Paul Cleary, Senior writer, Sydney- The Australian
East Timor’s slide towards autocracy is being hastened by new Prime Minister Rui de Araujo.
Despite coming into the job as an apparent cleanskin, Dr de Araujo seems to be exploiting the country’s draconian media laws with a defamation action that could send a journalist to jail.
Dr Aruajo is suing over an article in the Timor Post by Raimondos Oki who reported on the awarding of an $18 million contract to install computers at the 20,000sq m Finance Ministry.
Should Dr de Araujo succeed, the action will focus attention on the winding back of democracy in East Timor. Former prime minister Xanana Gusmao introduced a press council that controls who can work as a journalist, while the penal code makes defamation a criminal offence.
The benefits accruing to a small elite connected to senior politicians, and massive spending on dubious projects, have put the government and President Taur Matan Ruak on a collision course.
Mr Ruak is associated with the newly formed Peoples Liberation Party that plans to challenge the cosy government of national unity created by Mr Gusmao, who last year appointed Dr de Araujo as Prime Minister even though he was a minister in the former Fretilin party. He also put the former Fretilin prime minister Mari Alkatiri in charge of special economic zones, a role that involves massive spending. Mr Gusmao remains a cabinet minister.
In a fiery address to parliament late last month, Mr Ruak effectively described East Timor as an autocracy that serves the wealthy elite, where political unity was used for “power and privilege” and regretfully “family and friends of brother Xanana and brother Mari have benefited both from state contracts”.
“The State of Timor-Leste is far too centralised. It centralises skills, power and privilege. It excessively squanders resources. It creates first-class citizens and second-class citizens,” he said.
Mr Rauk has been alarmed by the planning for more costly and grander white elephants, while spending on health and education has been cut.
On the south coast, the government has budgeted about $US1.6 billion ($A2.14bn) for oil infrastructure, even though it is almost impossible to build a pipeline from the Timor Sea in depths of 2500m.
Other fiscal black holes are the state oil company Timor GAP and a special economic zone in the Oecusse enclave, in the north, which has a budget of $200m for this year alone. The Oecusse project is of sentimental value because it is where the Portuguese landed in the early 1500s. Mr Ruak ridiculed the plan to build an international airport in a place with a population of 65,000.
PLP’s support comes from Timorese who grew up during the Indonesian occupation. Some were even educated in Indonesia and unlike the Gusmao generation, they are less enamoured with East Timor’s association with Portugal and the Portuguese language.
For example PLP interim president Aderito de Jesus Soares is a lawyer who helped write the nascent nation’s constitution and more recently served as the head of the Commission Against Corruption. He is now completing a doctorate at the Australian National University.
The line-up so far includes Demetrio Amaral, who founded the environmental group Haburus and has been awarded the Goldman award (known as the Green Nobel), and Jose Belo, a former resistance fighter turned newspaper editor.
PLP’s views on education and Indonesia set it well apart from the prevailing consensus. Mr Soares, who studied in Indonesia, says Bahasa Indonesia should be taught in schools, along with English and Portuguese.
“It has to be taught in the school as an option. Junior and senior high school should teach Bahasa Indonesia. How many families can afford to send kids to Brazil or Portugal, or Australia? But many can afford to send their kids to Indonesia,” he says.
East Timor’s worrying trajectory does not seem to concern the Australian advisers who are close to the government.
Former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, who has served as a special adviser to the prime minister since 2007, said he had never criticised the projects condemned by Mr Ruak. “The government of Timor-Leste is entitled to determine its own priorities,” he said.
He declined to comment on the media law and the criminal penalties for defamation.