In his speech at the Australian National University, Minister Agio Pereira explained the significance of colonial legacy that led to the birth of independent sovereign state of Timor-Leste.
As we gather here at this prestigious university, Australian National University, in Timor-Leste central figures of our government and civil society are gathering in Lifau, Oe-Cusse Ambeno, and making the final touches to the program that will commemorate the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Timor-Leste. As a result, Portuguese-Timor eventually became an integral part of the Portuguese empire.
We owe a debt to this historic occasion that took place so long ago as it is the fact that had the Portuguese descobridores not settled what is today Timor-Leste, we would have surely become part of the Dutch East Indies, which later became the Republic of Indonesia. We would not have been on a journey to independent statehood. This is a paradox of the colonialism that continues to shape the fate of nations. As a result of being colonised by Portugal five centuries ago, we have been able to carve out a unique identity and culture that in 2002 led to Timor-Leste being admitted as the 191st member state of the United Nations.
Often the relations between Timor-Leste and Portugal are questioned, misunderstood, and sometimes seen as an investment in a faded glory that takes us backwards. These views come from well-intentioned people. What is often overlooked, however, is that despite the many negative aspects of colonialism and imperialism, from slavery and dispossession to ruthless oppression, in the case of the former colonies of the Portuguese empire there is a sense of common identity and solidarity that is rare in the international community where national interests dictate national priorities. This solidarity extends to Portugal because we acknowledge that the Portuguese people were also oppressed by the Portuguese empire.
In today’s update, I examine the national development of Timor-Leste within this historical context, touching on our colonial past, our current government and the doctrine of consensus democracy and, of course, the priorities of our country for the years ahead.
Not long ago, Portugal celebrated its own five hundred years of colonial history, with emphasis on the discoveries of new territories and peoples and the five centuries that the Portuguese shaped Brazil towards what it is today; and occupied Angola, Guiné-Bissau and Cabo Verde, Mozambique, São Tomé e Príncipe and Timor-Leste. All of which except, Timor-Leste, gained their independence more than forty years ago. The process that led to independence and membership of the United Nations, was not a smooth one. Independence was not handed over on a silver platter. It was the result of a bloody struggle and the eventual destruction of the Portuguese empire. Thousands of lives were lost during Portugal’s colonial wars on both sides before the empire finally collapsed on the 25th of April 1974. The Carnation Revolution quickly led to Angola, Guiné-Bissau and Cabo Verde, Mozambique and São Tomé e Príncipe ending their status as Portuguese colonies or territories and becoming independent nation-states. The Timorese people also sought independence at that time, but the western powers including Australia, all assumed we would inevitably become part of Indonesia and rebuffed our efforts to become independent. They ignored 500 years of cultural heritage; and failed to allow the Timorese people the right to self-determination.
During two and a half dark decades, as we fought for our independence, without external support -the world turned its back on us. Yet we fought on to ensure that the country that emerged from Portuguese-Timor did not fade away. Against all odds, we not only survived, but now strive for higher goals as a sovereign and independent nation.
The independence of Timor-Leste was always seen as impossible, unrealistic, and irrational and coming from leaders who appeared to understand little about political realities, particularly international politics. Xanana Gusmão responded to those who criticised us over decades by saying that while appreciating reality was necessary, the most important understanding is that reality is made by people and people can change it. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union testify to this important principle. It is now over forty years since the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, on the 25th of April 1974, and the reality was that most informed experts of international relations did not see the revolution coming. And this event, of course, eventually led to Timor-Leste emerging as an independent and sovereign country. This should be a lesson for those who systematically underestimated the capacity of developing countries to overcome hurdles and move forward towards achieving their ultimate national objectives including, at the very least, respect for historical realties. Regrettably, more often than not, while lessons may be learned, they are not embraced or acted upon.
It is easy to stand outside Timor-Leste and judge our mistakes. It is easy to criticise and evaluate the evolution of Timor-Leste as a Nation-State through a negative lens. There is the need to appreciate the uniqueness of our country, the strength of national culture, and the reasons we should be proud of our achievements. There must be space to acknowledge that our people and our leaders are striving to achieve the long-term goals of peace and security as we navigate competing regional and global interests. Today, in this globalised world, where nothing is far beyond your fingertips, Timor-Leste is also striving to take advantage of the opportunities available to all. But in doing so, we seek to exert principles of fairness and mutual respect, in every action taken, within the community of nations and international law, the very same principles that enabled our survival over two and half decades of fighting to overcome the forces that intended to derail our nationhood.
Since the last ANU Timor Update, much has happened in Timor-Leste. Consensus democracy has gained root in our national politics. The fact is nations are always evolving. Influences which impact on this evolution may remain forever, may decline or may vanish with time. All depends on how the leaders of the nation conceive national priorities; and invest in those that can transform the country for the long term betterment. There are many policy considerations but those that provide safety, security and peace will always prevail. Regardless of the complexities of these policies, the nation and its leadership will always develop mechanisms and create opportunities to lessen such difficulties because there is no other alternative for peace and security. The parts that may or may not contribute towards these ends may vary, they may be debated and tested, but the desire to reach these goals is always unshakeable. It is this shared desire that influences the policy priorities of Timor-Leste today; and gives our nation such strength and promise. It is why CNRT and Fretilin, the two major parties, have come together to form a government which reflects political inclusion, achieved under consensus democracy. This is why the transition from older to younger generation has been successful; and I now serve with honour in a government led by Dr Rui de Araujo.
