A woman shows her voter registration card at a polling station in Timor-Leste, where she is waiting to cast her vote in today’s presidential run-off.
c UN Photo/Bernardino Soares

Timor Leste: After the UN’s departure, can the country sustain its rise?

The United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UNMIT) withdrew its troops on December 31st, 2012. When introduced in 2006, it aimed to “bring about a process of national reconciliation and to foster social cohesion’. This task is almost complete – but questions remain as to exactly how far Timor has come and how helpful the UN mission has been.

Indonesia’s twenty-five year long occupation of Timor Leste came to an end on 20th May 2002, as a result of a 1999 referendum and ensuing civil war. Infrastructure built under Indonesian rule was largely destroyed in the post-referendum violence, leaving the newborn nation without roads, bridges, and administrative buildings.

Half of the population is illiterate and 37.4% lives under the international poverty line of less than US$1.25 a day, according to UNDP figures. Ongoing negotiations with Australia over oil exploitation in the Timor Gap have hindered the economy’s ability to fully benefit from oil and gas reserves, and low-level violence persists in rural districts.

Despite these challenges, however, Timor’s GDP has been growing by 8% or more since post-election violence subsided in 2007, with projected growth of 10% this year (World Bank, 2013). This is the effect of a recent improvement in relations with its former occupier and a renewed focus on education starting from the grassroots level, both of which have contributed to greater economic liberalization.

The two most active organizations in the drive to educate Timorese children and adults are the United Nations and the Catholic Church. During the independence struggle, Timor Leste’s Catholic identity acted as a unifying factor against the predominantly Muslim Indonesians, and since independence Catholic institutions have set up hundreds of primary schools, hospitals, maternal health clinics, and employment centers.

“It is important to get children off the streets and into classrooms,” affirmed a Canossian nun in Dili, the capital. “We run schools all the way from kindergarten to university in several cities around the country. We work with the government and the United Nations to expand access to healthcare as well.” The secret to Timor’s recent success lies in the government’s tight cooperation with the UN mission and Catholic entities, allowing UN aid workers and religiously affiliated charities and schools to operate freely at the local level.

While corruption and a weak judicial system have hampered efforts to liberalize key industries such as oil and agriculture, Timorese authorities have nonetheless succeeded in establishing an export-based market economy dependent on commodities such as oil, petroleum gas, and coffee. A 2003 study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) on the geology of Timor Leste revealed substantial mineral resources of base metals, mainly copper, gold, and silver. These deposits could attract significant foreign interest.

Oil and gas are responsible for 57% of exports, and a state petroleum fund of US$8.7 billion has fueled investment in education and infrastructure. Private investment from Portuguese firms has allowed Timor Telecom to establish a monopoly and expand telephone network coverage to each district capital.

Monopolies, a major hindrance to economic development, are now being displaced due to recent government efforts aimed at stimulating competition in the economy. In 2013, Indonesian telecommunications outfit Telkomsel will begin operating GSM and 3G services nationwide under the banner of TELIN, its international subsidiary. Timor’s numerous airports, destroyed in 1999, have since been rebuilt, and domestic flights are expected to begin in 2013 now that UN troops have left.

It would be foolish, however, to underestimate Timor Leste’s overdependence on its oil reserves. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has described Timor as “the most oil-dependent country in the world.” Tens of billions of dollars worth of petroleum oil and gas lie under the Timor Gap, a stretch of sea between the island of Timor and Australia. A treaty regarding the division of the maritime area was signed by Australia and Indonesia in 1989 and was then revised upon Timor’s independence in 2002.

Government officials, however, have since accused Australia of “cheating” them out of their fair share of resources. Arbitration on the case began in April 2013, amid accusations of Australian espionage and intransigence. The two nations are now debating over where to construct a pipeline and an onshore liquid natural gas (LNG) processing facility that was originally meant to be built in Darwin, Australia, under the terms of the 2002 treaty.

Building the facilities would bring about elevated costs and cause potential environmental damage on Timor’s southern coast. Although this would create employment opportunities, training skilled workers to operate the refinery would take time. Furthermore, the decision to bring the case to international arbitration is a major risk as it will be difficult to prove that Australia engaged in covert activities. A better option would be for Timor to seek a larger share of oil revenues while consenting to the construction of the pipeline and the processing plant in Australia.

