During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the political situation in Timor-Leste was highly complex. Situated in the south east of the country, the coastal city of Bambuhan in the Bay Islands had been under Dutch rule for over a quarter of a century. However, the capture by the British in April 1997 by the Indonesian navy with the mandate to take control of the whole of East Timor led to the immediate demise of the Dutch government and replacement by an interim government headed by General Noriaki Haberuma. The new regime was immediately able to move forward in establishing a puppet state within the old colony. In September 1997 the plebiscitary election which was supervised by the then Indonesian president Sukarno took place at Bambuhan and brought about a major change in the political situation in Timor-Leste.
On the one hand, the new government introduced a series of policy changes aimed at improving the quality of living, especially for the rural poor. On the other, the introduction of a participatory constitutional system under which a directly elected council controlled all ministries and local government agencies and held regular municipal elections provided an opportunity for greater political participation by the local population. Moreover, the drafting of the constitution started off with the basic aim of creating a democratic polity in Timor-Leste, and, taking into account the demands of the Tamarin people, included aspects of representative and direct democracy. These two goals pursued through the course of the coming of the new constitution were instrumental in restoring peace and stability in Timor-Leste and ensuring its independence.
However, political developments in Timor-Leste in the later half of the twentieth century indicated a shift in the political landscape of the country. Incipient reforms such as the establishment of a national education system and a national healthcare system brought significant changes to the political situation in Timor-Leste. Political activity was restricted to the governing party, and social interaction between the rural poor and urban masses remained limited. In addition, the party apparatus remained highly bureaucratic and the process of participatory political debate and decision-making remained problematic. All these factors combined to impede the development of democratic structures within Timor-Leste.
Towards the end of the decade, political situations in Timor-Leste underwent a dramatic change with the formation of the People’s Republic of Indonesia (PRA) on the east coast of the Gold Coast, which received substantial support from the international community and the international trade regime. The initial periods of political turmoil in Timor-Leste were marked by a period of economic and social chaos, which came to be broadly misunderstood by the locals. In essence, the people of Timor-Leste were subjected to a series of policies which were designed to disempower the traditional structures of the rural population, replacing them with a new system of authoritarian rule, often described as “neo-liberalism”. As social debate became more prominent in the country, especially around rural issues, social discontent also spilled over into the cities, with large-scale demonstrations against the PRA occupying Gold Coast and other metropolitan areas of Australia.
The arrival of the PRA heralded the coming of an era of profound change in the political structure of Timor-Leste. In June of 1998, the newly established government ofarta took control of all public telecommunications and mass media, while announcing a new constitution for the country. The constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and a multiparietal society, including freedom of religion. However, the transition did not immediately succeed, as the new government quickly lost support, particularly in the regions where the bulk of the population lived. Political crisis was further exacerbated by widespread corruption, and widespread impunity, which facilitated the entry of armed groups into the region, exacerbating the already dangerous political situation in Timor-Leste.
In response to the worsening security situation, the international community adopted a series of measures, including economic and trade embargoes, restrictions on flights to Timor-Leste, and visa sanctions against those who were involved in the rebel activities. The measures were partly aimed at ensuring that the transitional governing body was able to deliver on its promises of greater democracy and greater economic growth, while maintaining a delicate balance with the local population. However, the measures were criticized by a number of South African leaders, who called for greater respect for human rights and a return to a past where racial discrimination and impunity were rife. There was also criticism from the Indonesian authorities, who considered the measures to be inconsistent with their own hard-line policy of intolerance towards illegal immigration, including through forced disappearances.
The Indonesian authorities also moved to crack down on the activities of the Timor-Leste guerilla movement, arresting a number of leaders and associates in the process. A number of other cities in Indonesia saw small-scale disturbances against the police, with citizens taking up arms in an attempt to protect the place from what they deemed to be an encroachment by the foreign forces. These actions were reportedly prompted by what they perceived to be excessive violence committed by the police during the 2021 crisis. According to human rights defenders in Timor-Leste, the police carried out widespread abuses against the Timor-Leste locals, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions. The reports came under harsh criticism not only by the International Red Cross but by independent international investigators as well.
Following the transfer of power to a technocratic government led by Jostie van Zuiden, the new government has put forward a number of programs designed to ensure greater equality and justice for all. However, despite the efforts of the transitional government, the situation in Timor-Leste is still fragile, and the road ahead will be long and difficult. The key issue is whether the timor-leste government can successfully push through changes that will guarantee the right of local ownership of resources and ensure true freedom of expression for the Timor people. What remains to be seen is how much progress can be made before major political problems are caused.