliament; PD got 8.72% and 7 seats; PSD (Social Democratic Party) 8.18% and 6 seats; ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association) 7.84% and 6 seats. The remaining 17.89% of the vote and 14 seats went to several much smaller parties. East Timor had its first presidential election eight months later, in April 2002, when independence leader Xanana Gusmão, running as an independent, won a majority of the votes.

Since independence Fernando de Araujo has served as vice-minister for Foreign Affairs. He has been extensively involved as founding member of several civil society institutions such as Fundacao Haburas (an environmental organization), Talitakum (a weekly magazine), and most recently his party's new weekly newspaper Vox Populi.

De Araujo says his Partido Democratico is intent on building a just society for East Timor. In his introduction to a roundtable discussion, de Araujo reviewed the complex issues his country is facing. Currently, East Timor is one of Asia’s poorest countries with a Gross Domestic Product per capita of only $428. Taxation in the country is high and a majority of East Timorese cannot afford to pay for essential staples such as rice. De Araujo explained that there is a striking difference between the economy in Dili, the capital, and rest of the country. Even though the U.S. dollar is the national currency, he said, most East Timorese cannot identify what a dollar looks like. With dollars circulated mainly in Dili, bartering continues to be the main form of business transactions in other parts of the country.

There is also a serious generational gap that causes not only political rifts but also communication problems. Many of the current government leaders lived in exile during Indonesian occupation, while the younger generation lived through those years on the island and played a direct role in the fight for independence. Compounding the problem, the government recently imposed Portuguese as the country’s national language, despite the fact that most younger East Timorese and much of the population does not speak that language.

De Araujo also expressed concern about his country’s economic situation. East Timor’s seas are rich with oil and other natural resources. Talks are underway between East Timor and Australia to negotiate the division of proceeds from these resources. De Araujo worried that East Timor might be losing control of its oil in the rush for quick profits.

East Timor’s economy faces other serious challenges as well. There is a tremendous amount of pressure for the country to become self-sufficient since the UN is scheduled to withdraw in 2004. If the country is not able to become more self-reliant within the next few years, East Timor may be forced to take substantial loans from such organizations as the IMF and the World Bank. De Araujo is concerned that his country is being driven into a situation where it would be perpetually in debt.

In the political sphere, de Araujo explained that the Partido Democratico wants to ensure that all people are involved in the political process and that each feels some sense of authority and power within the way the government is handled. The PD is especially concerned about improving education and infrastructure and wants the economy to depend more on agriculture and less on oil. The party has recently launched its own weekly newspaper, Vox Populi, to promote its agenda.

De Araujo voiced some of the same kinds of complaints that leaders of small parties everywhere put forward: they do not have equal access to the press; government functionaries of the ruling party have an unfair advantage because the state pays their salaries; the smaller parties lack the same kind of developed infrastructure as Fretilin; the party that has the most name recognition is able to parlay it into excessive influence on international bodies; the United Nations refused his party's request to postpone the elections, which would have given his lesser known organization a better chance to get its message out to the rural areas.

There was a good turnout for Fernando de Araujo's meeting, including students, scholars, and activists. De Araujo asked the audience for their opinions on what East Timor should do. A lively discussion took place on the relative importance of agriculture and industry and some of the other issues he had raised. In response to a question on how the Partido Democratico differed from Fretilin, he said that his party favored participatory democracy, involving people directly on a day to day basis at the village level, while Fretilin stood for representative democracy in which the work of govermnet was left to leaders put in office at long intervals. One questioner asked if the PD favored small farms or large plantations for its agrarian development strategy. De Araujo replied that in his view the issue did not neatly fit either model, but that the problem was that three large families based in Dili held an enormous amount of the arable land of the country.

De Araujo thanked everyone for their ideas, and expressed a broader thanks for the aid -- political, financial, and military -- the international community has provided to East Timor in its fight for independence from Indonesia. "I feel in the deepest of my heart," he said, "as long as I'm still alive, I have a debt to the international community."

Published: Thursday, December 18, 2003