Timor-Leste’s long valiant struggle for independence

Timor is a mountainous island at the eastern end of an Indonesian archipelago (Timor means ‘East’ in Tetun, so Timor-Leste actually means ‘East East’). It was long inhabited by diverse tribal groups, some Austronesian, others Melanesian. In the 17th Century, Holland and Portugal fought for colonial rule of the island, and finally settled on Dutch control of the western half and Portuguese control of the eastern half. In 1949 Holland ceded possession of West Timor to Indonesia. And in 1974 Portugal finally released East Timor from colonial rule. But its freedom was short-lived. Two weeks after it gained independence, Timor-Leste was ruthlessly invaded by Indonesia, which it occupied by military force for the next 24 years—during which time the Timorese people resolutely resisted. The US government—under the heartless directive of Henry Kissinger—strongly supported the dictator Suharto in Indonesia’s genocidal assault and occupation. During the quarter century of military domination, nearly one third of East Timorese’s population was killed. Yet through guerilla warfare the people continued to resist.

Finally in 1999 the UN called for a referendum. Despite Indonesia’s intimidation at the poles, 80% of the East Timorese voted for independent statehood. Infuriated, Indonesia and its local supporters launched a campaign of terror, massacring civilians, burning farms and forests, and destroying schools and health-posts. They left the newly liberated country in ruins. For two years the despoiled territory was administed by the United Nations, until in 2002 it became a self-governed nation. Timor-Leste’s first president was Xanana Gusmao, who headed FRETILIN, the Revolutionary Front that had led the popular resistance.

Timor-Leste Today: a Land of Promises and Contradictions

Since its Independence nine years ago, Timor-Leste has faced enormous challenges. From its long struggle against oppression, its people—and many of its leaders—gained empathy for the underdog and a strong sense of social justice. The government has just drafted (in 2011) an ambitious 20 Year “Strategic Development Plan” which charts a future based on an egalitarian vision of sustainable well-being for all.

A major factor influencing Timor’s development has been the discovery of offshore oil. The oil is currently being intensively extracted by foreign corporations (mainly Australian), which pay Timor for the rights. Thanks to this oil bonanza, in recent years the small nation’s economic growth has been an amazing 12% per year! With oil revenue now paying for 95% of the national budget, the World Bank warns that Timor-Leste is now the world’s most oil dependent nation.

The overarching problem is this: At the current rate of extraction, Timor-Leste’s oil reserves are predicted to run dry in about 20 years. Faced with this inconvenient truth, the “Strategic Development Plan” proposes to set aside a substantial part of the present oil income to generate income for future generations. Another sizable part of the oil income is supposed to be spent on developing post-oil sources of energy—wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal—so that by 2030 Timor-Leste will become a sustainable, fossil-fuel independent economy.

Other goals of the 20-year Plan are elimination of poverty and malnutrition, achievement of food self-sufficiency, and as a top priority, development of “human resources,” meaning Health and Education. To this end the Plan proclaims Universal Schooling and Universal Health Services as basic human rights.

Putting these lofty goals into practice, however, has proved easier said than done. Timor-Leste is a tiny emerging nation in a global economy where giant corporations and market-driven powers seek to manipulate the newcomer’s policies and recklessly exploit its resources. And at least some of Timor’s political leaders—for all their early revolutionary ideology—are not immune to the temptations of personal gain.

The result is that Timor-Leste is already embarking on paths contrary to those proposed in its Strategic Development Plan. Despite the resolution to put major investment into alternative energy, far greater investment is now being put into an oil-based infrastructure and an electric grid based on fossil fuels. And despite the resolve to avoid foreign loans, the government is been baited into borrowing from foreign nations and banks to a degree that, when the oil runs out, crushing debts will fall due.

As for the high priority placed on Health and Education, the government has fallen far short in its allocations. UNICEF calculates that for a developing country to achieve the “Millennial Development Goals” (in terms of lowering mortality, improving overall health, and raising educational levels) at least 16% of its national budget must be allocated for Health and Education. Yet Timor-Leste is currently spends only 6% on Health and Education, and has budgeted an even lower amount for the coming year.

Such contradictions between visionary plans and actual practice help explain the persistent poor levels of health and high mortality rates in Timor-Leste today. … However, as I became increasing aware, under the surface there is a baffling array of interrelated and conflicting factors.