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An assassination attempt in February 2008 left President Jose Ramos Horta severely wounded, but he recovered in Australia and returned to Dili in April. While the rebel soldiers involved in the attack later surrendered to security forces, it remained unclear who masterminded the events. Meanwhile, the coalition government struggled with corruption charges, and tensions in the police force mounted as officials pushed for reforms aimed at improving internal security. Separately, the Commission on Truth and Friendship released its final report, which concluded that the Indonesian civilian and military leadership had organized and implemented the scorched-earth campaign that followed East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999.
Portugal abandoned East Timor in 1975 after four centuries of ineffective colonial rule. Indonesia, under the staunchly anticommunist regime of General Suharto, invaded when the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared independence later that year. East Timor became Indonesia’s 26th province in 1976. Over the next two decades Fretilin’s armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army (TNI), which committed widespread human rights abuses as it consolidated control. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 180,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.
International pressure on Indonesia mounted following the 1991 Dili massacre, in which TNI soldiers were captured on film killing more than 200 people. In 1999, 78.5 percent of the East Timorese electorate voted for independence in a referendum approved by Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie. The TNI’s scorched-earth response to the vote killed roughly 1,000 civilians, drove more than 250,000 into Indonesian West Timor, and destroyed approximately 80 percent of East Timor’s buildings and infrastructure before an Australian-led multinational force restored order.
In 2001 East Timor elected a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. Fretilin fell just short of the two-thirds majority required to give it absolute control. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, a former head of Falintil and chairman of Fretilin until he broke from the party in 1988 to form a wider resistance coalition, won the presidency the following year. Independence was officially granted in May 2002. Despite growing frustration with the Fretilin government due to heightened unemployment and corruption, the party achieved a solid victory in the country’s first local elections in 2004 and 2005.
Widespread rioting and violence erupted in the capital in May 2006, catalyzed by the firing of 600 defense force (F-FDTL) troops as well as frustration over rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment. After peaceful demonstrations, armed clashes between the police and mobilized civilian groups resulted in numerous deaths and displaced 150,000 people; Australian troops were deployed to restore security. Conflict escalated when fighting between soldiers and unarmed police left nine people dead. Allegations emerged that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had formed a hit squad to kill off his political opponents, and Alkatiri was forced to step down in June 2006. While a UN commission of inquiry blamed Alkatiri for the outbreak of violence, charges against him were later dropped. In March 2007, former interior minister Rogerio Lobato was found guilty of arming the hit squad, and he was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison. He was ultimately pardoned in May 2008.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and former foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta was appointed prime minister after Alkatiri stepped down. After serving less than a year in this capacity, Ramos Horta achieved a landslide victory of 69 percent in the May runoff of the 2007 presidential election, defeating Fretilin party president Francisco Guterres.
The June 2007 legislative elections revealed a significant decline in public support for Fretilin. Outgoing president Gusmao launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), to contest the legislative elections, which yielded no clear victor. CNRT then organized a coalition, the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP). Both Fretilin and the AMP claimed the right to control government based on distinct constitutional provisions. Deadlock ensued, and in August 2007 Ramos Horta asked the AMP to form a government, appointing Gusmao as prime minister.
In February 2008, former F-FDTL major Alfredo Reinado led an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Gusmao and President Ramos Horta. Reinado had been arrested for involvement in the May 2006 uprising, but he and 56 others had escaped from prison in August 2006. Gusmao survived the attack unharmed, but Ramos Horta was severely injured. He was flown to Australia for surgery and returned to Dili several weeks later. Reinado was killed during the assassination attempt, while former army lieutenant Gastao Salsinha and the remaining rebels escaped. In April, the Roman Catholic Church brokered an agreement under which the fugitives surrendered to security forces.
While confusion lingered as to who masterminded the rebel attack, Reinado’s funeral drew a crowd of 1,000, highlighting his popularity among Timorese youth. Initial hopes that Ramos Horta’s return in April would stabilize the situation went unfulfilled; he appeared inconsistent and unreliable during public events, and he announced in Junethathe had been offered the position of UN human rights commissioner and was taking it under consideration.
