East Timor has enjoyed relative stability and peace in years that following the factional conflict in 2006 and attempts to assassinate then-president Joes Ramos-Horta and Gusmao in 2008. In December 2012, the 1,280 U.N. police, along with a smaller security contingent from Australia, left East Timor, leaving East Timor to manage its security by itself for the first time since independence.

Brendan Brady wrote in Time, “ Skepticism remains among East Timorese about the ability of the domestic police force, which is much more experienced at bluntly enforcing order than at gently enforcing laws. Peace is also necessary if East Timor is to be accepted into the main regional political bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a step the government sees as important to diversify the country’s foreign relations and boost its international credibility. The government hopes the relative tranquillity of the 2012 election will let the country shed the “postconflict” and “fragile state” suffixes as it reaches its 10th year of self-rule in May 2012. [Source: Brendan Brady, Time, March 19, 2012 ]

“Most concerning, argues the local NGO La’o Hamutuk, is that the country is falling victim to the oil curse. Government spending has generated few jobs or industries, driven inflation above 17 percent and distracted the government from addressing longer-term problems, says the group. Measured by the proportion of the government’s budget derived from oil revenues — over 90 percent — East Timor is the world’s most oil-dependent country.

“Unemployment is already high — at least 20 percent in urban areas — and could jump within a decade as the country’s postconflict baby boom matures to working age. Apart from modest amounts of coffee sales, East Timor produces nothing for sale. Furthermore, says Damien Kingsbury, a professor of political science at Australia’s Deakin University, the country’s low skills base, geographical isolation and high labor costs compared with other countries in the region offer no comparative advantages to attract investment. His conclusion paints a rather grim picture: “There are few options but for Timor-Leste to carefully manage its oil fund and to generate jobs through government spending, such as on roads, etc.”

“Navigating overwhelming obstacles is nothing new to East Timor, whose very existence as an independent state was long in doubt and whose ability to self-rule was regarded abroad with skepticism in its first years of independence. “When I received [the presidency] in 2007, the country was on the verge of civil war,” Ramos-Horta told TIME in an interview at his residence in Dili a day before the vote. Today, he says, “The country is at peace. People have regained faith in the government.”

Associated Press reported: “The country is the poorest in Asia, despite its vast oil and gas reserves. Unemployment is sky high, as are the number of children suffering from malnutrition. Roads are still in disrepair. There is little access to clean water or health services. And the capital is littered with abandoned, burned-out buildings where the homeless squat. East Timor's transition to democracy has been a rocky one. Its leaders have battled massive poverty, social unrest and bitter disputes between soldiers and police that – in 2006 – resulted in widespread looting, arson and gang warfare that left dozens dead and drove 155,000 from their homes. U.N. troops – headed by Australia – returned soon after to restore order. [Source: Associated Press, March 19, 2012]

East Timor Elections in 2012, Ramos-Horta Defeated

In March 2012, after the first round of presidential elections, Brendan Brady wrote in Time, “When residents of Dili voted to elect a new President five years ago, more than a hundred thousand displaced people were scattered around the East Timorese capital in tent camps and gangs of youths exorcised their angst in the street. The scene this year reflected a very different mood. “In the last election, people hurried to go home after they voted because they were concerned there might be trouble,” said Florenco Mendes, a 40-year-old father of four, after he voted in the city. “This year people feel comfortable to stay afterwards.” [Source: Brendan Brady, Time, March 19, 2012 ]

“Indeed, in Dili dozens of people lingered outside a neighborhood polling station to chat and observe the spectacle of their friends and neighbors passing through lines and booths and emerging with an ink-stained finger. Many returned at day’s end to observe ballot counting in order to ensure fair play. The vote follows several years of stability after national crises shook the shallow foundations of East Timor’s young democratic government. In 2006, disgruntled soldiers staged a mutiny in the capital that left dozens dead, caused tens thousands of residents to flee the city and threatened to escalate into civil war. Further violence did not materialize during the 2007 presidential poll but was ignited in 2008, when President José Ramos-Horta was shot several times in an assassination attempt that he barely survived.

