On Any Sunday – to the mountains of Timor-Leste and back
This is a guest post by Martin Hardie, a lecturer in law at Deakin University. Martin recently returned to Timor-Leste after an absence of eleven years. This is his story.
Last weekend my old friend, my Timorese ‘boss’ in the days of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the current Secretary of State for Energy Policy (SEPE), Avelino Maria Coelho da Silva, invited me to his traditional land outside of Ossu on the southern slopes of the great mountain range that runs the length of the island of Timor.
I had spent the best part of the previous three weeks with Avelino, first travelling with him to remote villages as he campaigned for the Timorese Socialist Party (PST) in the Parliamentary elections, and then in his office at the Palacio do Governo, in Dili, working on a draft of a law on renewable energy.
It had been eleven years since we had worked together. Eleven years in which after having left Timor we lost and regained contact. Eleven years in which I had consciously or unconsciously abstained from writing about Timor, its politics and its neo colonisation by the global forces who had come in the name of peace and justice. One thing I can say about my time in Timor, from October 1999 until July 2001 was that it changed my worldview forever.
At first anger and depression, but then as I found new tools and re-found old ones, the things that I saw there began to make more sense. One immediate lesson I had learned, of course, was that although the United Nations and their cohort came in the name of peace and justice, their agenda and their affect was a long way removed from the spectacle of their rhetoric.
Back to last weekend … on Sunday morning 15 July, Nuno Corvelo de Andrade Sarmento, a Senior Technical Adviser within the SEPE office and I set off early from Dili for the four or five hour drive via Baucau to Ossu. Other than a few people walking to church the roads were remarkably quiet. This was not as some foreign observers have interpreted it a sign of peace, for Nuno it was a sign of fear and apprehension.
A fear and apprehension brought about by the fact that the party which had won the most seats in the election held a week before was today going to hold a nationally televised conference to discuss with whom they would form a coalition government. Rather than openness and transparency (those buzzwords of the purveyors and importers of western logic) creating the conditions for democracy, the televised conference had put many of the people of the country on edge.
Out east of Ossu we sat on the verandah and the gathered collection of mobile phones let off their varied ringtones as calls and text messages came through reporting on each and every intervention made at the CNRT Conference. The most possible outcomes involved a CNRT minority government, a grand coalition of National Reconciliation involving both the major parties, Fretilin and CNRT, or a coalition between CNRT, the PD (Democratic Party) and Frente Mudanca, the two smaller parties who had won seats in the Parliament.
The latter option was the one that most foreigners seemed to think would eventuate. It was the one that fitted their worldview of a large party forming a coalition with smaller parties allowing the other large party to play the role of a ‘strong opposition’. This of course was the role Fretilin had played in Parliament over the past five years, despite them touting the National Coalition line throughout the election campaign and its aftermath. This view also carried with it all the logic that had been imposed upon Timor-Leste since its painful rebirth, the labour of which commenced in 1999.
A strong opposition fitted the liberal democratic model that is “the only realistic alternative” in today’s world. It would allow, so its promoters constantly told me, real democratic competition in Parliament. This model of competitive representative government is also, of course, “the only realistic alternative” as it is best suited to the economic model that was imposed on the Timorese from the earliest days of the UNTAET regime.
Unsurprisingly, those who promote this model fail to acknowledge the growing dis-functionality of both representative government and the competitive free market in the West. Along with that, this logic fails to take into account that the real differences between those that won seats in Parliament are at best personal or cosmetic, they are not differences of policy, ideology or politics.
As one of the younger Timorese whom I had lived and worked with in 1999, and in whom I place a great amount of respect, told me, democracy everywhere is an abstract concept. His view, which is widely acknowledged by members of this well educated class of Timorese, is that the continuing imposition of this politico-economic model is what has, and continues to condemn Timor to its present state. For them Timor has never gained independence or sovereignty, it has merely been subject to an interchange of imperialist powers, whether it be Portugal, Indonesia, or more recently the imperial single logic of the neoliberal globe. For them the question was how to counter, surf or, like salmon swimming upstream, jump over the tidal wave of Empire.
According to the logic of the imposed model, the first option that of a grand coalition of CNRT and Fretilin, was abhorrent, as it left no room for the necessary competitive function of western style politics. Rather than a government of national unity it was better to have Fretilin in opposition, saying in the style of Australia’s opposition leader, Abbott, “NO, NO, NO”. A grand coalition may have provided a mechanism for reigning in some of the more blatant and abusive pocket lining that has been the subject of much comment, and recently action by the Anti Corruption Commission. In saying this, one should not condemn all Timorese politicians, as there are many good people on all sides. But some, for sure, just feel incapable of dealing with the wave.
Some of my Fretilin friends had told me that the deal for the coalition had already been done before the election. It was certainly widely touted in the local papers the week after the election was held. But for this to happen it would seem CNRT’s leader Xanana Gusmao would need to wield all of his charismatic power. These same people told me that CNRT itself was split – somewhere between one third against the coalition and two thirds for it, to figures closer to fifty/fifty. But, as always in politics, and Timor is not unique in this instance, and one must always try and sort the wheat from the rhetorical chaff.
As the phones rang at Ossu, messages of the various interventions by CNRT members were passed on to us. It appears that Xanana himself argued strongly for the coalition as the best outcome for the country. My experience with Xanana is that he has always needed and sought to balance many differing and opposing factions. It is his great strength as a politician (or as a man of Asia or Melanesia). But, even Xanana could not sway the meeting.
