Timor-Leste

Problems continue to plague East Timor

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During the 1990s, East Timor's struggle against oppressive Indonesian rule was well publicized. Since achieving independence in 1999, the country has retreated back into relative obscurity. In "East Timor: A Look at the Troubles of a Young Democracy," panelists at the Watson Institute recently discussed East Timor's enduring issues.

Constâncio Pinto, chargé d'affaires of the East Timor Embassy in Washington, D.C., and a Brown University alumnus, discussed East Timor's progressions and problems of the past seven years. Following 1999, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was able to restore security, and since then the government has established an oil fund to prevent East Timor's resources from being wasted.

There are continual problems though, which Pinto argued are the fault of East Timor itself. The country can no longer blame Indonesia. Unemployment as high as 55 percent, a lack of human resources for an adequate justice system, political cleavages, and discrimination have plagued the country. Most striking is this year's crisis, prompted by the expulsion of soldiers protesting discrimination. Pinto attributed the crisis to political leaders using the situation to further their own interests. The ensuing riots led the international community to return to the small country, and Pinto questioned whether it had left too early in 2002.

Moisés S. Fernandes, of the University of Lisbon, discussed the internal and external factors that have contributed to East Timor's struggles. Internally, the pre-1990s political divisions have reappeared now that the common enemy, Indonesia, has been defeated. There is also a youth population that does not speak Portuguese, East Timor's official language, and that has stronger ties with Indonesia. Mass poverty and the unwillingness of the Catholic Church to cede any power have also contributed to East Timor's struggles.

Perhaps more interesting, Fernandes addressed external factors which have led to problems culminating in the crisis earlier this year. Fernandes argued that East Timor's instability could be beneficial to Indonesia. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, evidence against Indonesia's atrocities during the 1990s were destroyed in the recent crisis.

Fernandes was more critical of Australia's role. Australia may have provoked the recent strife to achieve a regime change in East Timor in order to gain a better deal on the gas reserves located between the two countries, he said. Complaints have also surfaced about the arrogance of Australian troops in East Timor, he added, and they may soon be seen as an occupying force instead of peacekeepers. Fernandes also insinuated the role of an outside power in the recent violence by asking who is financing it.

Due to pressing engagements at the United Nations, Ambassador João Salgueiro of Portugal was unable to attend.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Craig Kennedy '08