Incumbent President, Ramos-Horta has not been re-elected, however. With most votes counted, the poll was led by Francisco Guterres (better known as Lu Olo), the head of Fretelin, a party holding the most seats in parliament, and José Maria de Vasconcelos (addressed invariably by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak), who recently retired as chief of the country’s armed forces. Both figures had also been independence leaders — Guterres was head of a political-resistance network and Vasconcelos led guerrilla fighters hiding out in jungle redoubts. The calm, serious Guterres, 57, won the most votes in the first round of the 2007 presidential election but was soundly defeated in the runoff when other candidates’ constituencies swung to Ramos-Horta. The more animated Vasconcelos, 55, who positioned himself during his campaign as a political outsider, was boosted by an endorsement from Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT).

The spirit of the independence movement still resonates strongly for East Timorese. Bonds between candidates and voters often extend back decades. Justo dos Santos, 65, who attended Taur Matan Ruak’s last campaign rally in Dili before Saturday’s vote, said he fought beside the candidate in guerrilla campaigns against the Indonesian military. “Xanana and Taur Matan Ruak led the country in war, and now they should lead the country in peace,” he said, referring to the presidential candidate Vasconcelos and the current Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão, who, until his capture in 1992, preceded Vasconcelos as head of the guerrillas.

President Jose Ramos Horta conceded defeat after a poor showing in presidential elections. The BBC reported: “East Timor is electing a new president in a run-off vote between two former freedom fighters. Opposition leader Francisco Guterres and former guerrilla leader Taur Matan Ruak are pitted against each other. The incumbent, President Jose Ramos-Horta, admitted defeat after trailing in third place in the first round. Mr Ramos-Horta said he would hand over power to the winner on 19 May. Both Mr Guterres and Mr Ruak played key roles in the country's struggle for independence from more than 20 years of Indonesian occupation. Mr Guterres won the most votes in the first round of polling, while Mr Ruak is backed by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. [Source: April, 2012]

Matan Ruak Wins in 2012

In April 2012, former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak won the second round of presidential elections. Al Jazeera reported: “Former guerilla leader Taur Matan Ruak has won East Timor's presidential runoff by a wide margin, according to preliminary results which indicate he will replace current leader Jose Ramos-Horta. Ruak, who had campaigned in military fatigues to highlight his role in the fight against Indonesian occupation, won 61.23 per cent of the vote, according to figures from the elections secretariat on Tuesday. His challenger in Monday's vote, Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres — also a hero in the independence struggle — trailed with 38.77 per cent, according to the count. "We are very much elevated by the result, by the current outcome," said Ruak's spokesman Fidelis Magalhaes. "We expect to see some changes [in the final count], minor, probably one or two percentage points, but without a clear swing or fluctuation of points," he added. [Source: Al Jazeera, April 18, 2012]

“The streets of Dili were quiet, with no sign of celebration, unlike the campaigning when hundreds of supporters from both sides sped past on motorcycles and buses, flashing victory signs. An international poll observer said the wide margin left no room for dispute over the results. "If there was a close result there could have been some quarrelling, and while it's not a landslide, this is a clear victory," said Rui Feijo, an election observer and researcher from Portugal's Coimbra University. Both Guterres, a former parliament speaker, and Matan Ruak pledged to abide by the outcome of the balloting and have urged their supporters to do the same.” [Ibid]

Patrick O’Connor wrote in the World Socialist Website, “The presidential vote was East Timor’s third since being granted formal independence in 2002. This year Taur Matan Ruak was clearly the Australian government’s preferred choice. As military chief from 2002 to 2011, Ruak developed close ties with both Australian and American military figures, as documented in US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. Ruak’s presidential campaign was marked by its militarist character. Despite resigning from the armed forces last year, he appeared in election posters and other material dressed in military fatigues. He has pledged to introduce compulsory military service for young people. Ruak also appealed to veterans of the guerrilla war waged against the Indonesian military between 1975 and 1999, promising jobs and larger pensions. Both Ruak and Lu-Olo Guterres spent the 24 years of Indonesian rule over Timor as guerrilla commanders in the mountainous jungles. [Source: Patrick O’Connor, World Socialist Website, April 18, 2012]

Ruak benefitted from the endorsement of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party. The president-elect also won the backing of the Democratic Party, whose leader Fernando “Lasama” de Araújo finished in fourth place in the first round of the presidential election, with nearly 18 percent of the vote. Incumbent president, Jose Ramos-Horta, also won 18 percent in the first round. The Timorese media reported last month that Ramos-Horta told his staff that a president “who comes from a military background will not be good for the nation”, but he did not publicly endorse either Ruak or Guterres.

