People Deserve Answers, not Insults in Oecusse
Last month a team from FM carried out security sector and safety awareness training with over 50 students and youth in Oecusse. Our staff always enjoy undertaking outreach programs in Oecusse because it gives them an opportunity to see first hand some of the major development projects being undertaken through the ZEESM TL Initiative, and also to hear from the Oecusse People, who are often forgotten within the socio-political community of Dili. From this perspective, FM was disappointed to experience a general negativity from within the broader Oecusse Community, and to hear many peoples’ frustrations, concerns and disappointments with the political and development process there.
Firstly, people related to FM concerns regarding their security and safety in the communities of Naktuka, Leolbatan, Suin-Sia, Baki-Tolas and some areas of the South Village – areas where the frontier is still disputed between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Despite the ongoing tension and insecurity in these communities, the resolution of national territorial borders, the reconciliation between conflicting communities and the effective patrolling of East-Timorese territory has yet to be properly finalized and implemented (refer to our blog here for more information). It is sadly ironic that Timorese citizens live with daily insecurity in these regions, but unlike the vacant and uninhabited area within the Tasi-Mane, they receive no support from the public in the form of mass political protests and rallies in the capital Dili, have no specific website established to advocate for them, and rarely rate a mention when our leaders talk about “full national sovereignty.” Is it therefore overly cynical to think that our political leaders are more concerned with the rights of mineral resources than they are over the small peoples’ right to live free from fear and threat?
Which leads us to the separate concerns voiced to us in Oecusse regarding the competency and probity of the ZEESM TL Project’s Administration. While most people we talked to supported the ZEESM TL concept, many people also related to FM their anger regarding its implementation, its affects on their livelihoods, the lack of local benefits, and their belief in widespread nepotism and corruption in its financial management. It is true that many of these claims are anecdotal, however a recent review from the Provedoria dos Direitos Humanos e Justiça (PDHJ) has confirmed that two ZEESM Projects, the road-widening (Alargamentu Estrada) and Irrigation Network (Barazen Tono), have indeed resulted in suffering by members of the community in regards to losses of homes and livelihoods, and highlighted the failures of the ZEESM TL Authority to properly consult, socialize and partner with the local community.
The separate accusations of financial impropriety and nepotism have been strongly denied by the President of the Authority, Dr Mari Alkatiri, who has suggested a political agenda for his accusers who have “allied with the devil”. He has also pointed to the fact that the Comissão Nacional Aprovizionamentu has reviewed and cleared him of any irregularities.
Without clear evidence of these claims, Dr. Alkatiri is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and he is also probably correct in suggesting a political agenda is at play. However, it is also important to acknowledge that even false accusations or rumors of impropriety can generally only arise when there exists legitimate community frustrations and inadequate public transparency in Government.
The financial scope of the ZEESM TL initiative, amounting this year to 218 million dollars (roughly equivalent to the entire spending on National Health and Education combined), the exclusion of this funding from the Government’s regular procurement and accountability systems, and the broad Czar-like powers provided to its unelected President and Advisory Council means that the East-Timorese people should have every right to be suspicious, particularly when they don’t see any benefits of projects within their community. Therefore, rather than dismissing them, the President of the Authority should acknowledge such suspicions are the direct result of the Authority’s own failures to implement open and transparent governance, and immediate seek to better engage with the community.
Instead of calling those who accuse him of nepotism as being “allied with the devil” could he instead command the ZEESM TL Authority to produce regular financial reports and presentations for the public showing clearly how and where their money was spent? Instead of saying that the negative commentary is just “politics in the lead-up to the 2017 election” could he instead increase the level of public consultation and discussion within communities surrounding the Projects – recognizing, documenting and resolving the peoples’ concerns?
As we approach the election in 2017 there will no doubt be many more accusations hurled between politicians in an attempt to stir up the people and win power, but the way responsible politicians must respond is not by throwing the insults back, but rather to increase public openness, transparency and accountability, and further engage with the public through consultation and education – or as ZEESM TL itself has declared in its strategic goals, “Include every Timorese family as a participant or shareholder in the development process.”
To this end FM once again calls for greater public transparency, accountability from public institutions and our political leaders, and the adoption of rational, evidence-based debate in the politics of Timor-Leste.
Furthermore, FM recommends that:
1. The Government accelerate its negotiations on the demarcation of the border lines in order to minimize conflict between communities in the border areas in Oecusse. The Government should also facilitate local reconciliation processes for the communities on both sides in order to settle grievances and tensions across borders.
2. Both the ZEESM TL Authority and the Government acknowledge and respond to the PDHJ’s Review, outlining how they will implement its recommendations, particularly in regards to increasing the level of community engagement and Parliamentary oversight with ZEESM TL Projects.