Horta’s vision for East Timor


Thursday, 15 May 2008, 12:35 pm

Article: Nina Hall

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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