Analysis: Tough task to tackle corruption in East Timor

DILI, East Timor — Over the past year or so in East Timor, a slew of top officials have been implicated in corruption scandals.

The justice minister was charged with influencing government contracts; the finance minister was criticized for allegedly giving jobs to her friends; and one of the country’s deputy prime ministers was accused of misusing power by giving his wife a well-paid U.N. job.

The list goes on. The ruling coalition maintains that these allegations are based on half-truths and misinformation, while opposition lawmakers accuse the government of whitewashing the issues. Stuck in the middle are the country’s 1.1 million people, who often don’t know what to think.

The tiny nation of East Timor has only been formally independent since 2002 after a savage occupation by the Indonesian army that caused more than 100,000 deaths and in 1999 saw the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure.

Many are hopeful that the country has finally broken its cycle of falling back into strife every two years, as the past 25 months have seen the country's longest period of peace and stability in recent memory.

But, as the government plans to up spending more than $5 billion of oil wealth, corruption has become a hot topic in the capital, Dili. The government is under pressure to push on with development in key areas, such as infrastructure and education, while retaining the trust of the people in the face of fiery political bickering and a gaggle of gung-ho local journalists.

In an effort to show they are cleaning up their act, the government has established a new Anti-Corruption Commission. The commission will deal solely with corruption cases, which used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman for Human Rights.

The commission must now achieve concrete results — and fast — to justify its existence. The stakes are high in the run up to a general election in two years. Unless they see action and closure on the cases they read about in the press, the people of East Timor will be left in the dark.

None of the recent corruption allegations have been proven in court and each “scandal” has fizzled out.

Sebastiao Ximenes, East Timor’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, said from his office in Dili that he handed over 28 cases of corruption during his first term to the prosecutor general’s office, but not one has made it to court yet.

He attributes this oversight to an ill-equipped justice system that is struggling to get through thousands of backlogged cases.

“We cannot expect more from this commission if we don’t change or make a new strategy to develop the prosecutor general’s office, in particular how to provide more resources like human resources or maybe financial resources, recruit more prosecutors and provide special training on corruption issues,” he said.

The Anti-Corruption Commission must now pick up where Ximenes left off, but it won’t be an easy task.

The government has in the past lacked effective oversight and disciplinary measures, as was evident last year when Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao shifted $70 million of unused cash from a heavy oil project over to 774 small infrastructure projects dotted around the country.

The projects were dished out with no tenders and money was paid to a body created by Julio Alvaro, head of the Business Forum of East Timor, to be disbursed to contractors. This led to an alleged discrepancy of $3 million and accusations of shoddy work done by contractors, some of which are part-owned by Alvaro.

Dinora Grandineira, director of East Timor’s NGO Forum, said it was a “learning experience” for the government, albeit an expensive one.

“[U]nplanned, off-budget, unspecified, poorly-overseen small projects cannot substitute for a national infrastructure plan which identifies priority needs and projects and integrates them into [East Timor]’s national requirements,” she said in a statement earlier this month.

Mario Carrascalao, East Timor’s other deputy prime minister, defended the prime minister's decision. “The idea of the prime minister was to give a chance to small enterprises in the districts and sub-districts to give them an opportunity to get some money and also to create jobs there,” he said.

“The idea I believe is fine, but there was no planning, no management system created to deal with it and no evaluation of the capabilities of the enterprises that received the projects,” he added. “So a few were done well, but for most of them the quality was very low.”

A government team has been investigating the quality of the projects while the office of the prosecutor general is looking into the missing money.

Looking to the future, a lot is riding on this Anti-Corruption Commission, which is supposed to keep the government and civil service in check.

Christopher Samson, head of Timorese anti-corruption watchdog LABEH, said education is key.

“If we start now teaching our children how to stop corruption, implanting good governance, trying to put anti-corruption in the national curriculum, we will have people who are already a different culture of behavior,” he said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Carrascalao has been firing daggers, saying the commission probably won’t even be operational until next year.

“I don’t believe this is the real solution. ... Corruption comes from many sources in the government, so we have to know what is wrong in the government. One thing that is wrong is the administration. There are too many holes where people can put their hands,” he said.

Samson from LABEH said Carrascalao's stance is counter-productive.

“The Anti-Corruption Commission that has the competence to draw the line on the strategy that the nation will use to fight against corruption,” he said. “As a deputy prime minister, the people want to see action that you have put in place, what have you done? People don’t want to hear gossip,” he added.

It remains to be seen how effective the commission will be — and for the people of East Timor, who are left without answers and without leadership they know they can trust, the unanswered questions continue to pile up.

Matt Crook is an English journalist currently based in Dili, East Timor. He has been based in Southeast Asia for five years, and has also reported from Thailand and Indonesia.