Thursday, 28 August 2014

Banyan: Passing the torch

Nguồn tin:

AT A roundabout just outside Timor-Leste’s international airport stands a big new statue of the man after whom it is named: Nicolau Lobato, a hero of the country’s independence movement and, briefly, its president. He was killed in 1978, three years into the 24-year Indonesian occupation that thwarted the former Portuguese colony’s independence until 2002 (after an interregnum under the UN). Few of the “1975 generation” of Timorese leaders survived the long insurgency to see the birth of the new country. One of those who did, José Ramos-Horta, a former leader of the exiled resistance who later served as prime minister and then as president, argues that in consequence younger leaders have “already been tested and trained”, and Timor-Leste can be spared a succession crisis. Others are not so hopeful.

An episode at that roundabout in May helps explain why. In the early-morning sunshine, local residents spotted their prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, by the statue. He was haranguing members of his government, even throwing a water-bottle at one of them. He then punished some by making them stand for an hour in the sun, as if they were fighters under him in his days as a guerrilla commander in Timor’s rugged mountains. In fact, this was a committee overseeing an unveiling ceremony for the statue. Some had arrived late. The target of the bottle-throwing had tampered with barricades the prime minister himself had arranged. Not untypically, he was venting his exasperation at the fecklessness of some of his own cabinet.

The contempt in which he holds them is presumably one reason why he is poised to break a repeated promise to stand down this September, planning instead to relaunch his government by shuffling and trimming his bloated 55-member cabinet. Inept and riddled with corruption, the government needs rebooting. One commentator has even asked if Timor-Leste is destined to become a failed state.

As for Mr Gusmão, he is 68 and suffers severe back pain. But he seems indispensable. His own party, the Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor-Leste, or CNRT, pleaded with him not to quit at once. He is now expected to stay until the next election, in 2017, when he will reach his term limit. As the charismatic leader of the armed resistance and Lobato’s successor, he was jailed by Indonesia in 1992. He is, in a sense, Timor-Leste’s Mandela—a symbol of Indonesian oppression and then the embodiment of the hope of reconciliation both with the occupier and at home.

Many see Timor-Leste’s stability as dependent, in part, on Mr Gusmão. The unity forged by resistance to Indonesia proved illusory. With just 1m people in a place not much bigger than Montenegro, Timor-Leste is nonetheless fiendishly complex, with at least seven different languages. Regional tension was a factor in the worst post-independence crisis, in 2006, when discontent in the army brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Mr Gusmão has restored stability of a sort by three main stratagems. First, he pursued co-operation with the main opposition, the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin), the party under whose flag the independence struggle was fought, but with which he had fallen out badly. Now they work so well together that it can look worryingly like one-party rule. Second, he dipped into the country’s oil fund—intended to provide for the day, probably less than a decade away, when revenue from oil-and-gas sales, some 90% of the government’s budget, dries up. Mr Gusmão has used it to give benefits to uppity “veterans” of the resistance, sometimes in the form of contracts for electricity and other infrastructure. Third, he exercised his personal authority. In 2007 he merged the defence and security ministries and put himself in charge. Peace in Timor-Leste relies on reforming the army and police to institutionalise civilian control over them. Only Mr Gusmão seems capable of that.

Even Mr Ramos-Horta concedes that younger politicians “lack national authority” in a patriarchal culture where “age means wisdom”. The most obvious successor is the president, Taur Matan Ruak, a 57-year-old former leader of the armed resistance. But he has no party, and, as a critic of some of the government’s failings, seems unlikely to win Mr Gusmão’s endorsement. To offer reassurance of continuity after 2017, there is talk of amending the constitution to establish a short-lived “Council of Elders” on which Mr Gusmão, Mr Ramos-Horta and two Fretilin grandees would sit and offer guidance.

Swords through the heart

It may be too late to win back public trust for politicians as a class, so corrupt have they been since independence. A widely quoted estimate is that half of government spending disappears in graft, much of it into second homes in Jakarta or Bali. So the boon of the oil wealth is being squandered. Dili, the capital, an ungainly sprawl between the mountains and the sea, has been spruced up. Swish new government buildings have sprung up, including the tallest in town: the gleaming glass cube of the finance ministry. But the city still wears the scars of the arson and violence that accompanied the Indonesian departure in 1999 and the unrest of 2006. On the seafront the old headquarters of the Catholic diocese, one of the town’s monuments, remains a charred shell.

Elsewhere, development is slow. Roads are treacherous and the country is still abjectly poor. A former member of the resistance, jailed and tortured by the Indonesians, says he has heard poor villagers complain that life was better under Indonesia; words he feels “like a sword through my heart”. In the early days of independence, he says, the hardship was tolerable; given the oil money the country should be enjoying, it is so no longer. Yet such all-out despair remains rare. Timor-Leste, for all its disappointments, has not failed yet. If it can manage the transition to a new set of leaders less consumed by the rivalries, grudges and debts of the resistance struggle, it may even succeed.

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