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Project Timor

President Taur Matan Ruak believes the way to kickstart Asia's newest country is by empowering its people, writes Mary O'Shea. Pictures by Cedric Arnold

 

On May 20, 2012, the day East Timor marked 10 years of independence, Taur Matan Ruak was sworn in as president of the small Southeast Asian country of 1.2 million people.

A trim, bespectacled statesman in his late 50s, Ruak today bears little resemblance to The Economist magazine’s portrayal of him as a guerrilla commander during the country’s fight for independence from Indonesia. Then, according to the magazine, he was “like an ageing rock star … he wore his frizzy hair in a long ponytail and a camouflage jacket over faded jeans”. Ruak appeared to refine his look during the nine years he spent at the helm of the country’s military, the Forcas de Defesa de Timor Leste.

Born José Maria Vasconcelos, the president is still universally known by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak, meaning “two sharp eyes”. Running as an independent in last year’s presidential elections, he campaigned not only as a former guerrilla commander but also as a man of the people. In a speech, he told voters: “I do not have a university degree, my way of studying is by observing and listening to others.”

To underline this approach, in June, Ruak embarked on a series of suco, or community, visits to some of the most isolated corners of his country.

Such is the remoteness of many of these places that the president often has to travel long distances by foot, his entourage in tow.

The aim of the visits is for him to let the Timorese know how the country is developing but also to familiarise himself with conditions on the ground and to hear first-hand the concerns of the people. That these mountain walks are also personal for the president is clear: “I spent 24 years of my life in the jungle, during the fight for independence,” he says, when we meet. “These people’s contribution to our country’s independence was huge.

They helped me and I do not want them to feel forgotten. I want that these people have a better life.” IN THE VILLAGE OF Marobo, in Bobonaro district, a gruelling sevenhour drive from the capital, Dili, the president’s arrival has all the hallmarks of a homecoming. He, his wife, Isabel Ferreira, and their three children, the youngest of whom is asleep on her shoulder, are formally greeted by the village elders and ushered into a crowd that has been eagerly awaiting the visit.

After a short pause for prayer and a cup of local coffee, the president launches into discourse. The venue is a makeshift corrugated iron structure with a roof woven from palm leaves. The president and his entourage perch precariously on plastic chairs while locals hunker down on large rattan mats spread out across the floor. Taking a crackly microphone in hand, one by one the villagers air their concerns.

Eleven years after independence, the array of socioeconomic challenges facing East Timor remains significant. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, 37.4 per cent of the population live under the international poverty line of less than US$1.25 per day.

The country has one of the world’s highest birth rates (an average 6.95 children per woman); and malnutrition is at chronic levels, with Unicef reporting that East Timor has the world’s highest percentage of children under five whose growth is stunted. All this despite the country presiding over a petroleum fund worth some US$13.6 billion. East Timor has been experiencing a petroleum revenue boom since 2005 and has used the cash to support high levels of capital expenditure, notably for large-scale infrastructure developments such as the National Electrification Project. In 2009, petroleum income accounted for about 95 per cent of total government revenue and almost 80 per cent of gross national income. Today, the country is second only to South Sudan in terms of oil dependency.

Gordon Peake, visiting fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Programme at the Australian National University, observes that perhaps “the main challenge facing Timor-Leste [East Timor] today is, in fact, a paradoxical one; one that economists refer to as a ‘resource curse’,” also known as the “paradox of plenty”. Research has shown that countries and regions rich in non-renewable natural resources tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer such resources.

Jim Della-Giacoma, the International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia project director, has described East Timor as “an impoverished country with a very large bank account”.

Increasing inequality is glaringly evident in Dili. Timor Plaza, an airconditioned shopping centre and luxury hotel, stands as an ostentatious symbol of progress just a short stroll from people living in grinding poverty.

Guide Post, a magazine freely available throughout the city, carries advertisements for an upmarket gated residential community offering the dream of “lifestyle living”. Stylish seaside restaurants, with extensive and expensive wine lists, cater for a tiny emerging middle class. Of East Timor, the Asia Foundation has noted that “there are signs that the culture of abundance is beginning to take root in a society facing pervasive poverty”.

Peake, however, cautions against focusing too much on the depressing litany of development statistics because “few would have given [the Timorese] the chance of surmounting the obstacles they’ve already surmounted”.

The concerns listed by the villagers of Marobo offer insight into the challenges faced throughout rural East Timor. They include lack of access to water, electricity, health care facilities and education; poor infrastructure; and the ever-contentious issue of pensions for war veterans. The president listens attentively throughout, jotting down notes.

Once everyone has had the opportunity to speak, Ruak addresses the villagers at length. Going point by point through every issue that has been raised, he cites clearly what is realistically possible and makes suggestions as to what they, as a community, could do to improve their lot. The dialogue continues long into the evening, with villagers wrapping themselves in blankets to ward off the cold mountain air. The president dons a denim jacket.