Timor has been the focus of international media in the past more for security reasons than for its burgeoning economy – so being out of the news for so long is positive for the nation. Violence has declined since post-election peaks in 2006-2008, yet this is surprisingly not due to the increased presence of the UN. In fact, UNMIT troops, largely provided by developing countries, have allegedly been accused of killing civilians and blaming the attacks on local groups in order to justify their continued permanence in the country.

A hotel operator in Dili stated “You know why people still think of Timor as a warzone? Because of the UN.” He went on to assert what many other Timorese have expressed: that Timor is now developing on its own and, therefore, does not need UN forces; that their presence scares off potential investors; and that some UNMIT soldiers had apparently staged murders to give the stabilization mission a veneer of legitimacy.

The validity of such claims could be called into question. However, the possibility of pressure groups influencing the Timorese press into misreporting similar events with the aim of tarnishing the UN is low, given the virtual nonexistence of the media. Fears could be overblown, but it is undeniable that seeing large military vehicles roam the streets and soldiers patrol government buildings unsettles visitors and businessmen alike.

Timor Leste is progressing in the right direction. Maternal mortality rates are falling, literacy and employment rates are rising, and the country is far more stable now than it has ever been. UNMIT’s departure is a sign that Timor Leste is finally open for business, and the arrival of large Indonesian and Australian multinationals proves this.

Beneath the optimism, however, lies a fundamental question: is this growth sustainable? There is still much to be done in building infrastructure. Tourism, which could become a significant source of revenue, is stagnant and undeveloped. Corruption is extensive and political crises persist, but if privatization continues, social services are expanded, and the rule of law is firmly established, Timor Leste can achieve further economic development.

For a country that endured something close to genocide for a quarter of a decade and then had to rebuild everything from scratch, today’s challenges are nothing if surmountable. Timor Leste is learning to stand on its own feet, and is doing so faster than ever.

Giacomo Tognini

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Giacomo Tognini is a student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Political Science and Economics. He is Italian, was born in London, and has lived abroad his entire life, living in 4 countries and visiting another 28. He plans to enter the journalism industry after graduation.

4 comments on “Timor Leste: After the UN’s departure, can the country sustain its rise?

  1. Tristan O'Brien on said:

    Have you been to Timor Leste. I have facilitated a week long peace conference in Dili within the last year, for citizens all across the nation, and the issues of importance seemed quite different to those you brought up. In Timor, the fact that a company has a monopoly over telecommunications is hardly a problem at present, because the government is more than happy with there being any telecommunications at all, seeing as there were none for the last 10 years. Instead of focusing on increased competition here, the government focuses on the main infrastructure challenge to Timor, the distribution of water. At the moment, there are some households, even in the capitol, who have no water running thought there pipes, and no household gets water access for more than six hours a day. This does not only mean human development is hindered, but also that empty pipes start to rust and break, and there is now 60% water leakage in the capitol. This seems much more a pressing issue than telecommunications, which the government has just finished investing in.

    You mentioned that the UN made people think it was a war still, but one recognise that by far the biggest contributor to violence in Timor is fighting between rival martial arts gangs. These gangs are very authoritative and often order their members to seriously injure or kill people (however there are of course non violent groups as well). There is a violent group in almost every village, and the government feels it cannot disband them because in general the public think they are good fitness for young men.

    One must also recognise that the Timor and Australia relationship is much more delicate than you have indicated. For Timor, Australia is by far its biggest trading partner and Australia could easily cripple Timor’s economy. In addition, Timor relies in Australian support to become part of the Commonwealth of Nations, which would have major economic benefits. Also, many Timorese feel warmly about Australia because when the Australian troops were in Timor they spent a lot of time teaching the young children sport, which was much appreciated.

    The other major problem that you did not pick up on is the state of education. The problem here is not that there are not enough schools, but that al classes must be taught in Portuguese, a language that very few students or teachers understand. This is obviously a major problem, but one would find it hard to choose another universal language to replace Portuguese.

    After speaking to the Timorese President and several foreign analysts of the Timorese situation, most believe that the government driven investment pipeline is up to scratch and the young nation is on its way towards relative economic stability. They all say that by far the biggest threat to Timor is the possibility domestic unrest or an international war.

  2. Giacomo Tognini on said:

    Thank you for your comment, Mr. O’Brien. I’ll try to address your concerns about my article.

