In 1999, East Timor overwhelming expressed its collective will by declaring independence from Indonesia; after prolonged political and military subjugation. While East Timor chose independence, its western part, West Timor, for reasons of its own will, chose to remain with Indonesia. Both decisions were respected and the world welcomed East Timor as the youngest recognized independent state, and its independence was perceived as the triumph of freedom, justice and democracy.
In the face of their newly gained independence, the new leadership had to transform themselves from guerilla leaders to political leaders and statesman. With little or no experience in governance and administering the country, they had to evolve ways to reconstruct their nation, reconcile the deep wounds that had been caused in the many years of struggle, bridge the divide between the pro-Indonesian and pro-Independence population and to safe guard their rich resources against external and internal forces. In spite of their sovereign status, it still required astute leadership to ensure that East Timor alone was responsible for the destiny of its people and to keep at bay the pressures of regional and international politics.
Several years later, East Timor, is at present facing its most challenging crisis since independence. While the crisis is the immediate result of a fall out between disgruntled soldiers and the government, the situation has spilled over to the general population, and broader issues have come to the forefront. Issues around bad governance, unresolved hatred and suspicion, historical divisions along geographical lines of west and east, retaliatory attacks against pro-Indonesians who opposed independence in 1999 and violence among gangs and factions have put into question the credibility of the government’s reconstruction and reconciliation policies and its ability to address poverty and unemployment.
With nearly half of East Timor’s 1400-member army rebelling and threatening a guerilla warfare that would plunge the country into an unaffordable civil war, the intervention of international forces can at most put a band-aid to the crisis. It would take all the persuasion, diplomatic skills and leadership of revered President Xanana Gusmao and foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to unitedly work together towards ending the immediate crisis and comprehensively addressing deeper issues concerning the growth and wellbeing of East Timor.
The unfolding crisis in East Timor is tragic and ironical. Damien Kingsbury attributes it to ‘unmet expectations;’ a common feature in ‘postcolonial countries.’ He says “Lots of people believe once their colonial masters are gone everything will get better. Well, often that isn’t the case.” Damien’s insights serves as reminder for struggling nations the need for a vision which takes into account the needs and interest of multiple sections of society and to have a comprehensive inclusive plan towards securing it. Lack of preparedness and the erroneous assumption that quality of life gets automatically better once independence has been won is an underpinning faultline among successful revolutions.
History declares nothing can be taken for granted or left for tomorrow. Processes of nation-building involving the different facets of resolution, reconciliation and reconstruction must begin today along a vision in which aspirations of the people are well-reflected. The journey could begin with laying an inclusive vision!