In Spite of His Resignation as Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão Remains the Epicenter of Timor-Leste’s National Development.

By: Alexandre Rosa Bruno Sarmento

Whether it is acceptable or not, Xanana has resigned from his post as Prime Minister. The resignation would eventually come, but few people expected it would come at this stage. The questions to ask are “Can Timor-Leste really move forward without Xanana at the helm?” and “has this resignation come at the right moment?”

The good news is that in spite of his resignation which saw him moving down the ladder to being just a minister, it is likely that Xanana will continue to play a pivotal role in most of the government’s political agenda. He will continue to be the epicenter, and the main driving force behind most of government’s development policies. Additionally, given his caliber of knowledge, vast array of experiences and leadership, it is inevitable that Xanana would still be consulted in many important and strategic decisions of the government thus making everything revolve around him and flow out from his vision.

It is feasible for Timor-Leste to function without Xanana at the top provided he continues to share inspiration and guidance, even if it is not from the top. This resignation could not have come at a better time than when the present government is halfway through its mandate. It opens up a new beginning in the manner in which government is managed by letting the next generation take over the leadership role while Xanana is exiting in a gradual process. This is a transition of power from the hands of a more experienced senior-influential-historic leader (the so-called generation 75) to a less experienced, less charismatic generation, yet certainly a generation with equal dedication and spirit of service to the nation.

Most segments in Timor-Leste understandably will feel the loss of Xanana’s leadership, particularly those who have enjoyed getting big contracts awarded to them at the mercy of his generous heart but also the general public, common people in rural villages who regarded him, the only big brother, who can bring them out of their poverty. Some veteran’s groups even threatened to take to the road if Xanana’s resignation pushes ahead.

Xanana always listens to his people. He lives and becomes one with them enduring bullets, sunlight, rain and cold in Timor’s mountains and forests for over seventeen years. He gives everything of himself to protect and defend his people. Yet, in spite of his tremendous individual sacrifices that gave impetus to Timor’s independence, he claims “Timor-Leste owes its independence to its people”. Xanana was born to fight and die for his people. He draws his power and strength as a ruler from his people. Vox Populi Vox Dei, Vox Populi Suprema Lex – (the voice of the people is the voice of God, The voice of the people is the highest law) – and the people once again have spoken. They all shouted in chorus: “Maun Boot (Big brother), please, we beg you, don’t step down!. If it’s not you, who else?” Then Xanana responded saying: “My people, if it’s not now, when?”.

Xanana is an excellent leader but he cannot be a leader forever. Nature will eventually take its course. It is due to this fact that Xanana has made his choice. Nonetheless, this is a choice that will give his successor a very hard time because he has set a very high standard of what it means to be a Prime Minister in Timor-Leste. It is one where you have to keep a very delicate balancing act at all time, through provision of equal opportunities to all.

The challenges are numerous, but one that will always haunt a prime minister every night before he sleeps is how best to use the country’s rich petroleum resources in a sustainable fashion to benefit all Timorese, especially those who are poor and feel disenfranchised. What is at stake is how to make development more inclusive through a more participatory process and to avoid a situation where even simple menial works are done by Filipinos, Chinese and Indonesians with Timorese simply becoming a bystander.

Timor-Leste is probably the only country in the world where even toothpicks are imported. If Timor-Leste will have to import most of its consumer goods for many more years to come, for God’s sake, let toothpicks not be one of them. This is a challenge to all Timorese, particularly leaders of private sector and economists who are sometimes too academic and theoretical, lacking pragmatism in their approach.  The toothpick case is but an example of a broader fundamental problem Timor-Leste is facing i.e. the lack of capacity for domestic production, the cost of labor, and its implications for employment and “capital flight” from the non-petroleum sector. A flourishing private sector is a key to unlocking this economic deadlock. The government needs to create a conducive entrepreneurial climate thereby boosting genuine Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) especially in the agriculture sector where more than 70% of the population rely on mere subsistence level. The role of the government must be rather limited to being a facilitator and regulator.

A thriving private sector will be possible when the government considers improving the following areas:

1.      First of all government has to continue investing in basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, electricity and water supply, and supporting the agriculture sector with irrigation, dams, storage facilities, and extension centers. The investment in this area is a prerequisite for FDI. Previous governments have achieved remarkable results in this area but the planning, execution, monitoring and management of projects have occasionally been deficient due to lack of human resources. Given this scenario there has to be increased training of relevant officers in the area of project management.

2.      Education is the key not only to inclusive development but also to human freedom at personal level. Dr. Amartya Sen, world leading economist and Nobel laureate in economics, defined development as “expansion of human freedom”, freedom to choose from many options in life. This freedom can be widened when a person is well-educated. The government has to advance education system through infrastructure improvement of school buildings and facilities such as libraries and laboratories. It has to continue promoting its scholarship program in highly specialized areas based on a sound analysis and assessment of human resource needs, and it should promote various vocational training centers that could meet the demand for skilled labor. Without a well-qualified workforce, Timorese will continue to be marginalized in various employment opportunities generated by state and private investment.

3.      Agrarian law reform, agrarian regulation and land ownership are priority issues. The law is temporarily pending in the parliament without any serious pressure to push it through. Land disputes resulting from ambiguous ownership will become a great impediment to investment.

4.      The current one stop shop for business registration “SERVE” is a good initiative but is still complicated in many ways. Business registration for foreign companies will still have to go through many layers in SEPFOPE, Foreign Affairs and Immigration thereby making it more than a one-stop-shop experience. Simplifying bureaucratic processes will help boost the Investment in Timor-Leste.

5.      Facilitating access to financial services: strengthening national rural banking that will cater for the financing needs of the farmers and Timor-Leste’s population that live in the rural areas.  This will facilitate credit access for farmers and enable them to participate more actively in the trickledown effect of combined public-private investment.

Finally, Xanana is the principle author of the current long term Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030. It is again, not only a plan of the government but a plan of the people because Xanana himself went around 65 sub-districts (administrative posts) again bracing heat and rains in 2010 to consult and listen to his people before finalizing the plan in mid-2011. Since he will lead the ministry of Planning and Strategic Investment, the implementation of this plan will be in his hands and therefore he will still be indispensable and truly become the epicenter from which everything else emanates.