Timor Leste: National reconciliation, amnesties and China’s astute economic moves

Updated On: Sep 25, 2007

Timor Leste has always been considered one of the UN’s successes for the temporary governing role it had in the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET)for the transition period to independence and elections from 1999 to 2002.

Thereafter UNTAET was succeeded by the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) to stabilize the handover process until 2005. Now, some tension has erupted between the UN and Timor Leste over the national peace and reconciliation process.

As with all new countries, Timor Leste’s emergence has been somewhat shaky as it tries to move on from its ravaged past. There has been an ongoing struggle between the need for justice to redress the crimes committed during the years of conflict and the amnesty necessary for national healing and reconciliation. The most recent difficulty involves the violence committed in the events surrounding the independence vote of 1999.

As it stands, the Indonesia-East Timor Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) has been established since 2005 to look into all the problems related to the past strife. However, this commission is intending to overreach its competence and pardon human rights violations through the giving of amnesty as it is not supposed to have prosecution powers. Hence, the UN is strongly displeased and has threatened to boycott the commission.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon had earlier announced in July that the UN would not participate in the commission unless it changed its mandate “to state that it has no authority to recommend amnesties for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or gross violations of human rights”. According to the evolving international law of conflict and the emerging universal jurisdiction on international crimes, gross human rights violations cannot be given amnesty so that victims can have a measure of rightful redress.

However, it seems that both Timor Leste and Indonesia are adamant on maintaining the commission’s powers. East Timorese’s President Jose Ramos-Horta president shrugged off the UN’s threat, saying that Ban’s statement was “not an official UN stance”, according to the Indonesian co-chairman of the commission, Benjamin Mangkudilaga. It is uncertain what the outcome of the commission’s findings will be as recommendations are already being drafted to resolve the issues of the electoral violence during the commission’s hearing this week.

As Timor Leste tries to move on from its bloody past, it has other domestic economic issues to contend with. Its extensive potential oil and gas reserves and glaring poverty have made it an easy target for energy-hungry countries. The spotlight has been recently shone on China which has been quietly strengthening bilateral ties with Timor Leste, on top of its widely-publicised deals with African states.

So far, China has given US$34 million (S$52 million) in financial aid since 2000. While the amount is small compared to major donors like Portugal and Australia; or the big development projects funded byJapanChina has been busy chalking up diplomatic brownie points by raising its profile and friendliness in Timor Leste’s capital, Dili. Moreover, China has been strongly urging the Chinese to increase their private investment and business in Timor Leste. Other economic plans include a “free trade area along the border between Indonesia and Timor Leste… to stimulate trade between Timor Leste and the nearby Indonesian islands of Larantuca, FloresMoluccas and Bali, which share many cultural affinities with Timor Leste”.

All this has rewarded China  – Chinese companies have been given the go-ahead to build Timor Leste’s hospitals as the health service expands. Other lucrative deals in the metals and energy industries are said to be in the wings. It is said that “China will finance the construction of a pipeline to transfer oil and gas from the interior of the country to the coast for onward transportation aboard Chinese vessels”.

The emergence of China in Timor Leste has not gone unnoticed. US security experts Samuel R. Berger and Eric P. Schwartz have sounded the alarm bells in a Boston Globe commentary –that if the US wants to regain its supremacy, it had better refocus its energies on regions where it matters, not Iraq.  (24 September 2007)


All the weaker, thanks to a greedy grab for oil (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2007)

E. Timor president shrugs off UN boycott threat (AFP, 22 September 2007)

The dragon's newest friend (Straits Times, 19 September 2007)

America's eroding global leadership (Boston Globe, 5 September 2007)

Related Article