Restoring the Democratic Rule of Law, or Maintaining the Oligarchic Rule of the Deal?

Restoring the Democratic Rule of Law, or Maintaining the Oligarchic Rule of the Deal? post thumbnail image

Photo : Internet

This article discusses several recent controversies surrounding government decisions and practices and analyses their implications for Timor-Leste’s long-term stability and security. As these issues have directly affected the lives of thousands of Timorese citizens, while potentially jeopardising the overall security of the nation, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) believes that civil society has an essential duty to promote and contribute to public discussion on these critical issues. By publishing this information and commentary, FM does not aim to engage in personal attacks against individuals within the Government. Rather, we aim to draw attention to practices which FM and many others believe violate the principles enshrined in Timor-Leste’s Constitution and threaten the wellbeing and security of our people. By holding politicians to account, we hope to improve the performance and legitimacy of state institutions, thereby promoting justice, security and equitable development.

Many observers have noted that Timor-Leste currently stands at a critical juncture: numerous interlocking social, economic and political crises face the nation, including an imminent fiscal cliff, stagnant domestic economy, growing youth population, dysfunctional public services, weak rule of law and fragile security institutions. As a result of the lack of progress towards resolving these critical structural weaknesses, Timor-Leste was re-added to the World Bank’s list of “fragile states” in 2023.

FM observes that while Timor-Leste’s political leaders claim that they are committed to tackling the country’s most deep-seated and urgent problems, many of their actions point to a lack of urgency and seriousness. The IX Government has a stated commitment to “reestablishing the Democratic Rule of Law,” and is working towards developing an economic diversification strategy. However, since taking office in June 2023 it has been plagued by issues of corruption, abuse of power, and a glaring lack of transparency and adherence to the rule of law. Rather than seeing dramatic shifts in the style and system of governance, the public continues to witness a lack of accountability, misuse of public offices and resources for personal gain and partisan interests, and neglect of the people’s most urgent and basic needs.

Since the beginning of 2024, numerous reports drew attention to the crisis related to basic medications in the public health system. Initially, the medicine shortage led to the temporary closure of numerous health centres across the country. Reports have alleged that doctors received directives from the Ministry of Health instructing them not to refer patients to private pharmacies for medication purchases. This led to doctors issuing prescriptions anonymously, fearing repercussions for prescribing medicines from private clinics. Further exacerbating the medicine shortage, the Ministry did not renew the contracts of numerous experienced health workers, with these skilled professionals being replaced with less experienced counterparts.

The medicines shortage revealed a major scandal regarding the public contract for the supply of medicines to the National Hospital. In October 2023, the company Sali-Magu Lda. was awarded a $6 million contract by the Ministry of Health to provide medicines to the National Hospital through a “direct award” without competitive bidding. In December, the Minister of Health asserted publicly that Sali-Magu had procured medicines from abroad. However, the Customs Authority contradicted this claim, stating that the company was not registered to import medicines. The company later admitted that it had not imported any medicines, but rather had obtained them from private pharmacies within Timor-Leste. Disturbingly, reports have alleged that Sali-Magu acquired a significant quantity of these medicines from a private pharmacy affiliated with another senior public health official.

In addition to the crisis and controversy in the health system, the Ministry of Education failed to renew contracts for many teachers, which resulted in several protests in Dili. Many of these educators had worked voluntarily for years, while some contributed their personal time and resources to construct schools due to insufficient budget allocations from the government. The Government offered explanations for its decision and claimed that no public schools have been left without teachers as a result of the decision. However, FM has heard unconfirmed reports that public schools are indeed suffering from a shortage of teachers. Regardless, FM suspects that many in the public will see this incident as yet another example of the Government’s lack of care for the impacts of its decisions on ordinary’s people’s lives.

Another ongoing source of public controversy is that state officials conduct frequent overseas trips, bringing along large entourages and staying in luxury hotels. In a recent example of profligate spending on travel, the Government sent a delegation of over 120 people to Abu Dhabi for the WTO conference, with almost $1 million in public funds reportedly spent on per diems and flight tickets. Such practices seem to contradict the Government’s claim to be fiscally responsible and working to guarantee Timor-Leste future economic sustainability. Furthermore, the regular updates posted on social media showcasing leaders’ international engagements contrast sharply with the depressing realities of people’s lives on the ground, as a large proportion of the Timorese population continues to live in squalid conditions with inadequate sanitation, nutrition and incomes.