Beginning in October, Fretilin threatened to organize a “March of Peace” of thousands in Dili to demand that the government call an early election. Prime Minister Gusmao promised to arrest protestors in order to maintain security, and accused Fretilin of deliberately attempting to increase tension. In November the Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s proposed 2009 budget was illegal. The budget aimed to double government expenditure in order to cushion the impact of higher food and fuel costs, primarily financed through the petroleum fund. The court ruled that the proposed amount to be withdrawn from the petroleum fund was unsustainable and therefore unconstitutional. The case was brought to the court by Fretilin opposition MPs. A leaked report by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations found in December that East Timor was at risk of political collapse, and urged an ongoing international peacekeeping presence. It cited weak judicial and police systems. The government denounced the report as inflammatory.
With a 50 percent unemployment rate, 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line, and approximately 15,000 internally displaced persons, East Timor remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia. At the end of 2008, the total value of theoil and gas fund was estimated to be $4 billion, and the government is faced with the challenge of managing this income effectively. Bilateral ties with Australia remain strong, although some East Timorese resent the continued presence of Australian troops, partly because of the force’s perceived bias against Fretilin and complaints about the division of offshore oil and gas fields between the two countries. Resentment lingers particularly over perceived asymmetry in a 2006 agreement between East Timor and Australia over the Greater Sunrise oil field located in the Timor Sea. East Timor maintains a sovereign claim to a maritime boundary that includes 80 percent of the oil field. Under the agreement, East Timor and Australia agreed to postpone border discussions for 40 years, and to share the revenue from the field equally.
East Timor is an electoral democracy. The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments. In keeping with the five-year terms stipulated in the constitution, elections for the presidency and the unicameral Parliament were held in 2007, marking the country’s first direct legislative elections since the Fretilin-dominated Constituent Assembly became the Parliament after writing the charter in 2002. The elections were generally deemed free and fair. Personalities and old loyalties tied to the resistance movement of the 1970s influence political outcomes more than policy issues, as evidenced by Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta’s retention of the country’s two top executive posts.
Despite the initial impasse over the results, the legislative elections ultimately brought greater pluralism to Parliament and an end to Fretilin’s dominance of government. However, the new AMP coalition government enjoys only a slim majority; initially it held 37 out of 65 seats. In May 2008, the leader of the Social Democratic Association of Timor (ASDT) threatened to leave the AMP coalition after coming to an agreement with Fretilin. However, legislators from ASDT did not themselves drop from the coalition. Two legislators from the National Democratic Union for Timorese Independence (UNDERTIM) party joined the AMP coalition in May, giving the coalition a total of 39 seats. The government was able to maintain cohesion during the year despite rumors of an impending collapse and Fretilin’s ongoing efforts to challenge its constitutional and popular legitimacy.
Frustration with corruption and nepotism was one reason for Fretilin’s relatively poor showing in the 2007 elections; accusations of graft have continued under the AMP government. East Timor dropped from the 43rd percentile to the 39th percentile in the Fiscal Year 2009 Millennium Challenge Account report, primarily due to its low corruption score. The country was ranked 145 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. In July 2008, students protested the purchase of cars for members of Parliament, and tear gas was used to disperse the crowd. Later that month Prime Minister Gusmao signed an exclusive $14.4 million food-security contract with a company owned by the vice president of the CNRT.
The free flow of information in East Timor is hampered primarily due to shortages of infrastructure and resources. An estimated 68 percent of Timorese are reached by the national broadcaster Radio Timor-Leste, though few community radio stations are functional. Since 2007, East Timor Television (TVTL) has been available via satellite outside of Dili. East Timor has two major daily newspapers and two major weekly papers. The daily Suara Timor Lorosae is generally considered to be pro-Fretilin, while the weekly Jornal Nacional Diaro is loosely affiliated with the CNRT. Less than one percent of the population has access to the internet.