With proceedings at an end, he and his wife invite the entire village to join them for a meal of chicken and rice. The mood is distinctly familial and festive, with palm wine provided by the elders.

The presidential role in East Timor being primarily ceremonial, Ruak’s power lies in making recommendations to the government based on what he hears at the grass-roots level. However, one thing he feels very strongly about is the need to empower people to take the development of their communities into their own hands.

“A nation is a common project,” he expounds during our interview, “it is not only the responsibility of the prime minister or the president, but of all the people of Timor-Leste.”

In a country where the past seems to dominate the present, Ruak has made a point of surrounding himself with a team of bright young people with backgrounds in advocacy or activism. By bringing in a new generation, he is bringing in new ideas, important in a country in which more than 60 per cent of the population are under the age of 25.

“One must believe in the future,” says Ruak. “Those who do not will not succeed.”

He is also keen to project an image of himself as someone who walks the talk. During a recent visit to the district of Manufahi he participated in the construction of school desks. Earlier this year, he held a cookery demonstration in Dili aimed at educating people about nutrition. In a macho society such as that of East Timor, this is a statement in itself.

“The idea is to send a strong message that such things can be fixed by members of the community themselves,” says Filipe da Costa, the president’s political priority adviser.

A few days later, back in Dili, Jose Maria Ximenes, director general of the Timor Post newspaper, offers a more wry interpretation of the president’s walkabouts: “He’s a guerilla, he cannot sit still.”

 

EAST TIMOR’S STATED AIM is to be an upper middle-income country by 2030.

“While in monetary terms we are already a lower middle-income country, socially we still have a long way to go,” says Fidelis Magalhaes, the president’s chief of staff.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 found that, on average, post-conflict countries take between 15 and 30 years – a full generation – to transition from fragility to resilience. As the World Bank has noted, it is against this backdrop that social and economic development in East Timor can be seen as remarkable.

The trajectory of the country has not been smooth, however. In 2006, factional fighting and civil unrest caused 15 per cent of the population to flee their homes. Subsequent violence, in 2008 – when rebel soldiers attempted to assassinate the president and prime minister – raised tensions and aroused deep suspicions between political groups.

Successive governments and those who have assisted them have focused their efforts on securing and maintaining peace, and now stability. However, the feeling in the country is that the time has come to focus on development.

“The country needs to invest in things that don’t reap an immediate dividend,” says Peake. “The sexy part of independence is over. Now comes the unshowy day-to-day slog.”

Seventy-six per cent of East Timor’s population live in rural areas, and the International Labour Organisation refers to poverty as being “primarily a rural phenomenon”. Decentralisation has been enshrined as a priority in the country’s 20-year development plan, but achieving it will be no small task in a land as fragile as East Timor, especially given that 70 per cent of its infrastructure was destroyed during the long conflict.

 

I MEET WITH THE PRESIDENT the morning after the community dialogue in Marobo. It is 6.15am and he has already bathed in the river and had a meeting with the village elders. He emerges from the tent in which he and his family spent the night with a sprightly step.

In Ruak’s view, the key challenge for East Timor is how to translate the country’s increasing wealth into sustainable growth.

“Countries that base their development on oil and gas never do well,” he says. “Oil and gas make people lazy. There’s dignity in hard work.

“We spend US$40 million importing rice from Thailand and Vietnam every year. Another US$19 million on bottled water. Why can’t we do that here?” This question has particular application with regard to the extractive industries. Currently, all the oil and gas produced in East Timor must be exported to be refined. As a result, the country depends heavily on imports from Indonesia to meet domestic demand for fuel.

“If we can refine it here, it’ll make a big difference to the economy. Look at Singapore. They have no oil and yet they have one of the best oil refineries in the world.”

In marked contrast to his predecessor, Jose Ramos Horta – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate wholly at ease in the international arena – the focus of the first year of Ruak’s presidency was fixed on the domestic front.

Keen to emphasise this, he announced he would not travel overseas during that year – a pledge he kept, making his first official overseas trip to Indonesia only in June this year. Since then, Ruak has visited Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Cuba, and has addressed the UN General Assembly. As a representative of this devoutly Catholic country, he also fitted in a visit to Rome, extending an invitation to the new Pope to come to East Timor.

Ruak stresses the importance of having the country’s “interests represented in many forums”. East Timor is already a member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries but is also keen to attain membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Commonwealth (it would not be the first country without British heritage to do so).

The sun, now rising from behind the mountains, signals the start of his official schedule for the day. Our interview drawing to an end, Ruak is eager to make one final point: “Independence is not complete and the fight for prosperity is more difficult than the previous fight,” he proclaims. “I want to inspire the people to keep this fighting spirit.”

And with that, he strides off, up a mountain trail, his entourage of young aides struggling keep up.

Research supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

 

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