East Timorese struggle to bury differences

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am

The shooting of East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta is another sorry chapter in the country's short existence. Since independence in May 2002, the nation has stumbled from crisis to crisis, each new calamity further denting hopes of rising above the poverty, disorder and instability that centuries of foreign misrule created.

Such violence is unwarranted and regrettable. It must serve as a wake-up call to the nation that a genuine reconciliation process is necessary to bring disparate groups together.

Divisions that run deep through Timorese society, splitting the nation east and west, were behind the rebel attacks on Mr Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Rather than solving a problem, though, they have only heightened tensions, pushing a dysfunctional state closer to the brink of becoming a failed one.

Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, the presence of international peacekeepers and police, and a budget overflowing with the wealth of oil and gas reserves, East Timor remains among the world's poorest countries. Political infighting and bickering have stalled development and stunted growth.

The struggle for independence from Indonesia in 1999 was clear-cut between Indonesian-backed militias and Timorese wanting the brutal occupier out. Violence that has since swept the country of 1 million people has been less defined, being a mix of political rivalry, economic dissatisfaction and prejudices stemming from the rule of Indonesia and before that, the colonial power Portugal.

With the common enemy vanquished, rivalries have gone from being good-natured to bitter. The sacking of almost half the army in 2006, with many of those removed claiming discrimination, sparked unrest that has crystallised rifts.

East Timor has stagnated. The government is in turmoil, with essential business being held up by a power struggle. About 100,000 people displaced by the fighting remain homeless. Half of the population is unemployed and 42 per cent live below the poverty line. The UN World Food Programme says 46 per cent of the country's children are stunted by malnutrition.

Yet, East Timor has been given generous aid from foreign donors and the UN has helped train its officials in the fundamentals of nation-building. International troops and police have kept street gangs and rebels at bay as funds from oil and gas deposits pour into government coffers. With the country holding the rights to estimated trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, the future should be bright.

Foreign help and natural resources can help build a country's foundations, but they are no substitute for the essentials of a strong society: good governance, a judicial system that upholds the rule of law and a security force dedicated to ensuring stability.

These are sorely lacking in East Timor and political turmoil is to blame. The attacks on the president and prime minister, no matter what their failings, do nothing to correct the situation.

The rebel leader behind the shootings has been killed. With him must die the aspirations of his followers to overthrow the government.

That wish has to be replaced by a desire to build a new nation. A reconciliation process - a true one, not the half-hearted attempt already tried - must be launched.

East Timor will move forward only through its people working as one by shrugging off their differences.