Press freedom is limited by the criminal defamation provisions of the Indonesian penal code that continue to apply until a new East Timorese penal code is promulgated. An East Timorese penal code was finalized in October 2008, however, and was awaiting ratification at year’s end. The original draft of the bill maintained the defamation provisions of the Indonesian code, although the Ministry of Justice removed the criminal defamation provisions in September after public consultation, a move hailed by rights activists as a significant step toward expanding press freedom. Earlier in the year, Gusmao threatened to arrest local journalists who he claimed were contributing to instability in the wake of the February assassination attempt. Separately, in late February, a senior staff member of the East Timor Post was beaten while in military police custody. Journalists often feel intimidated and consequently practice self-censorship.
East Timor is a secular state, but the Roman Catholic Church plays a central role; 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Church rules prohibit persons living under religious vows from holding political office. There are no significant threats to religious freedom or clashes among the country’s different religious groups, which include a small minority of Muslims, mostly from Indonesia, and a growing number of evangelical Christian denominations. The practice of indigenous rituals remains strong, despite the dominance of the Catholic faith. Academic freedom is generally respected, though religious education is compulsory in schools.
Freedoms of association and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed, yet the 2004 Law on Freedom, Assembly, and Demonstration regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations aimed at “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials. The law requires that demonstrations and public protests be authorized in advance.
East Timor’s labor code, which is based on International Labor Organization standards, permits workers other than police and army personnel to form and join worker organizations. It also guarantees the rights to bargain collectively and to strike, although written notice must be given 10 days before a strike. Foreigners are barred from joining unions. Unionization rates are low due to high unemployment and the fact that more than 80 percent of the working population is employed in the informal sector.
The country suffers broadly from weak rule of law, a prevailing culture of impunity, and inadequate security forces. The legal system is fragile, with thousands of cases backlogged. Due process rights are often restricted or denied, largely because of a lack of resources and personnel. In May 2008, 94 criminals were pardoned, among them former interior minister Rogerio Lobato. His conviction had been hailed as a victory for the justice system in 2007, and his release was widely denounced. Also released was the pro-Indonesia militia leader Joni Marques, who had been convicted of crimes against humanity in 2000.
While the security situation has improved slightly, the country’s future stability is in jeopardy. In September 2008, a six-month amnesty to collect illegal weapons ended; rather than extend the amnesty, the government chose to focus on passing a gun bill that could allow civilians to own firearms. The initial bill was defeated twice in Parliament. Meanwhile, measures to weed out corruption and professionalize the police force (PNTL) have created internal divisions similar to those within the army that sparked the 2006 unrest. In October, police checkpoints were set up to prevent officers from taking weapons home after work, after leaflets were distributed warning of action “against the government” if the new police commander originated from the eastern part of the country.
Approximately 1,500 UN police remain in East Timor to uphold internal security; there is currently no timeline for their withdrawal. The Gusmao government called for the Australian-led International Security Force (ISF) to remain throughout 2008 and the UN mission through 2012. Neither the PNTL nor the F-FDTL enjoy the trust and confidence of the population, and significant tensions dating back to the independence struggle persist between the two forces
The final report of the Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF) was released in July 2008, concluding that the Indonesian government and military organized and directed the scorched-earth campaign after the independence vote in 1999. Both the Indonesian and East Timor presidents accepted the findings, while the East Timor Parliament has postponed debate on the report. The Catholic Church in East Timor had opposed the creation of the CTF and rejected the report. The commission had been formed after efforts to prosecute and convict Indonesian officials under the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) were halted in 2005. In June 2007, President Ramos Horta agreed to grant amnesty for perpetrators of crimes against humanity on the condition that they publicly confess to the CTF.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, yet domestic violence remains a persistent problem. It is estimated that half of all women were victims of gender-based crimes in 2008, while only a marginal fraction of cases of abuse were reported to the police. The country’s weak legal system, coupled with the prevalence of customary law at the local level, means that abuse is rarely prosecuted. While women’s participation in government remains much lower than that of men, women hold 18 out of 65 seats in Parliament and cabinet posts for three key ministries: Justice, Finance, and Social Affairs, Labor, and Solidarity.