At one point the CNRT representative from Baucau, Antonio Gutteres had the floor. I didn’t hear what he said. But a number of people have since recounted to me the tone of his intervention. It has been described as very undiplomatic, which in a respectful society such as Timor, where everyone is a Mr or Mrs, Brother or Sister, is a fairly big statement. Others have said they could not believe what they were hearing.
Former Fretilin PM Mari Alkatiri has stated that he felt the entire history of Fretilin was put on public trial. But Alkatiri and Fretilin themselves have run a fairly hard nose campaign against (dare I say put on trial!) Xanana Gusmao and CNRT everyday in Parliament over the last five years, fulfilling their particular vision of a strong opposition. Whatever the substance of the intervention by Gutteres it seems it was not well received outside. The next morning on the plane to Darwin a young thoughtful Timorese man, working for an oil company, echoed what I had already heard that morning, that the speech by Gutteres had stirred up the anger that ensued.
Old and new fears and prejudices sealed the Coalition of National Reconciliation’s fate. Visions of Liberal Democracy, a strong competitive opposition and the continuance of the creation of a middle class through the process of primitive accumulation (accompanied of course by the necessary amount of corruption) would remain the underpinning logic of building Timor in the image of its new colonisers.
By late afternoon, rather than the earlier reports of the conference, the phone delivered a new message. First from Comoro, the Dili suburb where the Fretilin HQ is based, youths on the street, rocks being thrown, cars being burnt, and tear gas being used in reply. The situation, which was described euphemistically on twitter and the media, as ‘isolated outbreaks of trouble’ or at the other extreme as ‘Timor erupting in violence’, seemed to gloss over why things were firing up where they did. Young Fretilin supporters, from the areas that they lived and which they could control, were taking things into there own hands; Becora followed Comoro and other places followed.
In the midst of this we had to decide when to make our move back to Dili. We were in Ossu, surrounded by Fretilin country. Already reports were coming to us by phone and now by my connection to Facebook of trouble brewing in Viqueque and Baucau which was on our route back.
As darkness settled in, and after a quick meal of local rice, chicken, goat, pork, vegetables, the wonderful Timorese chili, Ai Manis, and a glass or two of Tua Mutin (local palm wine) for me, we set off, a convoy of three cars, with Secretary of State Coelho’s Toyota in the lead, Nuno and myself in the middle car, followed by the third car in the convoy bringing up the rear. All was good through Ossu, we stopped as local villagers sought to embrace Avelino and to give him the prized gift of a chicken.
As we moved up the narrow degraded road (the roads in Timor are far worse than they were in 1999 thanks in part to the enlightened austere economic policy imposed upon them) we encountered our first police patrol, a PNTL (National Police Timor-Leste) Hilux slowly making its way down the hill.
We climbed the mountain range, up to over a thousand metres, to the Venilale turnoff, a magical spot from which on a clear day you can see the Wetar Sea to the north and the Timor Sea to the south, and then commenced our run down towards Baucau and the main northern coastal road to Dili. Nuno had said I could sleep if I wanted, I said, “Ok but wake me before Baucau”. I was rocking around, laid back in the seat, not quite awake, not quite asleep, when I heard a noise. It sounded like we had run over something, a piece of wood on the road, “what was that?”.
Nuno was on the phone, getting the latest news, another noise, bang! “Rocks” he yelled! No more than ten kilometres from Baucau, as we passed a corner in the village of Wailili, a great place for an ambush, I wound up my window, and saw the rocks, as big as the giant pomelos (a large grapefruit of sorts) for sale on the side of the road, hitting the front car from either side. The hail of rocks hitting us and the others from both sides … a shock to wake up to …
At Baucau we went into the city’s police station. The PNTL commander on the front steps, with some of his command, other police in riot gear already out on the streets. Guns, shields and batons at the ready. An Australian policeman stationed there came up for a chat, “We are OK” I told him “Just a scare”, a few dents in the panel work and a smashed tail light in Nuno’s government car. After a bit of talking and a few more phone calls, one PNTL told me that I might not make my morning flight to Darwin as the roads into and out of Dili were all blocked. Reports already of over fifty cars burnt and of one young man killed.
One the way back we stopped a few more times to talk and wait for things to die down. We got to Hera on the outskirts of Dili around two am (it had been a good twenty one hour day since we had left Dili for Nuno and myself by this stage). As we turned off the main road to avoid Becora and enter Dili via Area Branca we were hit again by rocks. A few more dents and as Nuno explained one of the perils of driving around in a government car in times when people are not happy.
This was not a one off, it was not just an uprising by a few upset because they had been left out of government, Timor is not a failed state, it is an experiment for a failed global system. The problems of Timor are a symptom of a wider problem initiated by the UN, the World Bank and the IMF back in 1999, the painful process of structural adjustment, of primitive accumulation and the manufactured creation of a middle class, in order to make Timor another piece in the global Empire of a failed economic system.
The process and the logic impose on the Timorese involves at its core the creation of the haves and the have nots, it is the global system creating its aristocracy in the name of peace, justice and economic growth and fulfilling its mission of accumulation by dispossession. It is in the end a racist project in which the whole world is sought to be remade in the image of the West. It could happen on any Sunday, and increasingly in any place in the world.