Analysing East Timorese politics – tentative starting points

7 July, 2006

Preamble: These comments are using “information” published in the media and “information” being circulated on various email lists by supporters of either Fretilin or PD. I have received a little information also from Avelino da Silva (PST) and from the Indonesian dissident academic, Hilmar Farid who has been in Dili for the last two weeks. The absence of any in-depth written analysis from the PST is a major limitation in making any assessment at the moment.


(1) Tim Anderson’s recent article “East Timor after Alkatiri: nation or protectorate?” starts with a quote from a recent FRETILIN statement:
“We did not expect that the elected leader of a party with an overwhelming mandate could be forced to stand down in this way in a democracy”.

My surprise is that the government as a whole did not resign much earlier. In bourgeois politics, which is what exists in East Timor, any government under which the army breaks up, the police disintegrates, civil disturbances break out which the government can’t handle so has to call in 4 foreign powers would almost inevitably have to resign. Resignation of elected governments in the face of massive policy failure is normal in bourgeois politics, usually followed by new elections.

(2) Secondly, the FRETILIN government has not been toppled. FRETILIN is still likely to dominate any new cabinet. There is no way FRETILIN can be dislodged from government apart from a real military coup, which has not happened. What is happening is normal bourgeois politics in the aftermath of a destabilizing crisis. However until FRETILIN uses up its political capital which it possesses as a result of its historical role in 1975, FRETILIN will remain the majority party in East Timor. It may take 5 years or even a decade for that erosion of political capital to take place.

(3) Anderson characterizes Alkatiri’s policies as “modestly nationalistic”. Alkatiri is certainly the most nationalist of the FRETILIN leaders, but not necessarily more than Ramos Horta. (Nationalist here is not necessarily anti-imperialist, i.e. opponent of imperialist policies, but rather protective of ET government’s own room to manouvre. Both Alkatiri and Horta emphasise the need for diversification of diplomatic relations. Diversification of diplomatic relations is the primary tactic used by Alkatiri; bringing in Malaysia and New Zealand; calling back the UN as a multinational contact point etc etc.

(4) What about Alkatiri’s economic nationalism.

(a) negotiations on oil and gas with Australia. Alkatiri steadfastly, openly and loudly refused to support proposals for mobilizing Australian public opinion to pressure the Howard government on this issue. On this question he had the same policy as Horta. The result was a less than optimum deal and the complete failure to assert ET sovereignty over ET oil and gas. Alkatiri, like Horta, opted for diplomacy rather than mobilization – the latter would have strained relations with Canberra.

(b) relations with international financial institutions. Much has been made of Alkatiri’s refusal to take loans from the WB. The inital declaration of aiming to ensure that East Timor remain free of debt was made by Alkatiri and Horta jointly. In fact, the Alkatiri government has conformed to the dictates of the IMF in the most important and fundamental respects. First, the ET economy remains predominantly in private hands and will become even more so as the privatization of state and communal land starts to progress later this year and next year, Second, and more specifically, the Alkatiri government has accepted the IMF wishes that ONLY 10% OF INCOME FROM OIL AND GAS BE USED FOR INVESTMENT IN DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES, SUCH AS AGRICULTURE, INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND EDUCATION.

The IMF’s own assessment of Alkatiri’s policies is very positive. The IMF is certainly not opposed to anything the Alkatiri government has done. In March, 2006 the IMF concluded:

” The [IMF] mission supports the authorities’ development strategy for achieving these objectives and the focus on the following core policies: a) adherence to the long-term petroleum revenue saving policy supported by the Petroleum Fund; b) an increase in prioritized development spending under the sector investment programs; c) the maintenance of a monetary and exchange rate regime that preserves macroeconomic stability; and d) the rapid establishment of the environment needed to promote private sector investment and activity. Important movement on this plan has been made to date.

The Socialist Party of Timor (PST), which has one member of the national parliament and about 250 positions in various local government bodies, was an early critic of the proposal that only 10% of oil and gas income be used for development, expressing the view that the money should be used to accelerate modernization of agriculture and other potential areas of production. Investment and serious attempts to upgrade East Timorese village agriculture have been minimal.

(One of) FRETILIN’s contradictions

The current crisis (the break-up of the army and disintegration of the Police) is, I suspect, connected to one of FRETILIN’s key contradictions. “Ideologically” and in terms of FRETILIN’s presentation of itself, i.e. its emphasis on presenting itself as the true bearer of the spirit of 1975, puts it in contradiction with the state building project that it has accepted and has been implementing. This is to build a typical capitalist parliamentary democracy where the state apparatus, including the police and army, are supposed to be professional and apolitical. Since independence the whole of Timorese state apparatus has been undergoing training (indoctrination) in this approach. This has caused tensions inside the Army because there remained inside the Army officers who were former guerillas and whose primary loyalty is to FRETILIN, i.e. party not state. This is no doubt an issue in the civil service as well. Party or state? Professional or ideological? Partisan or neutral? The whole UN backed state building process has been inculcating these ideas. (The same issue emerged in the early 1950s in Indonesia when almost all Army officers with guerilla backgrounds were moved out of the army leaving the officer corps dominated by men who had worked in the Dutch colonial army beforehand.)

