Timor specialists gathered at Charles Darwin University on Monday (November 13) to deliver their research findings on the problems besetting the troubled young nation.
The seminar Crisis in Timor-Leste: Understanding the Past, Imagining the Future was organised by Charles Darwin University academics, who were joined by researchers and political science students from the Australian National University.
In a day-long seminar the researchers and political scientists discussed the long list of problems that prevent the Timorese from enjoying the kind of hoped for prosperity that independence had signalled in 2002.
Among the problems highlighted by the speakers were the shortage of trained labour, the inexperience of bureaucrats, the under-developed financial system, the lack of land and forestry management, internal political unrest and corruption and the diplomatic tensions between Timor and Australia.
ANU emeritus professor Ron May told the seminar that Australia’s interventionist policies in young, fragile nations such as Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were often badly thought out and had unintended adverse consequences.
Dr May said Australian diplomacy often followed the American model of intervention in failing states, but this approach was too often done with a lack of information about the political climate and culture.
‘Intervention is difficult and you’ve got to approach it with sensitivity, something that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of this country are not strong on,’ he said.
He said relationships could quickly deteriorate if the protocols of intervention were badly handled, leading to ‘silly’ issues escalating into major diplomatic rows.
CDU researcher Kate Reid-Smith raised the fear that China was developing its links with Timor, and could exert its naval influence in the sea lanes between Timor and Australia.
She said China was also looking to expand its early warning satellite systems on Timorese land, and was seeking closer diplomatic ties. She said Australia had to come to grips with China becoming a major player in this part of the world.
‘Timor may prove the pearl in China’s South-East Asia crown,’ she said.
The hope for Timor’s prosperity lies with its extensive oil and gas fields in the sea lanes, which could yield as much as $17 billion in revenue over the next 20 to 24 years, according to ANU doctoral researcher Jennifer Drysdale.
However, Ms Drysdale warned that a lack of experience among those charged with financial responsibility for redistributing the oil and gas revenues was already limiting economic development in other areas.
‘In many cases the money’s still in the bank,’ she said. ‘Literacy is low in Timor, but fiscal literacy is even lower.’
CDU researcher Rod Nixon, who recently completed a land and forestry survey in Timor, said there was a need for strong management policies to enable the establishment of plantation and other forestry industries.
He said coffee was the major export crop, but cultivation practices were rustic and coffee plants were aging and to some extent diseased.
There was also a high degree of rorting and corruption in the management and ownership of land, with no Ministerial interest in tackling corruption in previously State-owned land that had lapsed into private ownership.
Download the symposium paper, 'Timor-Leste: patterns of violence in a post-conflict society' (.pdf).