Time for Xanana Gusmao to step up and fix Timor-Leste’s problems

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By Jose Belo in Dili, Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste’s parliamentary elections on May 12 have returned Xanana Gusmao to the Government Palace in Dili in an alliance that gives him enough votes to govern in his own right.

While Gusmao has won an election held only 10 months after the July 2017 poll, his CNRT (Party for Timorese Reconstruction Party) lost to FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) in the earlier election, albeit by a small margin. This forced him into an alliance with sometime rivals to secure the latest poll.

This suggests the people of Timor-Leste trust him, but they are not so happy with his previous government.

Timor-Leste voters sent a wake-up call to their leaders in the recent election. They are asking that the leaders, and most importantly, Gusmao, to continue governing but change their ways.

This all comes after a decade of high level government spending fueled by oil and gas riches. But questions remain. Has Timor-Leste gotten value for their money? Has the government’s spending priorities reflected the wishes and needs of ordinary Timorese voters?

Gusmao is seen as a leader with historical legitimacy, a man who has brought many good things to Timor-Leste since independence.

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He resolved the 2006 political crisis, albeit despite being complicit in precipitating it, compensated petitioners, gave pensions to the veterans, initiated the beginnings of a social safety net for the poor, brought rural businesses into the private sector, brought electricity to the villages, and made many other positive changes.

Maritime victory
Most recently he won a victory for Timor-Leste’s maritime sovereignty with a boundary agreement with Australia although some see the deal as rushed for political expediency ahead of the recent poll.

But, there are complaints that the new government needs to address, and do so quickly in the first year of the new AMP (Alliance of Change and Progress) government.

Firstly, trust must be restored in the country’s leadership and to do that the lifetime pension for politicians needs to end. Office holders must likewise be held accountable through an annual declaration of assets.

Any forms of corruption must be stamped out among the country’s politicians and civil servants.

The people think, rightly, that leaders seek positions in order to make big salaries and look after themselves. Salaries and benefits need to be cut to reasonable levels. If the leaders give up benefits and stop corrupt activities then only then can the leaders ask people to work hard, sweat, and build a better country.

Secondly, the government must strengthen anti-corruption laws and pursue corruptors at all levels in Timorese society, from the remotest mountain village to Government Palace.

Looking ahead, Timor-Leste needs to move beyond its reliance on oil and gas and the government needs to prioritize the needs of the people who also need to become a community that can create wealth rather than just consume it.

Fund getting smaller
The Petroleum Fund was large but it is getting smaller and it will not last forever. Revenues from it could cease as early as 2026.

After ten years the country has built many things, but not enough for the land, human resources and environment. It is no small feat required of the people. We need to change focus.

Timorese are an agricultural people and it is a strength that needs to be prioritised and improved. More resources must be driven into building up the agricultural productivity and diversification. Funds need to be allocated to improving our farmers’ skills and their output so they can move from subsistence agriculture to agri-business.

Ordinary Timorese are not educated enough. Millions and millions have been spent on government scholarships to build the skills of technical experts, but the chiLdren have been left behind. The primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions are underfunded and under prioritised.

The country would rather pay high tuition fees for international universities than improve the education of the 10-year-olds. This needs to stop or there will be a generation of Timorese who cannot contribute to the nation.

The country must change ways in the education sector to protect the future. School feeding programmes need improvement: a hungry child is not a child that can learn well.

The health of the people is poor, they are eating too much sugar and drinking too much beer. Timor-Leste need to dramatically improve public and preventative healthcare. The voters are asking for it.

Better health care
Rural clinics are an embarrassment. The country would rather send the rich and leaders to hospitals in Indonesia and Singapore than improve the standards of the children’s healthcare. It is not right nor is it wise. There can be no prosperity without good healthcare.

Timor-Leste needs to focus on its people in the rural areas. They need improved electricity access, improved rural roads, water and sanitation facilities. Improving these important assets will improve the ability of farmers and rural people to do business, the healthcare standards of people in the mountains and for schools to be where they should.

For sure, highways airports and bridges are important, but there needs to be a refocus on rural communities and their basic infrastructure needs such as water and sanitation.

About 65 percent of Timorese live next to or within sight of the sea. Timor-Leste has been negotiating maritime boundaries with Indonesia and managing new boundaries with Australia. With these boundaries come opportunities and challenges.

Future oil and gas resources need to be protected and developed very carefully. The fisheries can and should be an important source of sustainable income for Timorese for generations to come. The sea can also attract tourists to the coastal regions.

If Timor-Leste can protect and enhance its coastlines, tourists will be enticed to the villages creating jobs and income in a sustainable manner. But the sea can also bring problems. Rising sea levels, disasters, and smuggling. A coordinating ministry of maritime affairs is needed, just as Indonesia has done.

Again, there is much the Timorese need to do and they need to begin work today. The country just needs a trustworthy government to lead the way.

Jose Belo is an investigative journalist, publisher of Tempo Semanal and a commentator based in Dili, Timor-Leste. This article was first published by UCA News.

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