East Timor: Student protests face repression

Over three days, starting on July 7, the students at the East Timor National University protested in opposition to the purchase of luxury cars for each parliament member. All up, the government of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao arrested 53 students.

Twenty one students were released after 72 hours in detention. The students were released after the judge decided — in a public hearing on the afternoon of July 10 — that they should be released on condition that they will not be involved in further protests. There are still 32 students remaining in detention.

The protests that began with the students have spread to other parts of East Timorese society. Messages of support from inside and outside country have been delivered, showing the strong spirit of solidarity that exists between movements in the region.

Former Timorese political prisoners have condemned this awful attitude shown by the Gusmao government. On July 9, the National Youth Association of Timor-Leste (CONJTL) declared their strong solidarity with the students and pledged to join peaceful demonstrations alongside them.

Gusmao does not care about the criticism that is coming from East Timorese civil society. The purchase of the cars is his attempt to buy off opposition votes. However, he has not been able to buy the votes of Fretilin members (holding 21 seats) the National Unity Party (holding 3 seats).

Gusmao has ignored the criticism of Amnesty International in relation to the arrest of the protesters.

Gusmao and his finance minister know exactly how much money is needed to purchase 65 luxury cars — Toyota Prado SUVs. The amount allocated in the budget to buy the cars is just above US$3 million — $47,476 thousand for each vehicle. The monthly salary for each member of parliament is $415.

In addition, parliamentarians receive accommodation allowance of $300 per month, telephone allowance of $250 per month and may receive additional payments of a maximum of $200 per month. This income is very unfair if we compare it with an ordinary Timorese person, such as a security guard or level 1 public servant, who receive only $85 per month.

Gusmao's public statements undermine East Timor's internationally applauded Petroleum Fund. Gusmao tries to look smart on television when he tries to explain what is meant by the change in investment strategy of the fund to 60% of equity and 40% of bonds. However, when he is questioned by parliamentarians, civil society or journalists he just responds by calling people "stupid".

He does not want the public to correct his government on how to manage the fund, even though the public realises that his government does not have the capacity to execute the previously approved $294 million that is still in the Banking and Payments Authority.

[Reprinted from the website of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, http://asia-pacific-action.org. An ASAP solidarity statement with the student protesters, as well as other groups, can be read at the site. To send messages of solidarity, email thomas_freitas@yahoo.com.]