Faith, hope and charity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

Flaky-skinned Jenny is two weeks old. She was born in an East Timor refugee camp, adjacent to Dili's airport, that 6,000 people have been crammed into since the unrest of April and May last year. The violence prompted the return of inter-national troops and the UN, only a few years after they had left the fledgling Southeast Asian nation.

'There was nobody looking after my wife, Cinta, when the baby was born. We are forgotten people,' said Tomaso Soares.

A UN-donated tent is home to the family, who own just a few basic kitchen implements and a small suitcase of clothes. Mr Soares' eight children are fed thanks to aid delivered every two weeks by international organisations. 'It's mainly rice,' he said. 'Sometimes we also get vegetables.'

The Soares family have tried to return to their two-bedroom house on the outskirts of the city, but were attacked by loromonu, said Mr Soares, referring to the people from the west of the country. The 45-year-old is a lorosae, from the eastern districts of East Timor.

Multi-faceted rivalry between people from the two areas was among the issues mishandled or manipulated by politicians, sparking a split within the armed forces that led to last year's violence.

An estimated 37 people died during the unrest and more than 100 have been killed since, despite the deployment of international troops. Former prime minister Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign after the country polarised, the police disintegrated and gangs of disenfranchised, alcohol-fuelled youths took to the streets.

A parliamentary election due on Saturday is intended to re-establish the credibility of the local political elite, whose reputation was badly bruised in last year's chaos.

'We hope the new government will help us,' said Cinta Da Cruz, 29, rocking her newborn daughter. Her husband adds a long list of wishes to her flickering hope.

'I want peace, I want stability and I want a job. This is what I ask of the leaders, but I'm not sure they can give it to me,' he said.

The recent crisis added to the plight of the East Timorese, who had hoped for a much brighter future once a UN-sponsored referendum granted them freedom in 1999. Independence was achieved after 21/2 years of UN administration on May 20, 2002.

In a report last year entitled 'Path Out of Poverty', the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said that only half of East Timor's adults could read and write, and 30 per cent of primary school-aged children were not at school. The UNDP also said the average life expectancy was 55.5 years and that 60 babies out of every 1,000 died before their first birthday. The report said that some 40 per cent of people lived below the subsistence line of 55 US cents per day.

To make matters worse, a new Food and Agriculture Organisation report says one in five people in East Timor needs food assistance, blaming crop losses on persistent drought and locust plagues.

The Soares family's status as internally displaced people (IDPs) is a fate shared by more than 55,000 people in many camps.

'At its peak, there were 120,000 displaced,' said Telmo Godinho of local NGO Timor Aid said. 'Some have been able to return home.'

Yet the IDPs' plight - as well as the abject poverty and need for education - has been debated superficially and often demagogically during the electoral campaign, with parties more focused on trading accusations rather than presenting clear remedies for the country's problems.

The International Crisis Group has highlighted key issues such as the dependence on foreign troops, the need to administer justice for past crimes, the danger posed by forgotten war veterans, rebel soldiers still on the run, the need to overhaul the inept legal system and the splintered security sector, and the question of how to best defuse the local gangs, martial arts groups and politico-criminal organisations that seem to operate with impunity.

High on the agenda is also how to spend revenue from the country's oil and gas resources, with some parties urging the spending of all of the US$1.4 billion saved in the Petroleum Fund, an interest- bearing US Federal Reserve account established in September 2005.

Local legislation allows that only a fraction of the revenue produced by the fund be spent, and mandates that most of the money be invested in low-risk bonds, which should ensure the country some revenue even when its reserves run out. East Timor currently gets 94 per cent of its government revenues from oil and gas sales.

The lack of meaningful debate does not surprise Charlie Schneider, an analyst at La'o Hamutuk, a local group set up to monitor the main international institutions present in the country.

'In truth, it's rather normal in a post-conflict society,' he said. 'People here have no experience of a democratic process, and this goes from the president down to the average voter. Until 1999, the only relationship East Timorese had with government was one of resistance.'

The political void left by the lack of openly debated policies has been filled by personality-driven campaigns, where most of those lining up for Saturday's vote are the same people that have played key roles in the past 30 years of the country's history.

Mr Alkatiri, 58, still leads the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (Fretilin). He has said he 'is not seeking to lead the government again' - but this claim is taken with a pinch of salt by his adversaries, who contend that he will pull strings from behind the scenes.

Leading the opposition pack is the newly established National Congress for East Timor Reconstruction (CNRT).

The party tries to emulate the coalition that campaigned for independence in the 1999 referendum and now, as it was then, it's led by local hero Jose Alexandre 'Xanana' Gusmao, 61, who spent two decades in the jungle organising the anti-Indonesia resistance before becoming East Timor first post-independence president in 2002.

Mr Gusmao's decision to run for prime minister is due to his deep disagreements with Mr Alkatiri. The differences between the two date back to the resistance period, during which Mr Alkatiri lived in Mozambique.

Their mutual distrust has been deepened by ideological and practical differences on how to run the country since Indonesia left.

Last year's unrest showed the tensions between the two heavyweights, with many government institutions, including the army and police, dangerously splitting between pro-Alkatiri and pro-Gusmao factions.

CNRT is also backed by Jose Ramos Horta, 58, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for roaming the world campaigning for East Timor freedom from Indonesian rule. Since 2002, Mr Ramos Horta has held the post of foreign minister, interim defence minister and prime minister, and he thrashed Fretilin's Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres in May's runoff for the presidency.

The two parties - Fretilin and CNRT - are likely to garner most of the votes, but neither looks likely to win an outright majority in the new 65-member parliament.

In the coalition game set to dominate the post-election period, Mr Gusmao is the favourite and most analysts are predicting a CNRT-led government in coalition with the Democrat Party (PD) and the Timorese Social Democrat Association/Social Democrat Party, known as the ASDT/PSD.

Should such a scenario materialise, new blood would be introduced into the top political echelon in the form of Fernando de Araujo 'Lasama', 45, who chairs the PD, a party founded in 2001 by young Timorese who had studied abroad. A student leader during the Indonesian occupation, Mr de Araujo was arrested in 1991 and spent seven years in a Jakarta prison, roughly at the same time as Mr Gusmao did.

The ASDT/PSD is co-chaired by two veteran politicians both over the age of 65: Francisco Xavier do Amaral, who in November 1975 became East Timor's first president, and Mario Carrascalao, who governed East Timor when it was an Indonesian province.

There are 10 other parties jockeying for the vote. None is expected to do particularly well, although a potential surprise could be the Party of National Unity, led by Fernanda Borges, 38, who seems to be backed by the powerful local Catholic Church and who has been successful in gathering crowds during rallies.

Unfortunately for the younger politicians, a candidate's past in the resistance is still likely to play a big part when it comes to the ballot box.

'I know Xanana, Alkatiri, Amaral and Carrascalao and a few others,' said Marcus Fernandes, 23, a fish trader in Comoro's Pantai Kelapa market. 'I know what they have done for this country. But I'm not sure who the younger politicians are and what they did in the past. And I would not vote for someone that I don't know.' Nonetheless, he said he had little confidence in the 'historic' leadership.

'What will happen? I do not know,' he said. 'We just hope that they do not argue, because if they do, we are the ones suffering. We are the victims of the political players. They fight and we suffer.'