Gusmao’s Party Wins 2012 Parliamentary Election and Forms a Coalition Amid Violence

In July 2012, the party of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao won East Timor's parliamentary election, but was short of a majority, meaning a coalition government would have to be created. Tito Belo of Reuters wrote: “With all the ballots counted, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) party led by Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader, had 36.7 percent of the vote, election commission official Tomas Cabral said. The opposition Fretilin Party, also a key player in securing independence from Indonesia, scored 29.9 percent. The Democratic Party lay third with 10.3 percent, placing it in a key position in any bid to form a government. "The result makes us even more curious about who would form the government," said Antonio dos Reis, a veteran independence fighter. "But for me, these parties should unite and form a united government so that we can start developing this country."[Source: Tito Belo, Reuters, July 8, 2012]

CNRT won 30 seats in the 65-member assembly. Fretilin came in second with 25 seats. The Democratic party and Frente-Mudança, won a total of 10 seats between them. “Voters huddled around radios to hear the latest tallies, while many followed results posted on Facebook and Twitter. The CNRT based its platform on seeking foreign loans to build infrastructure. Fretilin opposes resorting to loans. CNRT targeted to win 44 seats but would only get around 30 of the 65-seat parliament based on the result. Mr Gusmao's party has prepared a $US10 billion strategic plan to build infrastructure and improve agriculture to address poverty and raise living standards.

Gusmao's party CNRT formed a coalition with the Democratic Party and the Frente Reform party but excluded the main opposition group Freitilin. Reuters reported: Witnesses said angry Freitilin supporters stoned cars in front of their party headquarters after the decision was announced, but there were no reports of casualties and the situation appeared under control. "We have made our decision. CNRT believes that the next coalition government will be better than the coalition government five years ago," Mr Gusmao told a conference of the ruling party, which had also discussed forming both a coalition with Fretilin and a grand coalition. [Source: Reuters, July 15, 2012]

A day after it was announced that Fretilin would be excluded from the ruling coalition, Reuters reported: “Protesters in Timor Leste angry that their party will be excluded from the country's new government have thrown stones at officers, destroyed dozens of cars and damaged property, police said. One person was killed and four police officers injured in clashes that started in Dili, and the district town of Viqueque, said police chief Longuinhos Monteiro. [Source: Associated Press, July 16, 2012]

Violence broke out shortly after the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, said his party would set up a coalition with the Democratic party and Frenti-Mudança, excluding the Fretilin party from government. The unrest continued on the next day, with witnesses saying they heard gunshots in Dili's Santa Cruz neighbourhood and that protesters started burning tyres.

Peacekeepers Pull Out of East Timor at the End of 2012

The United Nations officially ended its peacekeeping operations in East Timor on the last day of 2012. The BBC reported: “UN forces have been pulling out since October when East Timorese security forces took over responsibility for maintaining law and order. The UN played a vital role in East Timor's independence by organising the 1999 referendum which ended Indonesia's 24-year occupation. UN peacekeeping troops returned in 2006 amid social and political instability. [Source: BBC, December 31, 2012]

“So can the UN now leave East Timor with its head held high? Compared to the messy outcome of many other UN interventions, East Timor is a relative success story. An impoverished, war-torn country has, in 13 years, become a fairly stable small state with promising economic growth prospects. How much of that was down to the UN, and how much down to the efforts of East Timorese leaders like Jose Ramos Horta, is a matter of debate. No-one would dispute that the UN's assistance has at times been vital.

Finn Reske-Nielsen, chief of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (Unmit), said in a statement: "The Timorese people and its leaders have shown courage and unswerving resolve to overcome great challenges. "Although there remains much work ahead, this is an historic moment in recognising the progress already made." He said the withdrawal did not mark an end to the partnership between the UN and East Timor, as "challenges still remain".

The UN directly administered the country until 2002 when it formally became a nation. But the UN also displayed its characteristic faults in East Timor, says the BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok. Its missions were at times poorly-led, and staffed by well-paid expatriates of mixed ability; there was hubris in its declaration of success at independence in 2002, and the conflict which erupted between the young army and police in 2006 exposed flaws in UN planning.

An Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) was also deployed in 2006 amid violence that forced thousands of people from their homes. The ISF ended its mission in November 2012. As one of Asia's poorest nations, analysts say East Timor will rely on outside help for many years. Our correspondent says that the large international presence had an inevitably distorting effect on the economy of the capital Dili. Many East Timorese will be glad to see the UN go, but may also admit they have reasons to be grateful, he adds.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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