Magazine article Geographical

East Timor

Magazine article Geographical

East Timor

Article excerpt

About five years ago, I reflected here on the turbulent geopolitical history of East Timor and warned that further outbreaks of violence might be on the cards. Sure enough, in July, the East Timorese president, Taur Matan Ruak, called for calm following a number of violent incidents outside the capital, Dill. Newspaper reports suggested that at least one person was killed and several others injured.

The violence, which came on the eve of the planned withdrawal of about 1,300 UN peacekeepers, is believed to stem from the country's current political situation. The president has called for all-party talks and urged the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, and opposition party leaders, including Fretilin's Marl Alkatiri, to urge their supporters to remain peaceful.

Elections held on 7 July left Gusmao's party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (NCTR), just short of an absolute majority in the parliament. The resulting coalition government excluded Fretilin, but made space for two smaller parties, the Democratic Party and Frenti-Mudanca. While Fretilin accepted that the NCTR had every right to exclude the party from the coalition, there has been speculation that Fretilin supporters were responsible for the violence.

The election and its aftermath are widely seen as a litmus test for the country's future stability. Having gained independence in 2002 after several years of UN administration, East Timor is still coming to terms with the violent legacy of Indonesian occupation, which left thousands dead and many more displaced.

UN peacekeepers have been present in the country since 2006, following outbreaks of violence, but it's hoped that they will be able to leave this year, and that East Timor can begin to sustain a democratic political culture. At present, this small country (only about 14,800 square kilometres) remains extremely poor and in need of substantial improvements to its material infrastructure, which was largely destroyed by occupying Indonesian forces from the 1970s onwards. Unemployment is high, and there remains a need to improve standards in schools and encourage more East Timorese to acquire skills that will make them more employable.

However, it does have significant oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, which it's jointly developing with Australia. In June 2005, the national parliament voted to create a petroleum fund (akin to Norway's sovereign wealth fund) to act as a repository for revenues and to assist in longer term planning. …

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