Editorial: Timor-Leste’s Critical Juncture

Editorial Omong-Omong

3 min read

Whoever wins the April 19 run-off — Jose Ramos-Horta or Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres — he must unite the politically-fractured Timor-Leste, leading the nation to focus on preparing its younger generation to take over the nation’s leadership, enhancing creativity and skills of the country’s youths by forging crash programs in education and training, while cultivating creative economy and tourism to diversify the nation’s incomes rather than relying forever on dwindling oil revenue and allowing itself entangling in real politicking.

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While falling short of winning the presidency outright, former president and Nobel laureate Ramos-Horta is a heavy favorite to win a showdown with his old rival Guterres and capture Timor-Leste’s top job in the second round after securing nearly 47 percent of votes in the first round of the presidential election of Asia’s youngest nation.

Horta’s first round votes are more than twice the share of incumbent Guterres, who only garnered 22 percent of total votes. The poll will proceed to a runoff on April 19.

If 72-year-old Horta wins the presidency he has a tiny window of opportunity — most likely his final chance — to take back the nation he co-created to the right track.

The first thing he should do is forging the unity of the nation, making sure that he mend his relations with the opposition leaders, especially Guterres and Mari Alkatiri, the brain behind Timor-Leste’s oldest and biggest party, Fretilin, or at least he should make sure they play a role in whole Timor-Leste’s nation building.

This is a very delicate matter and not an easy job to accomplish giving the indication that Xanana Gusmao, still the country’s most influential leader and Horta’s biggest backer, seems determined with his intents to dissolve the current parliament and alienating Fretilin further.

However, Horta has always been a world-class negotiator with his impeccable role in the United nations and international diplomacy allowed Timor-Leste to get world support for independence in the first place.

He should be able to find a way convince all the figures to work together for the progress of the nation they all love and fight for. With his statesmanship, Horta should make it clear that he is only there for one term and that his main aim is to lay solid foundation for the country to progress further.

For their parts, both Xanana and Alkatiri are all battle-tested leaders whose aim should only be for their nation to survive and thrive. The three of them will find a middle ground and put aside short-term political gains for the betterment of Timor-Leste which they created with blood, sweat and tears. All of it will be useless if people of Timor-Leste continue to live in poverty and misery.

Twenty years of political wrangling, a wasted time that should have been use for laying foundation for the nation to move further, should be enough for them to realise that they have almost burned down the house, and that they have sacrificed people’s trust for their own interests.

Two decades since it gained its independence from Indonesia, nearly half of Timor-Leste’s population of 1.3 million still lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to the United Nations, with half of children under the age of 5 suffering physical and mental stunting as a result of malnutrition.

This is what Horta and others should be focusing on solving.

Other priority should be on enhancing the country’s human capital because Timor-Leste is a small country with limited natural resources.  Most of the country’s income comes from it US$19 billion sovereign fund, which is rapidly depleting because every year the government withdraws more than its investment returns.

Before it runs out Horta must find other sources of income. He still has more than a decade to achieve them. He must act now to invest in human capital and the country’s service industry, especially tourism. If he can’t turn Timor-Leste into a tax-heaven then he can turn his country into an international tourist hub, linking it to Bali and Lombok, as the first or final destination of the cluster.

But above all Horta must start to invest in educating and training the nation’s youth, comprising of more than half of Timor-Leste population, because no country in the world, especially as small as Timor-Leste, can survive without having smart, creative and educated people. He should turn his young people into a tech-savvy guys. Great examples, including Singapore to a bigger nations, like South Korea, all thrive because they invest heavily in education.

Focusing and investing in education and tourism will partly solve the problem of having around 60 percent population in working age,  with only 19 percent had jobs.

It’s a tall task but with the right planning, political willingness and sound diplomacy, Horta can get help from other nations, including Indonesia and Australia, to achieve these noble ends.

Indonesia, for its part, should want his former colony to thrive, and should want to take part in this path, because after all, it’s in its backyard, and China and Australia are already there to insert its influence. It will an unnecessary headache for Indonesia if Timor-Leste was relying on particular country. Furthermore, it is in Timor-Leste that Indonesia has considerable influence because many, if not most, Timor-Leste people still use Indonesian language.

With increasing quality of labor forces, foreign investment will gradually arrive also.

In another 20 years Timor-Leste can become the region’s hub for creativity and technology if Horta can strike the right deals today.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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