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Learning from East Timor

Mar. 17, 2017

Southeast Asia's youngest nation will celebrate its fifteenth year of independence this year. East Timor now enjoys relative stability after overcoming political turmoil, offering lessons on how to go about peacebuilding.

East Timor is located east of Indonesia, and has a population of about 1.2 million. Its main industries are agriculture and energy, including coffee production, and oil and gas development.

The country declared independence from Indonesia 15 years ago, after a period of transitional administration by the United Nations.

What happened in East Timor is considered a successful example of nation- building carried out with the support of the international community. On Monday, it will hold its first presidential election in 5 years.

Today, we look at the current state of East Timor, and track its steps to peacebuilding. But first, let’s review the country's path to independence.


Road to Independence

In 1974, Portugal’s colonial rule came to an end. As the country was striving for self-rule, civil war broke out. Amid the turmoil, Indonesia annexed East Timor, and Indonesian troops used force to crack down on the independence movement.

The occupation divided the country, either for the independence or against it, which led to fierce fighting between the sides. It is estimated at least 200,000 people died during this period of occupation.

In 1999, under a popular referendum supervised by the UN, the country voted decisively for self-determination. East Timor went under the United Nation’s transitional administration with the goal of independence.

Japan also played an active role in the reconstruction. Self-Defense Forces serving under the UN’s peacekeeping operations repaired infrastructure such as broken bridges and roads.

In May 2002, East Timor finally achieved independence. The country’s first elected president was independence leader Xanana Gusmao.

"Our history will continue to be made by our people for the dignity of human being," Gusmao said.


Daisaku Higashi, a specialist in post-conflict peacebuilding and an associate professor at Sophia University, joins anchor Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: What stage is the nation-building process at now?

Higashi: I conducted a study-tour in Timor-Leste from Feb 26 to March 5. I took 13 students from Sophia University to see the progress of peacebuilding there. We visited several places, including the police station in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. The police officers told us that they started implementing community policing in each village, learning from a similar practice in Japan, which we call "the koban system." Actually, some police officers were dispatched to Japan to learn the community policing system, with the support of the Japanese government.

Security in Timor-Leste is extremely good, and cases of serious crime are few. We heard from police that their most challenging cases are domestic violence, and traffic accidents. We also visited a secondary school that was funded by religious organizations and supported by a Japanese priest who serves as vice-principal. It was created 5 years ago, and currently has 550 students. The students from Sophia spoke with students who shared their views and dreams of becoming doctors, teachers and judges in the future. Seeing them and their beautiful smiles, I perceived that peace is becoming the norm in this country, and people are hopeful for the future.

Beppu: But there have been crises during the post-conflict transition period.

Higashi: Yes, there was political instability in 2006. At that time, there was a political rivalry between Mr. Gusmao, the president, and Mr. Alkatiri, the prime minister. The local police and military were split between supporters of the 2 leaders and there was a military clash that resulted in about 100,000 internally displaced people. However, both leaders agreed on asking the UN Security Council to dispatch UN peacekeepers again to de-escalate the situation, and the violence was stopped by multinational forces authorized by UN Security Council.

Alkatiri decided to resign his post of prime minister after this crisis, and there was a parliamentary election in 2007. Then Gusmao became prime minister. Alkatiri and his party, FRETIRIN, became the leading opposition party. But since then, both leaders have taken steps toward reconciliation, and have begun working together toward peace and collaborating on national policy issues. So we were able to see political developments firsthand through our study tour.


Voices of East Timor Leaders

Former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri once had a tense relationship with former President Gusmao. Alkatiri now leads FRETILIN, the main opposition party.

“Without peace or stability, you have nothing," Alkatiri says. "You have no democracy. You have no development.”

In 2006, the young nation faced its greatest crisis since independence. Protests by former soldiers triggered massive unrest. At the time, criticism of Prime Minister Alkatiri, who was then in charge of security, led to calls for his resignation. Then president Gusmao also called on Alkatiri to step down, intensifying the political tension.

“Only a leader who can garner the trust of the people can govern the country,” Gusmao said at the time.

Alkatiri did eventually resign, and public order was gradually restored.

Once political opponents, Alkatiri and Gusmao are now beginning to work together. They are supporting the same candidate for the presidential election on Monday.

A group of students from Sophia University recently had the chance to ask Alkatiri about how the 2 leaders were able to make moves toward reconciliation.

“We love this country. We love this people. That’s the reason why. If you love the people, you need to do everything possible to avoid wars, to avoid conflict," he replied. "That’s the reason why, after some misunderstanding, some miscommunication, we decided to communicate with each other. We tried to understand the difference, and tried to get a consensus in the areas that really set the peace and stability.”

The student group was also able to meet with Gusmao. He remains very influential in the nation’s politics, and talks about the strengths of East Timor.

“Inclusiveness is to force to create a sense of state," Gusmao says. "Democracy is exchange of opinion, discussion. 'No, no, what you are doing is bad,' discussing it. 'Oh yes, sorry, you were right.' Like this. Put together ideas to develop the country, and especially, I will tell you again a new concept maybe for you: the building of the state.“

Gusmao has worked hard to end the civil war and rebuild the nation. He now visits conflict zones around the world and talks about the importance of dialogue, based on his experiences in East Timor.

“Young people, young generation, put this in mind. Japan should export peace. Don’t be part of rivalries. Dialogue, dialogue, persuasive dialogue, honest dialogue, and we will allow peace in the world,” Gusmao says.


Beppu: Why did these 2 formerly bitter opponents decide to finally work together?

Higashi: A critical moment was when Gusmao resigned from his position as prime minister in 2015, and surprisingly appointed Rui de Aroujo, a member of FRETILIN, as his successor. Since then, it has been the de-facto coalition government between CNRT and FRETILIN in East Timor. Since then, they've had a very good relationship. In conducted academic research in East Timor in 2008 and at that time, both Alkatri and Gusmao were really critical of each other. But now they are very confident that they can work together.

Beppu: What can we learn from East Timor about post-conflict reconstruction? We do know there are many examples in which a conflict ends, peace comes, but again the country falls back into conflict. What is the key to cut this cycle?

Higashi: For instance, South Sudan was created in 2011, but President Kirr and Vice President Machar started military clashes in 2013. Ongoing conflict in South Sudan has produced 1.5 million international refugees. I think the lesson of East Timor is how they can work together to create peace, to stop this kind of violence.