FRETILIN has accepted the new state model while, at the same time, fostering the idea of an equal sign between FRETILIN and the state and fostering loyalty to party over state. At the same time, however, FRETILIN itself no longer mobilizes, politicizes its membership. As an organization it itself is more and more a political machine of a ruling party. It has attracted a huge number of opportunists seeking to be members of the ruling party. The loyalty to party therefore loses its progressive ideological role. As a machine FRETILIN becomes a mechanism of passivity, used for electioneering and for mobilizing “shows of force” from time to time, often relying on clan and patron-client mechanisms to mobilize people..

Conservative versus progressive

The crisis does expose a progressive versus conservative dynamic that is developing in East Timor post-independence. This is a direct result of the adoption of the model of a capitalist parliamentary democracy whose ideological underpinnings come into direct contradiction with what remains of the national liberation ideology of the 1970s represented by the NAME Fretilin, the flag, patriotic songs, and such terms as “maubere” (the oppressed masses, the little people), although at FRETILIN’s 1999 0r 2000 congress, the central place of “maubers” was reduced.

The development of pro and anti Alkatiri camps is, it appears anyway, to be facilitating the conglomeration of different elements – “professional” army and police, politicians with no access to a mass base, the Church – into a conservative pole. This also has an echo inside FRETILIN among (a) the horde of opportunists welcomed into the party by Alkatiri to boost its position in the last elections and (b) a more ideologically conservative wing.

The Left

The Left is dicided into two rough groupings: (a) the PST and (b) the non-party Left, housed in NGOs and discussion groups. This second groups, includes some progressive youth active inside FRETILIN, but who have very small numbers and no influence in the FRETILIN machine. Much of the “data” used by pro-FRETILIN activists outside Timor comes from these groups. Some of these groups used to be ‘mentored’ by the non-party Left from Indonesia, but Australians seem also to play a role in this sphere now, especially with those based in NGOs rather than discussion groups, which tend to be Indonesian language based.

The PST is in what amounts to a critical support relationship with FRETILIN although restrained by the necessity to progress the project of building the PST as an alternative to FRETILIN. In the recent local elections, it stood against FRETILIN and in a few areas roundly defeated FRETILIN.

Neither the PST, which is based in a cluster of village areas outside Dili, nor the non-party Left have the size or weight to have been able to play any role in the recent Dili upheaval. (Indeed even FRETILIN, which scored very high in the recent local elections in Dili, was not able to do anything. Even on June 29, FRETILIN had to resort to mobilizing from its provincial bases, where it is led by the local elites, to Dili, unable to mobilize any significant numbers in Dili.)

The PST, secretary-general, Avelino da Silva, as an individual figure is in a specific situation, partly separated from the PST as an organization. Avelino was appointed by Xanana Gusmao as a member of 12 person State Council, which is an advisory body to the President. It also includes the PM and 5 people nominated by the parliament. He has a status as a political personality. It has already been announced that he will be a candidate for President next year.

It is not impossible that the PST may gain in the 2007 elections as a result of general discrediting of both FRETILIN and Xanana Gusmao. (Horta’s proactive stance and his frequent visit to refugee camps etc may have won him some increased popularity).


(1) There is no doubt that the ulta-right in Australian politics as represented by the Murdoch columnists have a protectorate mentality. This is driven by their general desire to entrench a racist and xenophobic attitude to the Third World by driving home that even in the Xanana and Nobel winning Hortoa led new state of ET, there is a failed state. This serves to strengthen their overall ideological drive among the Australian working class. It is also driven by the desire to get Australian working class used to the idea of an overseas military presence.
(2) However, this is not the only view expressed from within the Australian ruling class. Both Downer and Nelson have emphasized that pushing Alkatori out may actually incite instability rather than obtain stability. Political stability of the capitalist state in ET is their main concern. This was well elaborated also in an early SMH Editorial which praised Alkatiri’s hard work and economic progress and the fact that the economy remained in private hands, but argued that he should resign for the sake of stability, putting the onus on him making the move.
(3) The congealing of a conservative, “post national liberation” pole in ET – if it holds – may facilitate a more confident stance by the Australian political establishment in taking sides.