East Timor: discussing the problems

East Timor: Beyond Independence

Edited by Damien Kingsbury and Michael Leach

Monash University Press, 2007

302pages, $36.95

East Timor has gone through tumultuous changes in the last decade. Finally breaking free from the stranglehold of the oppressive Indonesian military occupation in 1999, the East Timorese people inherited a war-ravaged and devastated nation. In the wake of the August 1999 referendum on independence, around two-thirds of the population was uprooted as a consequence of the Indonesian military and pro-integration militia gang rampage, which also resulted in over 90% of the nation's infrastructure being completely destroyed or rendered useless.

Under United Nations transitional rule and in the period since formal independence came into effect in 2002, elements of the national infrastructure have gradually been re-built. East Timor today remains one of the poorest nations in the world. The UN Development Program report released in 2006 revealed social indicators that highlight the dire poverty that most East Timorese people experience — a per capita GDP of US$370 (as low as $150 in some of the districts); an official unemployment rate of 43% (higher for young people); an illiteracy rate of 50%; and around 60% of the population lacking adequate access to sanitation.

The early years of independence have been a major test for the East Timorese elite and political leadership. They have had to contend with the complications and distortions created by the period of UN transitional rule, as well as indifference, obstruction or manipulation from powerful states, such as Australia's coveting of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. This elite has also played a part in exacerbating the social and economic problems experienced by most East Timorese people and has been accused of being inept, self-serving and detached.

From the time of the UN transitional rule, key political figures such as Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri discouraged the active participation and political mobilisation of the East Timorese masses. They have also backed away from supporting an international war crimes tribunal for those responsible for gross human rights abuses. The independence movement and its networks have been demobilised and depoliticised, contributing towards a breakdown in social solidarity.

Where is East Timor heading and how is it developing as a "post-conflict state"? What were the causes for the 2006 crisis? How is justice being provided to account for the war crimes of the Indonesian military and militia gangs? What is the significance of language and education? East Timor: Beyond Independence is a collection of essays that discusses these and other key issues confronting East Timor today.

Compiled and edited by Damien Kingsbury and Michael Leach (researchers based at Monash University and Deakin University respectively), the book is divided into six sections, covering development, borders and security, politics and justice, resource and land management, education and language policy. The introductory chapter by Kingsbury and Leach provides an overview of the 2006 crisis, which is further elaborated upon in the first chapter by Kingsbury. He in part ascribes the role of the Fretilin leadership around Alkatiri and its "lack of tolerance and respect for the legitimacy of dissenting or alternative views" as a significant factor behind the events of April-May 2006.

Sara Niner provides an important background to the history and evolution of the East Timorese leadership from the end of Portuguese rule through to the present. Her chapter is in some respects an updated summary of her previous excellent work, To Resist is to Win: The Autobiography of Xanana Gusmao. Jennifer Drysdale describes the process that lead to the creation of the Petroleum Fund and the concerns from non-government organisations and others over East Timor's heavy reliance upon oil and gas revenues to fund development. Andrew McWilliams's chapter looks at issues of traditional land ownership in an eastern part of East Timor and the creation of East Timor's largest and most significant national park and conservation reserve, Nino Konis Santana National Park.

While at times a dry and academic read, East Timor: Beyond Independence is an important compilation and contribution to understanding the at times turbulent social and political events unfolding in East Timor.