    Firstly, yes, I have visited Timor-Leste twice and met with government officials and aid representatives.

    While it is true that water is a significant and vital issue to resolve, my article was about the nation’s economic development at large. If monopolies such as telecommunications are broken up then the economy will prosper and the government can invest the resulting wealth in improving infrastructure, the dearth of which was emphasized in my article.

    Many Timorese spoke to me of their negative opinion of UN troops. You are correct in bringing up the martial arts gangs, which remain a major problem for stability. However, the presence of foreign troops does also lead to greater tension in the air, and so far five years have passed without significant incidents of political or mass violence.

    The usage of Portuguese as the main language of instruction is a policy choice of the government, not something that is mandatory and inflexible. The government made a decision to incentivize Portuguese over Tetum and Indonesian in the education system, and thus it is up to them to seek help in training more teachers in the language or to switch their policy to supporting Tetum.

    The pipeline cannot be discussed without mentioning the refinery. The processing facility would cause potential environmental damage and discourage tourism on the country’s southern coast. It would be expensive, and the jobs it would bring cannot at present be filled by Timorese citizens – virtually no nationals have any expertise in the oil industry or engineering, and geology is not offered as a course in any of the nation’s universities or employment centers. It would be far more beneficial to secure a larger share of oil revenues and employment positions at a refinery in Darwin than to invest in a costly and unrealistic project at home.

    Timor does not face any credible international threat, so a foreign war is not at all a pertinent issue as Indonesia is no longer a potential foe. Internal instability and violence are definitely possible. But five years without domestic political violence is encouraging, and if the police and army can be reformed and restore order, economic reform continues, and the rule of law is firmly established (as mentioned in my article), then there is reason to believe that Timor will not stray from its path towards development and security.

    Thanks again for your considerable expertise on the nation’s issues and contribution to this debate. It is always beneficial to learn from other experiences and viewpoints, especially yours given that you organized a conference in the country. I hope you at least found my article informative.

    • Ken Westmoreland on said:

      Timor Telecom now faces competition from Telin (backed by Telkom Indonesia) and also Telemor (backed by Viettel in Vietnam). Telecommunications is just as important for international communication as being able to speak a major world language, but the cost and unreliability of Timor Telecom’s services makes this a handicap. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Timor Leste is often the most expensive to call. International calls are not a luxury, they are a necessity, given that Timorese migrant workers overseas make a significant contribution to the economy. There are thousands of Timorese working in the UK, sending back remittances every month, but they speak little English or Portuguese.

      The country’s education system is multilingual by necessity and by choice, but unfortunately, foreigners in Timor Leste find it easier to work against each other than with each other, or side with one group of Timorese against another. Portuguese language advocates, however, are their own worst enemies, living in a fantasy world, and the fact that it was only last year that an Indonesian-Portuguese dictionary was published illustrates perfectly the incompetence and criminal negligence of Portugal and Brazil.

      While the use of Portuguese is a source of friction and resentment, the most recent source of controversy has been over mother tongue education, in which neither Tetum or Portuguese would be used. This has been looked upon as an ‘Anglo-Saxon plot’ or ‘Trojan Horse’ by some Timorese and Portuguese.

      Perversely, the insistence on Portuguese rather than Indonesian has created an incentive to develop and promote Tetum as a modern language – had Indonesian be retained, Tetum would be largely a vernacular language similar to most regional languages in Indonesia, which have been sidelined. Despite having 80 million speakers, there is no daily newspaper in Javanese, whereas the Timorese daily newspapers, most local news is in Tetum – Indonesian language articles abound, but they are just copied and pasted from Indonesian websites.

      The description of the relationship between Timor Leste and Australia by Mr O’Brien is inaccurate – Indonesia remains Timor Leste’s largest trading partner, hence the popularity of Indonesian goods and the large number of Indonesians working and trading in the country.

      It is laughable to suggest that any economic benefits would arise from the country joining the Commonwealth of Nations, which ceased to be a trading bloc forty years ago – no preferential tariffs are given to countries being members. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are members of the Commonwealth, and even have the Queen as head of state, but I don’t recall either being popular with British investors.

      And while there is goodwill among Timorese towards Australians dating back to the Second World War, they are aware of how the Australian government sucked up to Indonesia over the invasion and occupation of their country. To forgive is not to forget.

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