Our progress has included, importantly, improved efficiency in evaluating national budget proposals which have become part of the modus operandi in the National Parliament. As a result, more openness and courage to embrace challenging projects, such as the development of the South Coast and Oe-Cusse Ambeno, and make them important national assets, is becoming more common. Criticisms have been levelled against these projects and we expect that initiatives of such magnitude should be properly analysed, in a factual and objective way, so that the openness of this process ensures success. I guess similar scepticism was manifested by many in relation to the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney’s Darling Harbour and the Opera House, and later the National Parliament building up the road from where we stand today. We, too, know and accept that good governance leads to good public policy outcomes. These projects are strategic. Upon completion they will become part of the foundation for a successful national economy and will help ensure the goals of the national Strategic Development Plan are realised.
Our demography is changing fast. The Preliminary Results of the 2015 Census, which were released recently, shows our population is now 1,167,242 million, with an average annual growth rate of 1.81 per cent. This is lower than the rate from 2004 – 2010 when it was 2.4 per cent. This lower population growth rate is good news, as it will facilitate better quality of living and sustainable national growth. We are developing our education system so that our growing population has access to appropriately targeted curriculum and properly trained teachers and we are continuing to train doctors and provide health services, even in the most remote areas. At the same time we are improving our crop yields and building roads to open up access to markets. Improved roads will also help farmers, markets and grow tourism. All these initiatives were set out in the Strategic Development Plan that is the blueprint of Timor-Leste for national development.
The first strategic project was the generation and distribution of electricity to the nation. This has been successfully achieved and is already having a positive impact on all aspects of life. Today, the total electricity generation capacity of Timor-Leste is greater than 256 megawatts compared to only 110 megawatts in 2010 -an increase of over 130 per cent. In 2007, only 22 per cent of households had access to electricity but by 2013 the rate had risen to an estimated 53 per cent of households. The World Bank 2015 Doing Business report now places Timor at number 15 in the world for ‘Getting Electricity’, above Indonesia, Malaysia and some other countries. I am sure many of you will recall, that back in 2009, when we embarked on this national endeavour, time and time again we were told this was going to be a white elephant. That it was too expensive. And that it was the wrong priority. Similar views are now aired about Oe-Cusse Ambeno and the development of the South Coast and again we work hard to prove them wrong for the good of the national development.
Today we are also embarking on law reform. The Council of Ministers has established the Commission for Legislative and Judiciary Reform. The objectives are to recommend law reform, evaluate how laws are being implemented and to help harmonize legislation. Timor-Leste has a system which differs from that of Australia as the executive is separated from the Parliament where legislation is made. The executive can pass ‘decree-laws’ and resolutions; which, while similar to regulations in Australia, tend to be more far reaching.
The Commission for Legislative and Judiciary Reform is a new development. It reflects the fact that laws are not meant to be bibles, but above all, they represent the priority this government is giving to the importance of access to justice. We are aiming to make laws easier to understand and implement. And we want to ensure the structure and organisation of our judiciary has the capacity to implement the laws; and that lawyers and civil society understand these laws and their implications. One of the objectives of the Commission is to take steps to propose the integration of the customary law of Timor-Leste, which is widely practiced, into formal laws. Section 2 (4) of the Constitution of Timor-Leste states that “The State shall recognise and value the norms and customs of East Timor that are not contrary to the Constitution and to any legislation dealing specifically with customary law”.
The Commission will undertake wide consultation across society to develop a better understanding of the pros and cons of traditional laws and report back to the Council of Ministers with specific recommendations. This, of course, will take years to be concluded and the next government will hopefully be receptive to continuing the process until its completion. We have met with many Australian experts, including the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby, Professor Rosalind Croucher of the Australian Law Reform Commission as well as the Supreme Court Judge of the Northern Territory Jenny May Blokland and other eminent legal experts. We have benefited immensely from these meetings, particularly in developing an understanding of the operation of the common law system, the Australian legal system and the supremacy of legislation in the Australian constitutional process. We have also undertaken consultation with experts in Portugal. A round-table to discuss the legislative and judicial reform in Timor-Leste will also be held in Lisbon, drawing from experts in Portugal who have worked in Timor-Leste. The Commission will develop an on-line system where its work will be made available to the wider public.
On the question of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea; the final delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea is a national imperative for Timor-Leste. A vital step towards achieving full sovereignty. Currently, there are no defined maritime boundaries between Timor-Leste and its neighbours Indonesia and Australia. We are pleased to have commenced discussions with Indonesia towards permanently setting maritime boundaries. We are sitting down as good neighbours to come to an agreement that is equitable and that will benefit both nations into the future. Timor-Leste is asking Australia to do the same; to discuss maritime boundaries. There is a common misconception that the maritime boundaries between Timor-Leste and Australia were settled via the Timor Sea Treaties; but they are temporary arrangements without prejudice to the settlement of maritime boundaries that are only relevant to the exploitation of natural resources in the Timor Sea.
Like Timor-Leste, Australia has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which imposes an obligation on States to reach final agreements on maritime boundaries. To this end, we are hopeful the new Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, will revisit his government’s position and offer Timor-Leste the same opportunity to settle maritime boundaries, similar to what past Australian governments have offered to Australia’s other maritime neighbours. All that Timor-Leste is seeking to discuss (negotiate) with Australia is an equitable solution, founded on international law.
Our current government has less than two years of its mandate remaining. On the 8th of August 2017 a new government is expected to be sworn-in. The 2017 legislative election is crucial for Timor-Leste. The new government will of course be shaped by the will of the Timorese people, particularly the younger generation. I am optimistic about the outcome in 2017 and about the years beyond, because Timor-Leste is on the right path towards the consolidation of its national independence.