The politicisation of security institutions continues unabated, as illustrated by the replacement of respected heads of departments with individuals lacking credibility due to their known history of abuses of power and irregularities. On the other hand, heads of departments who are known to have been involved in major irregularities have remained in their posts, with no action taken. This trend not only undermines institutional integrity and the state’s popular legitimacy, but also heightens the risk of corruption within state structures. FM is extremely troubled by our observation that numerous rank-and-file members of the security forces are dissatisfied with the political leadership of F-FDTL, National Intelligence Service and the Ministries of Defence and Interior. They perceive that decisions are often influenced by personal agendas and partisan interests rather than supporting the security institutions to enhance their capabilities and fulfil their missions. Past experiences teach us that divisions within the state security apparatus can quickly lead to political instability. This is especially true at times when the public is expressing frustration with the government and socio-political fault-lines such as party loyalties and regionalism are also present.

As FM wrote recently, the Government’s handling of the Naktuka border issue with Indonesia further exemplifies how decisions are often made without adequate community consultation. While the Prime Minister has stated that the final border agreement will respect the wishes of communities, doubts linger over whether the border issue has already been decided without public input. The lack of adequate community consultation on the border issue highlights the need for political leaders to adhere to democratic principles. Many observers have written that “public consultation” in Timor-Leste usually takes the form of “socialisation,” whereby state officials merely explain to communities what the government has already decided to do. Timor-Leste’s leaders must recognise the importance of substantive engagement with local communities before making decisions that directly impact their lives and livelihoods. Without such consultation, not only will policies negatively affect people’s living conditions, but by alienating citizens and perpetuating a sense of disenfranchisement, such decisions can contribute to social unrest and instability.

Furthermore, the arbitrary enforcement of laws, such as the aggressive removal of illegal buildings with the help of security forces, reveals both a lack of consistency in the application of regulations and a worrying authoritarian approach to issues of urban management. While the removal of unauthorised structures may be legally justified, the arbitrary nature of enforcement without providing immediate alternatives or long-term plans traumatises citizens and destroys livelihoods. While technically illegal, these structures represent the initiatives of hard-working people to create small businesses in the absence of state regulation and opportunities in the formal economy. The sudden imposition of the law without consideration of the socio-economic implications of the intervention highlights the need for a more thoughtful and humane approach.

Past experiences which involving the “clearing” of informal markets soon before the arrival of large foreign delegations also causes us to question the motivation behind the current drive to enforce laws on public order, hygiene and illegal structures. Is it a genuine effort to uphold the rule of law and ensure public safety, or is it simply designed to create a “clean” image for elites and foreign visitors such as Pope Francis who plans to visit Timor-Leste later in the year? The Government’s decision to allocate $12 million in public funds to prepare the country for the Pope’s visit further suggests that the state prioritises its own image with foreign dignitaries over the wellbeing and livelihoods of its own citizens. By way of comparison, this amount of money is about half the amount allocated in the 2024 state budget for improving water and sanitation access for the entire population. Another $15 million was allocated to the Timorese Episcopal Conference in 2024 – FM wonders how this donation of public money to an already wealthy institution benefits the lives of ordinary Timorese people.

Current political leaders are skilled at promoting their image and activities to the public, but despite promises to implement reforms which prevent corruption, nepotism and waste, the same old practices continue until today. Over the years, hundreds of millions – even billions – of dollars of public funds have been spent on projects with no oversight and few tangible benefits to ordinary people’s lives, while a few politically-connected people have become rich. The state’s transparency and accountability mechanisms – which should prevent these failures and abuses – are not functioning as intended. Cases against some individual politicians have gone forward, but many other known cases have never been prosecuted. Moreover, the National Parliament passed the Anti-Corruption Law in 2020, but the judicial system has not been empowered to implement this law.

As a result of the flagrant abuses of public office, extravagant government spending on travel and vanity projects, and lack of improvement in people’s living conditions, public frustration and anger are mounting. Timorese citizens are increasingly demanding that politicians take swift actions to combat corruption, curb wasteful spending, and end arbitrary decision-making that neglects the impact on ordinary people’s lives. To demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and democracy, the Government must address citizens’ concerns. At the same time, it is critical to end discriminatory practices and arbitrary decisions which harm institutional integrity and long-term capacity building efforts, particularly in the security sector. By responding to these issues in good faith, political leaders can improve public confidence and ensure that security and stability are maintained in the short-term. This can then facilitate the implementation of strategies which can build a peaceful, prosperous and secure future for all Timor-Leste’s people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Post