New Elite Consensus Is Needed To Avoid Further Crisis

New Elite Consensus Is Needed To Avoid Further Crisis post thumbnail image

Fundasaun Mahein recently expressed concern that the state is facing a crisis of legitimacy due to the widespread dissatisfaction with current Government policies and performance, which threatens the security and stability of our country. Recent events, including those which occurred in Vera Cruz, and ongoing public displays of anger towards state authorities, suggest that our fears were well-founded. The Government’s slow response to last week’s catastrophic flooding has starkly revealed the limitations of the state’s capacity to respond to major emergencies, and further undermined public confidence. While current policy makers undoubtedly share some of the blame for the current situation, Fundasaun Mahein also sees that these problems are symptoms of long-term vulnerabilities and divisions within Timor-Leste’s state, political leadership and population. This article discusses some of the underlying factors which we believe have contributed to the most recent crisis, and offers suggestions to policy makers and leaders which we hope can help to address people’s immediate needs, reduce social tensions, and move towards addressing Timor-Leste’s long-term problems.

In Fundasaun Mahein’s view, the key factor underlying the latest eruption of social discontent is the Government’s response to COVID-19, including both the restrictions placed on the population and its public communications about the disease. Fundasaun Mahein recently wrote that COVID-19 restrictions must be balanced with other concerns, so as to avoid negatively impacting livelihoods and provoking human rights violations and social conflict. Not only have the unprecedented restrictions placed on movement and economic activity exacerbated existing socio-economic problems, they are now hindering the emergency response to flood damage, especially in rural areas. It is an open secret that many people have been forced to illegally ‘escape’ from Dili through the mountains, as they risk starvation by staying in Dili. Anecdotal reports indicate that there has been a huge drop in people seeking treatment at the National Hospital due to fears about being sent to quarantine, which will lead to increased deaths from untreated illnesses.

Further eroding the Government’s legitimacy is the inconsistency in the application of COVID-19 rules. A notable example of the double-standard in how rules are applied was when the Government allowed a party leader to self-quarantine rather than in a government facility, and then changed the rules to accommodate this after the fact. Meanwhile, concerns about COVID-19 have largely evaporated among large segments of the population, as widespread community transmission does not appear to have been accompanied by a notable increase in disease (most detected COVID-19 cases have been mild or asymptomatic), and more urgent needs have taken priority, such as accessing food and repairing flood damage.

The Government’s announcements of the deaths of two people who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 as being ‘caused by’ COVID-19, while simultaneously acknowledging that each person had been suffering from severe long-term health problems, has unfortunately fuelled the widespread belief that the Government is ‘manipulating’ the crisis. Part of the problem is that reporting on COVID-19 deaths often does not distinguish between dying ‘with’ and ‘of’ COVID. This distinction is also difficult to express in Tetun – the phrase most often used is mate tanba COVID ­(‘died because of COVID’). This has further contributed to public scepticism, as many see that it is inaccurate to claim that these people died solely because of COVID-19. As a result, many people – including members of the deceased people’s families – have publicly stated that they do not believe that these people died from COVID-19, but from their underlying illnesses, and that the Government is ‘lying’ by labelling these deaths as being caused by COVID-19.

The Government has further inflamed public anger by imposing of strict rules regarding the treatment of bodies of people suspected to have died of COVID-19, particularly the removal of bodies from the family’s control and the use of heavy digging equipment to bury the person. Many people in Timor-Leste feel that the Government’s COVID-19 protocol violated both their dignity and traditions, and this was indeed the spark of Xanana’s intervention in Vera Cruz. In guidance published in September 2020, the WHO stated that the risk of COVID-19 transmission from dead people during funerals and burials is low when basic precautions are taken, such as not touching the body and ensuring regular handwashing. They also emphasised that the dignity and cultural traditions of the dead person and their families be respected to the greatest extent possible. While Fundasaun Mahein laments the politicisation of this issue, we are nonetheless glad that the Government decided to adopt a more humane and flexible approach to dealing with suspected COVID-19 deaths.

While the COVID-19 response has undoubtedly exacerbated social tensions, socio-economic hardship and public distrust in the Government, we believe that the latest events are also symptoms of deeper problems affecting Timor-Leste over the long-term. The most obvious issue is the long-running conflict between political elites, often described as a ‘clash of egos’ between maun bo’ot sira. Sadly, since we won our independence, political leaders have been unable to reach a sustained consensus to achieve stable, functioning governance and socio-economic progress for our people. Instead, their rivalry and inability to compromise have provoked interminable political deadlocks and occasional crises, which threaten the stability and security of the nation. COVID-19 is simply the latest opportunity for political manoeuvring, whether through scoring points against opponents or taking advantage of public anger to achieve other goals. Of course, this is not limited to Timor-Leste, as the response to COVID-19 has become politicised across the globe.

