Jun 04, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

Born in the wrong era

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Mansour Fakih

My first visit to East Timor was early in 2000. The towns were still smoldering, and the atmosphere was tense. I was shocked, angry, and so disillusioned. I never suspected my own people could have done such a thing. Outside the church in Suai the candles were still burning. There were flowers, and people said: this is where the priests were massacred. At night, I watched videos people had recorded of the abuses as they took place. A large number of them, many by amateurs, and they showed that the military was involved.

Here we were, Indonesians training human rights observers and educators who would be placed in every district of East Timor - a great experiment in democracy. My country had been one of the biggest human rights abusers of the twentieth century. All the examples in our training were taken from Indonesia.

When I went back to Indonesia there was nothing in the news about what Indonesian soldiers had done in East Timor. People were regretful, not for the abuses committed by their army, but because the East Timorese had chosen to leave Indonesia. This completely missed the point. So far, no lessons have been learned about what happened in East Timor.

The next time I went there was in early 2001. There had been a big change. Not the frustration of a year before, but an enthusiasm among the non-government organisations (NGOs) to help write the new constitution. I have been an activist for many years in Indonesia but I had never seen this before, and was most impressed. I was asked to help some women who wanted to introduce women's rights into the constitution. The political parties didn't have this on their agenda, and none of us really knew what to do.

They were not professional lawyers or even human rights advocates. But they were so committed. We workshopped about domestic violence. Then they discovered the UN Women's Convention. They studied it and took eleven clauses to put into their constitution. They then went back to their home districts and lobbied everyone they could find. They asked us to make their posters and campaign T-shirts in Yogyakarta. In the end four or five clauses got into the constitution! They were delighted, because it had been by their own effort. Now they want to watch if this constitution will improve their lives.

That is East Timorese democracy. People in Indonesia often think democracy is just about avoiding riots during elections. But it's about human rights literacy, and about women's involvement in drafting the constitution, to name just what I have seen.

World Bank model

On my third visit last April I met with NGOs who were thinking about advocacy after independence. What's your advocacy agenda? I asked them. They didn't really know. We discussed whether East Timor should join the World Bank. There is a debate about that. Some think we should be realistic, and it's OK to have debt, while others disagree. The NGOs do not yet have an agreed position. Some feared East Timor could become like Indonesia - mired in debt. Others agreed that East Timor could be forced to adopt the 'World Bank model', but felt it couldn't afford not to enter into debt because 'we have no money'. But all were worried that a free-market economy could be in conflict with the ideals that lay behind the independence struggle.

Women want the state to protect women's rights, everyone wants the state to protect their economic rights, but in the 'World Bank model', the state is powerless to protect. It is not permitted to subsidise.

So we asked ourselves: What would happen to the people if the state were to become so indebted it lost its power to protect? In fact the NGOs were in a difficult position, because many of them were helping the World Bank carry out 'community empowerment programs' in the villages. People welcomed the World Bank money. The Bank was just like the Church, they said - it cares for people. But in fact this is just another form of Structural Adjustment Program. This is the World Bank's way of preparing people for the free market, for privatisation of state facilities and an end to subsidies. The World Bank is aggressively lobbying the government to take on debt. They see East Timor as a clean slate, a model of what can be achieved with free market methods.

It is true that East Timor has been destroyed and badly needs money. East Timor needs to be rescued. But there are sources other than debt. For the European Union, for example, a few tens of millions of dollars is peanuts.

Indonesia has a moral responsibility towards East Timor. Without talking the legal language of war reparations, Indonesia needs to acknowledge it must pay East Timor back for all the infrastructure it destroyed in September 1999 - from telephones to electricity supplies. Other neighbours also need to be generous.

East Timor needs cash, not debt. Once there was the Marshall Plan, and the Colombo Plan. These were government-to-government grants. The World Bank was actually born in this era of state-led development - it was the Keynesian reaction against the free market. But today all that is regarded as in conflict with the principles of good governance. There must be no subsidies - everything is to be financed by debt.

East Timor has already or will soon ratify four international conventions - on women, on children, on civil and political rights, and on economic and socio-cultural rights. East Timor is more advanced than Indonesia in all these areas. All these conventions place the state in the role of protector to the people. But if East Timor enters the World Bank, and after that the World Trade Organisation (WTO), its obligations will soon be in conflict with its responsibilities under these conventions.

East Timor was born at the wrong moment. It was conceived from ideals of social justice, human rights. It was to be a state that would protect the people's rights. Its constitution is very socialistic. It took over in its entirety clause 33 from the Indonesian constitution, which specifies that all natural resources are managed by the state on behalf of the people. But this is the era of free markets, of liberalism, of corporate globalisation - what a contrast with the spirit of the East Timorese struggle! We outsiders always supported East Timor in that spirit. We are mistaken if we think the struggle is now over.

We need a new global solidarity movement to rescue the baby! Otherwise the people will soon be disappointed as the real economic policy becomes clear to them. They will feel betrayed and lose their trust in Xanana and his government. At least during the Indonesian colonial period there were public health clinics - this was after all a period of state-led development. But now there has to be competition and user-pays. People could become nostalgic for the past!

The new state of East Timor is under attack. The NGO community needs to support it. Let us not wait until it is too late. The message to the World Bank should be - leave East Timor alone! But the global solidarity movement should not leave East Timor alone. East Timor can become an alternative, just like we hoped Nicaragua would become an alternative in the 1980s.

Mansour Fakih (mansourf@remdec.co.id) directs the NGO Insist, in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar