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Achievements of a “failed state”

By Tim Anderson - posted Friday, 16 June 2006

The post-independence crisis in Timor Leste has drawn attention to the fragility of institutions in that newly independent country. Australian intervention in 2006 has been accompanied by menacing suggestions of a “failed state” - not just a state that cannot govern itself, but one that poses a threat to others, thus justifying intervention. Yet foreign intervention is anathema to independence and self-governance (in East Timorese terms, “ukun rasik an”).

The immediate danger to Timor Leste's established right to self-determination is likely to be an Australian neo-colonial dominance that could reverse the independent path the nation has undertaken, with its new constitution, national development plan and distinctive policies. The internationalisation of the intervention (the UN involvement) only slightly diminishes this threat. Powerful Australian interests are talking openly about the need for a strong Australian hand on East Timorese policy.

The Fretilin Government, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, has attempted to manage the tensions of independence, appeasing Indonesia, joining the World Bank but not borrowing money, and maintaining a civil relationship with Australia, while maintaining its rights in the oil and gas dispute.


That civil relationship appeared to have endured until the recent crisis, when open hostility to Alkatiri, in particular, erupted. This hostility was out of all proportion to the share of responsibility Alkatiri may have had for the army crisis.

Reflecting the depth of the frosty relationship with the Fretilin-led government, the Australian Government and corporate media have not even condemned the renegade soldiers who took up arms against their own government and shot people in the street. John Howard and Alexander Downer pretend an “even-handed” policy to Timor Leste's elected government and its violent renegades.

President Xanana Gusmao has so far escaped criticism for not denouncing the renegade soldiers and gangs that are acting in his name. Xanana has great domestic popularity and has not been so closely implicated in the policy conflicts with Australia.

The attacks on Prime Minister Alkatiri reflect underlying tensions that have been building for some time. The prime minister, a strong economic nationalist, remains the country's chief strategist. Many of the tensions relate to distinctive policy developments in the seven years since 1999. The best known achievements have been in the oil and gas dispute, but there have also been modest advances in agriculture, health and education. Yet associated with many of these advances has been opposition or hostility from Australia, and its mentor, the US.

There was wide support for the construction of a new constitution (with a bill of rights, a highly democratic electoral system, recognition of shared national resources and customary law) and a development plan. The pursuit of a greedy Australian Government over East Timor's oil and gas resources proved more difficult. Alkatiri led the first round of negotiations (mainly over the Bayu-Undan field), with broad East Timorese and Australian support. The deal shifted Australia's 80-20 offer to a 90-10 settlement. The second round (over the Greater Sunrise field) shifted the Australian “final” position of 18-82 to a settlement of 50-50.

In both sets of talks there was considerable aggravation, particularly the latter, where Australia got its way in deferring fixed maritime boundaries. Australian officials and some academics told the East Timorese again and again that they were “unrealistic” and would get nowhere. Downer told Alkatiri he would give him "a lesson" in politics. Downer and the “realists” were wrong. The East Timorese did not get their full claim, but they came out several billion dollars ahead.


On agriculture both the World Bank and the Australian Government opposed the transitional government's plans (2000-02) to rehabilitate rice fields, and to use aid money for public grain silos and a public abattoir. That is, the Australian Government - blinded by neo-liberal ideology, and their belief in privatisation and export orientation - blocked East Timorese developmental plans. Yet few interventions are more destructive to development than obstructing a small, post-colonial nation defining and creating its own institutions.

Despite this obstruction, after independence the Alkatiri Government built public grain silos (with FAO assistance) and promoted domestic rice production (with Japanese assistance) as a key policy goal. Despite a lack of resources, a focus on rice production is now embedded in the country's food security policy. A recent UNDP report tells us that the domestic rice production of 37,000 tonnes in 1998 rose to 65,000 tonnes in 2004. This means less dependence on imported rice, an important concern for a country with a history of famines. However, the 2006 crisis has again disrupted domestic supply.

There have been modest gains in education and health. Gross school enrolments increased from 59 per cent in 1999 to 66 per cent in 2004. The biggest improvement was upper secondary school, where enrolment ratios rose from 37 per cent to 46 per cent (they had fallen to 27 per cent in 2001). Infant mortality was static (mainly due to a lack of skilled birth assistants) but under-5 mortality continued to decline.

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First published in New Matilda on June 14, 2006.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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