The ‘guerrilla warfare’ mode of politics and Maun Bo’otismo we see today reflect Timor-Leste’s both history of armed struggle and traditional hierarchies and practices going back hundreds of years. In the political culture of Timor-Leste, power and decision making operate mostly within and through informal mechanisms and networks, rather than through formal processes and institutions. This is not limited to the ‘elite’ level – indeed, we are all aware that while many of Timor-Leste’s laws, policies and institutions match international standards, the reality of how things work is often very different. Fundasaun Mahein has written previously of our concern that the behaviour of some elites reveals their disregard for the rule of law. However, the distance between formal rules and practical reality is widely understood, and official rules are routinely ignored by citizens and state officials alike, which helps to explain why elites can violate them with impunity.

Part of the explanation for the gap between formal rules and practical realities lies in the history of how Timor-Leste’s state institutions came into being. From 2000 to 2002, the United Nations and international development agencies oversaw the creation of the state of Timor-Leste. While there was some elite participation in the state-building process, the majority of Timorese people played almost no role. The adoption of a semi-presidential parliamentary system was based on the belief that this would be the most ‘democratic’ system for Timor-Leste. This ‘best practice’ approach to policy-making has continued during independence, with many of Timor-Leste’s laws and policies being more or less ‘copy-pasted’ from other countries, especially Portuguese-speaking ones, often with minimal public consultation or adaptation to Timor-Leste’s context.

While it is of course important that Timor-Leste’s laws and policies reflect international standards to the greatest extent possible, and that citizens and state officials abide by existing laws, we should also not expect policies and institutions adopted from other countries to function perfectly in Timor-Leste, especially given our specific historical, socio-economic and cultural context. Moreover, we believe that the instability of Timor-Leste’s governments, political deadlocks and inability to achieve substantial socio-economic improvement for the majority of our people is partly explained by the disconnect between existing social and political realities, and formal rules and procedures which were largely ‘imported’ from outside and exist mostly on paper. Experience has shown that at both elite and community levels, informal relationships and mechanisms are the most effective way of achieving results in Timor-Leste. Fundasaun Mahein thinks that political leaders must use this understanding to reach a new consensus on how to address Timor-Leste’s long-term problems.

Fundamental political challenges facing the country include personal conflicts between elites, contradictions between Timor-Leste’s formal institutions and informal realities and competing visions of economic development. There is also the question of reforming Timor-Leste’s Constitution and political system so that they are more adapted to Timorese people’s lived realities and needs. As our leaders know, the RDTL Constitution contains provisions for review after six (6) years, meaning that revisions are long overdue.

It is also important that these processes also involve popular participation and approval, rather than being simply implemented ‘top-down’ by elites, technocrats and foreign advisors. Any constitutional amendments or changes to the political system must be voted on by a referendum. Existing limitations of the public’s legal, political and administrative knowledge mean that popular consultations must also involve educating the people and explaining issues to them in ways which enable maximum comprehension and participation. While such changes come with risks, many countries have adapted or even completely changed their constitutions and political institutions, often with positive results.

However, before any such reforms are presented to the public, a new elite consensus to commit to working together to resolve these problems is needed. Therefore, Fundasaun Mahein calls on the President of the Republic to hold a series of roundtable discussions between maun bo’ot sira, with the set aim of reaching an agreement to work towards necessary political reforms. An essential aspect of the reform process is to prepare for the transfer of power to the younger generation, especially women leaders who have so far been mostly excluded from the highest political offices.

This process will necessarily take time, and must involve a wide variety of participants. But we believe that consensus between maun bo’ot sira is the necessary first step to enable the political reforms which can help Timor-Leste escape from the cycle of political instability and underdevelopment we have been trapped in since independence. In the meantime, the people of Timor-Leste are suffering daily from the effects of the floods, chronic poverty and disease, and the lack of basic infrastructure and services. Urgent measures are needed to address food security and other basic needs. Solidarity groups and some international organisations have been working hard to provide food, water supply and other assistance to people in need, but there are still thousands of people who have not yet received adequate assistance, especially in rural areas.

We therefore hope that the Government and its international partners can quickly deliver assistance and repair essential infrastructure and housing, while developing plans for mitigating future natural disasters. This can meet our people’s immediate needs, reduce social tensions, and allow space for our leaders to focus their efforts on finding a peaceful political consensus and the optimal path forward for the country.

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