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Public commentary on a recent, critical UN report on East Timor's PM

A person who contributed to a discussion on East Timor recently wrote, regarding a leaked UN report that was critical of PM Xanana Gusmao’s increasing executive control of government:
“There is an eerie silence out there regarding the attacks contained in the UN report against the PM Gusmao from the many foreign academics, commentators and media who in 2006/07 vehemently condemned the FRETILIN Alkatiri first constitutional government for what they termed its anti-democratic, authoritarian, centralist, even Marxist practices and policies. Why is this so? Perhaps now that their preferred Timorese PM who is not a member of FRETILIN is in power they do not want to help draw attention to perceived or otherwise weaknesses.

 “After all, I have heard some argue it is not always easy to be the inexperienced government of a new nation emerging from the quagmire of a brutal history of violence and abuse, grappling with the demands of foreign powers greedily eyeing off resources while at the same time trying to meet the most basic needs of an impoverished population. Others simply contend international expectations are too high.

“Could it be that a lesson has been learned and they do not want to repeat their mistakes by contributing again to the demise of a democratically elected government?

“Will we see a damming story about the AMP government just before 2012 elections by Liz Jackson on 4 Corners, Australia’s flagship current affairs TV program? Let’s hope this row instead prompts a more informed constructive debate on constitutionalism in a fledgling democracy.

“No wonder Mari Alkatiri is smiling quietly.”

I responded:
“It is an interesting process to set up an assumption about equivalence and then ask why the responses to one are not the same as the other.

“The leaked UN report about the current Prime Minister does indeed raise some disturbing questions, but the views expressed in it are not new nor, in terms of evidence, are they quite as damning as the implied assumed equivalence might suggest. Plenty of journalists have been writing about the issues raised by the report and other matters and plenty of academics have been watching closely. If academics have not yet jumped it is because the situation is a long way from critical, as it was in 2005-6.

“There will always be a tension in any government, in a long established polity or not, for power to be centralised. There will also be attempts to limit that centralisation. In Timor-Leste, we have seen such attempts at centralisation under both the Fretilin and the AMP governments. There have also been good arguments for and against such centralisation in both cases.

“However, the extent of centralisation between the Fretilin government under Mari Alkatiri and the AMP government under Xanana Gusmao is, I think, quite different. Moreover, the issue of centralisation of power was not the main, or sole, problem that arose under Mr Alkatiri’s prime ministership. In the face of growing and legitimate dissent, there was also an increasing tendency towards authoritarian responses, which have been sufficiently well documented elsewhere not to require repeating here. There were also profound divisions between the police and the army and within the army. All of this required to be handled with great delicacy and tact. It was not and a volatile political environment boiled over.

“As the head of the government overseeing this near-complete collapse of state functions, Mr Alkatiri was required to take responsibility for their breakdown. He did, appropriately so, and resigned his position. The current situation does not in any way resemble these events, so the assumption of equivalence fails. It is also important to remember that while Mr Alkatiri resigned as prime minister for his failure to lead the state in a way that avoided the home-grown problems of 2005 and especially 2006, the Fretilin government continued in office until the parliamentary elections of 2007, when it saw it parliamentary vote cut in half and it was democratically pushed from office. That is the price of political accountability.

“It is correct to note that the period immediately following independence for any new state is always the most difficult and that many, perhaps most, states have handled this period poorly. The process that allows this has a number of factors – too many to elaborate here – but this helps explain why so many liberation struggles that started off democratically ended up as authoritarian. However, this is also a strong argument as to why post-liberation governments need to be wary of falling into the authoritarian trap.

“In terms of international expectations, they remain fairly consistent – there is always a strong desire that new states have elected, accountable governments that manage the affairs of state well. I don’t think anyone should want any less for any people anywhere, and especially not after having already suffered through the brutal authoritarianism of a repressive and bloody foreign occupation.

“The AMP government has, since 2007,certainly benefited from a greater flow of revenue. Having said that, important questions have been raised about a number of aspects of its spending program. Many of these questions have not been adequately answered, or answered at all. Next year, the people of Timor-Leste will again have an opportunity to hold their government to account and the outcome of those elections is, at this stage, far from clear.

“Whether Mr Alkatiri is smiling or not will probably depend on how far he has advanced with putting together a nominal agreement for a new coalition government, given that it is unlikely that Fretilin will recover sufficiently to again have a simple majority in the parliament (despite comments to the contrary). Similarly, the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, will also be wondering if he can put together a coalition to again form a majority on the floor of parliament, especially in light of the sometimes fractious relations he has had with some of his non-CNRT colleagues.

“For myself, I put my faith in the people of Timor-Leste. Whichever way they choose to go next year, as in 2007, their decision will be solely determined by themselves.”


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