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Horta’s vision for East Timor

Horta’s vision for East Timor

By Nina Hall

President José Ramos Horta has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the past few months after an attempt on his life that left him close to death. He has recently surfaced from a coma and from the problems his country faces. I spoke with the President late last year about Timor’s future. He acknowledged the many problems that Timor faced: from high rates of illiteracy, maternal mortality and a high proportion of young people to ongoing political instability – which led to the attempted assassination on the president and the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao.

But Horta is an optimist. Across the books piled high on his desk he outlined his positive visions for East Timor. He talked of Timorese taking initiatives to create a truly representative democracy.

Horta explained to me his proposal to establish a national youth parliament that would give the large cohort of young people legislative power. The parliament would be a permanent body that could pass binding legislation. Young people would be elected to represent their districts and there would be an 50/50 split of young women and men that meet several times a year when the national parliament was in recess. The youth parliament would have power to pass binding legislation and work in the 13 districts which make up East Timor.

Horta’s proposal would empower young people who played a crucial role in the resistance movement. In the 1990s those who went to study in Indonesia organised a student movement to educate their fellow Indonesians students and pressure the Indonesian government to change its policy on East Timor. Young people, predominantly men, are now flooding into Dili, the capital city of Timor, to look for work and education opportunities. Many study English to complement the national languages Tetun and Portuguese and the widely spoken Indonesian. Horta’s proposal for a youth parliament would give these young people a chance to directly shape their country’s future.

Since independence in 1999 Timorese women have also taken initatives to gain representation in national parliament and district councils. In 2001 they formed a national coalition of NGOs to lobby the UN for a quota to guarantee the inclusion of women in parliament. Although the UN rejected this proposal, Timorese women organised training for female candidates and got political leaders, including José Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao, to support women’s inclusion in politics. President Horta reccounted to me that in his visits to the districts, he often asks Timorese people ‘Would you vote for a woman to be president of this country?’. He found that ‘the vast majority 99 percent of the people I address, never see any problem with having a woman as the head of this country’.

The result can be seen in the election results: in 2001 women won 25 percent of the seats, and in 2007 they won 29.2 percent of the seats. Last year a woman, Lucia Lobato, also stood for President. This is remarkable feat for such a new country where traditionally women had no place in formal political institutions. In fact, Timor currently has the highest percentage of women in parliament of any country in South East Asia, outstripping Indonesia (11.6 %) Australia (26.7%) and ranks close to New Zealand (33.1%). In the first government the second most senior position: Minister for State Administration was held by a woman, Ana Pessoa.

Women are also gaining representation on traditional local village councils. In 2004 the Timorese government passed a law that guaranteed the election of three women on every Suco (village) council. Although positions on the suco councils were traditionally not open to women a quota of three women, including one young woman, changed this. Now there is even a case of a woman xefe de suco (village chief).

Outside of formal political institutions women have voiced the need to address domestic violence. They have organised a national campaign and lobbied successsfully for domestic violence legislation. Through local NGOs, such as Fokupers, they have set up shelters for survivors of domestic violence. Horta has supported this movement by speaking out against domestic violence and supporting the annual 16 days campaign against gender-based violence - he even features on the 2007 campaign poster, standing with his arms held up in a cross.

What is significant is that these initiatives are largely Timorese driven. Since 1999 East Timor has been overrun with international NGOs, UN agencies and other international organisations. Their presence is hard to miss: every second car in Dili has a UN logo on it. These organisations bring much needed funds and expertise for development; however they also can also fuel dependency on international aid. In the long-term as a fully independent state, Timor needs to elaborate its own visions for creating a representative and equal democracy. These initiatives illustrate how it is beginning to do so.

Timor, like Horta, is on a rocky road to recovery. It still faces many critical issues: from the need to relocate thousands of internally displaced peoples currently camped in Dili, to ensuring a constant supply of electricity (when I was visiting there were daily power-cuts that lasted for hours).

The reality in Timor is complex: although the large majority of Timor’s 1.1 million people live in remote rural areas and survive off agriculture, the Timorese government last year were unable to spend all their budget. However, there are also positive signs of progress that should be acknowledged. Timorese, from the political elite to those in the districts, are outlining how they want their democracy to operate. Women are now increasingly represented on village councils and within the national parliament.

And in an international ground-breaking move, young people may also get their chance if Horta is able to recover and put in place the youth parliament.


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