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Magic touch in East Timor

by Jeff Kingston

Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, 56, is the $14 billion man. During 2005, while serving as foreign minister, he is credited with playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in rescuing Timor Sea resource negotiations between Australia and East Timor. Talks had hit an impasse, partly owing to the abrasive style of former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Ramos-Horta, drawing on his considerable diplomatic experience and negotiating flair, was able to obtain a far better than expected 50/50 split of the revenues from underwater gas and oil fields between the two countries. As a result, over the lifetime of the fields, the Timorese stand to gain at least $14 billion because of his unsung achievement, a huge windfall for a nation of 1 million.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is an affable, accomplished and charismatic diplomat who was handed recently one of the biggest challenges of his life: On July 10 he became this young nation’s second prime minister amid high expectations that he can restore political stability, reconstitute the security forces, promote development, eradicate corruption and revive public faith in this fledgling democracy.

Although conditions remain bleak, he is widely viewed as the best man for promoting reconciliation and restoring hope. In recent months, at considerable personal risk, he has crisscrossed this island during the height of violence to negotiate with rebel groups, reassure the public, stop looters and stem unrest.

In addition to accepting this mission impossible, he put aside personal ambitions by withdrawing his name from a shortlist of candidates expected to succeed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

East Timor has been plagued by violence that erupted at the end of April. Former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is widely blamed for mismanaging a grievance by soldiers into a full-blown crisis. Protests by dismissed soldiers escalated into conflict within, and between, the military and police forces, and sparked widespread looting and arson by roaming gangs of young men. Despite the nation’s becoming independent in 2002, unemployment and poverty have deepened the sense of despair for many.

Alkatiri was forced to step down on June 26 under pressure from President Xanana Gusmao, then Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta and public demonstrations over his alleged involvement in arming hit squads. Alkatiri is also unpopular due to his aloof style and authoritarian inclinations.

Violence has claimed at least 37 lives and left some 155,000 refugees. The ransacking and burning of homes has pushed an already poor people — with per capita income of $370 — even closer to the edge. Catholic organizations and U.N. agencies have provided relief when government institutions could not.

In his inauguration speech, Prime Minister Ramos-Horta made his priorities clear: to restore stability based on the rule of law, re-house refugees and give the public reasons to trust the government again. He candidly spoke of the government’s failures: “We failed in the area of internal security, we failed in dialogue with the people, we stand accused of insensitivity and arrogance, and corruption started to invade institutions of the state.”

For his nine-month term before elections, he promised there would be no “excuses for inertia” and that he would lead “the fight against poverty. We are going to use existing money to dignify the human being, give them hope, give them food, clothing and give them a roof.”

The swearing-in ceremony under tarpaulins amid the ruins of an administrative building was a stark reminder of the lingering scars of Indonesia’s 24 years of oppression. The collective trauma remains vivid and the challenges of nation building enormous.

There is consensus that the recent violence indicates that two years of nation-building under the United Nations were insufficient. Ramos-Horta said it is almost impossible to make a small business viable in that time let alone a nation. Fast-tracking the process of nation-building is, as we have seen, a shortcut to a faltering state. East Timor and the international community now face steep repair bills for the quick fixes and expedient compromises that prevailed under U.N. auspices.

The nation’s military and police forces desperately need to be reconstituted, a huge undertaking requiring considerable time and resources. This means that the 2,500 international peacekeepers currently deployed, mostly from Australia, will play a critical role for some time.

Last December I met a consultant in Dili who said levels of corruption in East Timor don’t match those in Indonesia, but not for lack of effort. Dr. Suehiro Hasegawa, special representative of the U.N. secretary general, recently handed the new prime minister a report on promoting a culture of accountability and transparency.

Ramos-Horta is keenly aware of the urgency in breaking the “bureaucratic stranglehold that undermines our best intentions and opens the door to corruption.” Winning over an increasingly cynical public depends on making tangible progress on the scourge of malfeasance. A freedom of information law would be a good start.

While Dili boomed in recent years with an influx of development consultants and construction, rural areas — where most people live — have been neglected. Alleviating poverty means diverting more resources to agricultural development and food production to raise efficiency on this arid island. In the short term, Ramos-Horta plans more small-scale projects that generate employment and greater empowerment of local officials to facilitate disbursements.

It is hard to see how even a diplomatic magician can conjure up a winning hand from the cards Ramos-Horta has been dealt. This is the time for the international community to provide generous and patient support for nation-building. Japan, as the leading donor, has much at stake in demonstrating that nation-building is not just empty rhetoric and a boondoggle for consultants.