August 31, 2017 10:00 am JST

Progress on the bumpy road to democracy

East Timor provides a small but timely example of the power of the ballot box

CURTIS S. CHIN

Electoral workers empty a ballot box as votes are counted during the parliamentary election in Dili on July 22. © AP

A decade ago, I traveled to East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, to look at the condition of roads and other infrastructure in Asia's newest country. I was working with the Asian Development Bank at the time, and returned in 2010 for a follow-up visit. It was not until July this year that I returned again -- this time as an independent election observer, to witness firsthand the country's ongoing journey to democracy.

Just like the country's roads, that voyage remains a work in progress, undoubtedly with more bumps and twists along the way. But in a world awash with cynicism, and with democracy under pressure in so many countries, I found hope in this young nation of some 1.2 million people.

The parliamentary election that I observed and a presidential poll held in March were the first run without international assistance since a United Nations mission left in 2012. A Portuguese colony for 273 years until 1975, East Timor was forcibly occupied by neighboring Indonesia until 1999, and regained its independence only in 2002 after a transition administered by the U.N.

My election day began before dawn, to the sound of roosters, in the small mountain town of Ainaro, where I stayed in a guesthouse a short walk from a beautiful colonial church. For most of the day, with my interpreter Arianto, our driver Angelo and a smartphone app that showed polling stations, I traveled on roads good and bad, and crossed rivers on bridges new and old, throughout the region.

Ainaro district, some 4-5 hours' drive from the capital Dili, is a special place. Here, Xanana Gusmao, who would become the first president of East Timor, spent many years directing resistance to Indonesian occupation. During World War II, Ainaro was where Imperial Japan's efforts to conquer this region came to an end.

In contrast to the mayhem and violence back then, the scenes I saw were festive and peaceful. Voters waited quietly at polling stations that opened promptly at 7 a.m. Until the polls closed early afternoon I saw voters coming on foot, by motorcycle and by bus or truck to cast their votes. Young or old, each showed a voter identification card, had his or her name confirmed on voter rolls and entered an election booth to mark a choice from some 21 political parties. A nail was provided to punch a hole in the ballot. Afterward, each voter dipped an index finger into a well of indelible ink to help prevent double voting.

Weeks later, national pride in what happened on that sunny Saturday election day can still be sensed, even as political parties jockey for position in the formation of a new government. "Once again, we have shown the world that Timor-Leste is a democratic country," my interpreter, and now friend, Arianto Martins de Jesus told me. "The election has brought new hope for Timor-Leste's people, no matter who leads the government."

As with all governments -- democratically elected or not -- a key challenge will be delivering on people's hopes. Running an election can be the easy part, in contrast to forming a government and running a country. But hope there is, even if at first glance East Timor is struggling on several fronts. Poverty remains high, as does youth unemployment. Oil and gas reserves, the government's primary source of revenue, could well be depleted by 2022.

Yet notable strides have been made in the last decade to improve living conditions and increase economic opportunities. The Dili I visited in July is a far cry from the one I first saw a decade ago. Plans for East Timor's first internationally branded hotel, a Hilton, have just been announced, and the international franchises Burger King and Gloria Jean's Coffees are already in Dili. The infant mortality rate has almost halved since East Timor regained independence, and malaria cases have declined dramatically. Although not all in the region yet agree, East Timor's accession to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is richly deserved, and would help to lock in progress.

Before making the long road trip back to the capital after election day, I stopped in the old church in Ainaro and caught the start of Sunday service. Much was in the local language, but now and then I heard the word "Alleluia." Praise and celebration were certainly in order. There may be challenging times ahead for East Timor, but the country's commitment to the rule of law, peace and democracy bodes well for its future. This tiny young nation is an example to much larger neighbors which are still struggling, or even stalling, on their own bumpy paths to democracy.

Curtis S. Chin is managing director of RiverPeak Group, an advisory firm, and served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.

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