Jose Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, has returned home from Australia after being treated for injuries sustained in an attempt on his life on February 11. A crowd and a military parade welcomed him as he climbed down from the plane at Dili airport. He said he was glad to be back before driving to his beachside house. Instability continues to reign because of a weak economy and a massive housing shortage in a country where 10 percent of the population lives in camps for displaced persons.
President Ramos-Horta was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in February
East Timor is Asia’s youngest nation and the one with the most tragic history. Almost every family in the country has been displaced at one time or another in the past 30 years.
The Indonesian occupation in 1975 created the first wave of displacements, and then there was another wave in 1999 after Indonesia relinquished control of the region and there were democratic elections. A fresh round of violence in 2006 displaced between one and two hundred thousand people.
With the result that, today, one in ten East Timor’s population lives in camps scattered throughout the capital Dili and the rest of the country. But until their livelihoods outside are guaranteed, many displaced people prefer to remain within the fences of their camps.
Tackling root causes of violence
Scott Leckie is the director of Displacement Solutions, a non-profit organisation, which maintains the world’s only registry of housing, land and property rights experts with long-term experience working in post-conflict and post-disaster contexts. He says that the root causes for the 2006 violence remain and need to be addressed if the country is to ever achieve stability.
“There is tremendous inequality in the country, tremendous political instability; there are a whole range of unresolved crimes that took place at that time which have not been subjected to the normal criminal justice process. The government and others have not yet had the political courage necessary to make the hard decisions required to ensure that everybody that wishes to return home can do so.”
But Leckie is optimistic that if those hard decisions are made, East Timor, albeit very small and poor, could become extremely wealthy. The country has massive oil resources as well as minerals and a willing workforce.
Solving displacement problem
Experts predict that East Timor’s potential will only be reached, and investors will only come, when everyone has access to basic rights and services. The only way to achieve stability is to solve the displacement problem and introduce clear land laws.
“The government actually is in a position to make a big difference,” says Leckie, “but recent events -- the tragic shooting of the president Jose Ramos-Horta and a whole lot of other developments in the country have not been very positive -- there is not even a housing ministry in a country where 80 percent of the people lost their homes.”
He says, however, that with political will and forward-thinking, East Timor in five years could be very different.
President Ramos-Horta’s return to the country has brought East Timor one step closer to achieving stability but the government still faces an uphill struggle. 2,500 foreign troops and police officers are currently stationed in the country to help the government maintain security.