- East Timor: Beyond Independence
On the back cover of this book, the editors confidently claim that: “This is the most comprehensive study of East Timor since independence …” Indeed this book covers a raft of important issues that East Timor faces: the main headings are development, borders and security, politics and justice, resource and land management, education and language policy.
Turning to some of the major themes, perhaps one of the most topical is East Timor’s political divides. Various chapters touch on the political rivalry that has grown between the former Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri and his Fretilin supporters on one hand, and the opposition to Fretilin that emerged around the former President, and now Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão on the other. (Sarah Niner and Michael Leach in their important respective chapters speak of the continuing persistence of leaders who emerged in the 1970s. In fact, their role in East Timor’s independence struggle has had an important legitimizing function with the electorate — more so than policy platforms.) In Kingsbury’s chapter on political developments, he points more sharply to Alkatiri’s alleged lack of tolerance for the opposition than the Introduction (also written by Kingsbury with co-editor Michael Leach).
Various chapters make reference to the other political divide that has fed into political troubles and violence in East Timor recently, namely the split between east and west, which played up into a dust within and between the western-dominated police and the eastern-dominated army. This divide is characterized in this book, variously, as a product of Portuguese and Indonesian colonialism, but more frequently as “artificial”: “such a division was largely artificial, as there is no east-west divide as such” (p. 22). What the contributors mean, of course, is that the east-west divide is one based on regionalism rather than on identity divisions (such as ethnicity or religion) that are more readily understood. But in a sense, all identity divisions are “artificial” — a division based on region no less so. (“Homogenous” South Korea, to take an example from the wider Asia-Pacific region, is one society that is heavily beset by regional divisions — divisions that come into play during presidential contests.) Niner argues that the Firaku-Kaladi (east-west) divide was no greater than the rivalry between Melbourne and [End Page 340] Sydney (potentially a meaningless comparison for non-Australians), and has only recently come to the fore due to the manipulation of political actors (p. 124). Niner makes an important point about manipulation of the divide, yet other commentators, most prominently James J. Fox, have placed greater stress on the potential problem of the Firaku-Kaladi division for some time now, particularly given the role it has played in tensions within the security forces from their inception. East Timor’s east-west divide, however one might like to characterize it, is one that needs to be considered seriously. Leaving the origins of this problem aside, the more crucial question surrounds how this will play out in East Timor’s future.
East Timor’s development is another important theme. Jennifer Drysdale’s chapter on the Petroleum Fund, whereby East Timor’s government has put the returns on oil and gas into a fund thus preserving the principle, makes some interesting points about the “socialisation” of this idea (p. 160). Drysdale gives credit to the former Alkatiri government for not only setting this fund up, but also for engaging in widespread public consultation on the issue to the point that the dangers of the “resource curse” (which includes inflationary pressures of sudden revenues from valuable resources) have become widely accepted by the (largely poverty-stricken) general public. But does this mean that the public will be able to exert enough pressure to prevent future governments giving in to temptation and dipping into the Petroleum Fund?
Shifting from state building to nation building, East Timor’s identity is yet another major theme to emerge in this volume. Michael Leach examines important sources of official discourse on East Timor’s history, including the public...