Archive Article East Timor: Transition To Statehood
February 28, 2009


The youngest country in the world is getting ready for independence. East Timor will shortly be free.

The Catholic Institute of International Relations, based in London, just has just published a stimulating small book by Catherine Scott entitled “East Timor: Transition to Statehood”. The Catholic Institute was one of the small band of organizations that have stood by the East Timorese during their long struggle for independence from the Portuguese and Indonesians.

John Kennedy once remarked: “Defeat is an orphan but victory has a thousand parents”. I have been thinking of that phrase in the last few days as the as the East Timorese have been having the first free election in their history. A lot of Western politicians have been congratulating themselves on what they have done to help the East Timorese. But in fact most of them have either got little reason to claim credit or (if they are veteran politicians) they have blood on their hands because they were part of the group of governments that colluded in the Indonesian control of East Timor. There are very few Australian politicians, for example, that can truly claim any credit for what has been happening in East Timor in the last few days. If they had had more backbone, then East Timor would not have had to undergo the trauma of the past few decades.

Instead, the real heroes outside the East Timorese themselves have been the small band of organizations like the Catholic Institute in London and the array of organizations in Australia. They kept the torch of freedom alight, when many Western politicians would have happily seen it extinguished.

But in a world of great change, the achievements of the past are soon overtaken by events. It is wonderful that the East Timor have survived the Indonesian government and its Western political supporters. Now the East Timorese have to get down to the challenge of running their own country – which will be one of the world’s poorest.

Catherine Scott sets out the extent of that challenge. This means, for example, that a political culture has to be developed that will enable democracy to flourish. There has been no tradition of democracy in East Timor in recent centuries. The tragedy of many developing countries that have acquired independence since World War II is that they have descended into one-party rule and corruption.

Second, Catherine Scott recommends that women’s voices are heard and that women are adequately represented in all decision-making structures. Quotas should be used to ensure that at least 30 per cent of those elected to public office are women.

East Timor has an opportunity to show the world how it is possible for a newly independent country to create a flourishing democracy. At a time when there is so much doom and gloom, East Timor could provide us with an inspiring success story. After all, the eventual independence of East Timor is in itself a success story – now East Timor has to go the next step.

I first got involved with the East Timor just before the Indonesian invasion in 1975, when I met Jose Ramos Horta, then the world’s youngest foreign minister, who visited Australia to drum up support for the new country of East Timor. Indonesia (with the support of Australia and the US) soon ended that brave adventure. Now we are back to where we were in the mid-1970s: East Timor is soon to be free. But there is now greater international support for it