Why has East Timor built the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia?
Part of a series of blogs on Democracy in Southeast Asia and South Asia.
At first glance, East Timor does not seem like the most natural place to have built a democracy classified by Freedom House, in its 2021 edition of Freedom in the World, as “free”. In fact, this ranking makes East Timor the only country in Southeast Asia, where democracy has been declining for more than a decade, to be classified “Free” by Freedom House. (I am a consultant for some Freedom House reports, but not for the East Timor report.)
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A wide range of other data and anecdotes suggest how far East Timor has come towards democracy. He built a solidly free state about two decades after Timor was razed to the ground in the conflict that erupted in 1999, after more than 78% of Timorese voted to separate from Indonesia after the dictatorship ended. by Suharto.
This 1999 conflict in Timor, led by devastating militias backed by Indonesian security forces, not only killed around 2,600 people, but also destroyed much of the infrastructure in Little Timor, which was already one of the places the poorest in Asia. Timor was again ravaged in 2006 by clashes between its own soldiers and the security forces. Timor has rebuilt some of its infrastructure and received significant amounts of foreign aid and a share of oil revenues in the Timor Gap.
Yet it remains the poorest country in Asia, far from the skyscrapers of Bangkok or Singapore. Indeed, an article by Jonas Guterres, former advisor to the Office of the Commissioner at the Timor-Leste Anti-Corruption Commission, notes that: “The 2017 World Hunger Index categorized the [East Timor’s] hunger levels as “severe”, although over the past decade the level of hunger has been reduced from 46.9 percent to 34.3 percent. Levels of malnutrition and stunting remain worrisome. “
And Timor certainly still has huge economic problems. With its share of Timor Gap oil its biggest source of income, which will eventually shrink, and Timor’s small size and remoteness discouraging tourism even before COVID-19, it is still looking for more sustainable drivers of the economy. The vast majority of the population is under 30, which could be a boon for the workforce but could also lead to the country having large numbers of unemployed young men, a situation that is still dangerous.
And yet, he took several important initiatives to build a consolidated democracy. Timor brought elections down to the community level as physical infrastructure improved and community level elections increased popular participation in democracy. Overall, both the long struggle for independence and more recent efforts by civil society and Timorese leaders have convinced many Timorese of the importance of democracy, and voter turnout is extremely high. With such public interest and increasingly improved election commissions, elections have been held in recent years with little or no violence and minimal or no irregularities.
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He has also worked hard to ensure that women play a major role in elections and governance. And its constitution and standards provide strong protections for civil society and independent media, a far cry from the recent crackdown on journalists in neighboring states like Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia, among other countries in the region. Small but aggressive local media pose tough questions to politicians in Timor.
Indeed, Freedom House notes that East Timor has held competitive elections and suffered multiple transfers of power – which cannot be said about many other Southeast Asian states these days. Freedom House also notes that East Timor prides itself on having independent media, a vibrant civil society, and strong citizen discussions on government and other related issues.
At a time when Burma is taken by the army, Indonesia is moving away from democracy, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seems to want to extend his grip on power, and Thailand is ruled by a military regime, perhaps. be those parts of Southeast Asia. the authorities should turn to little Timor to know how to run a democracy.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel project on the future of democracy.