*A version of this story appeared in The Australian on 4 July 2014
By Ted McDonnell
THERE'S little doubt that East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is one of his nation's independence heroes, yet just months out from his shock retirement, one-time friends and allies believe he is actively trashing the freedom his people fought and died for during Indonesia's bloody 24-year rule.
Since announcing he would step down half way through his second term, Gusmao's Coalition government has introduced restrictive media laws, detained old political foes and one-time comrades, and continued to protect alleged corruption within the government.
For East Timor's best-known investigative journalist Jose Belo the final days of Gusmao's reign as leader, which ends in September, are hard to reconcile.
The journalist, who spent most of his youth and early adulthood in the jungle resisting Indonesian rule, finds the extravagances and corruption of the Gusmao Coalition government galling when the majority of Timorese live on less than a few dollars a day.
Belo points to an incident, which he says defines Gusmao's style of leadership.
Belo remembers shortly after winning the last election in 2012 to thank his CNRT party members and new Coalition partners for their support, Gusmao ordered 55 new Toyota four-wheel-drives valued at more than $60,000 each.
"This was his priority in the first days of his second term in office in a country were people go hungry every night," he says. "And, now he's just bought another 37 luxury Toyotas for a conference of Portuguese speaking countries."
"It's a disgrace," Belo says through the smoke of his latest cigarette.
Now in his forties, the chain-smoking Belo has clearly earned the title of the best investigative journalist in East Timor. Fact is he is the nation's only investigative journalist.
And he's probably the most eccentric corruption buster you will find in the world.
On my arrival in Dili, East Timor's capital, he greets me wearing a mask emblazoned with "Timor Leste - Press Freedom".
As a parting gift to his nation, Gusmao's coalition dominated Parliament has legislated some of the most restrictive media laws in the world.
And, Belo has no doubt the new media laws have been created to shutdown reporting and public discussion on the country’s deteriorating economy and government corruption that has plagued East Timor during Gusmao Government’s two-term rule.
“The elites that govern East Timor are concerned that free speech will limit their ability to successfully control and abuse the petroleum fund for their personal benefit,” he declares.
“Despite anti-corruption programs being in place they have had little effect. While some offenders have been made an example of, this is mostly window dressing. The vast majority remain unhindered in their pursuit of lining their pockets.”
Belo reports that a number of current politicians are under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission (KAK), including current Minister for Finance Emilia Pires, who awarded millions of dollars to her husband's Melbourne based business, Macs Metalcraft for the supply of hospital equipment.
During my time in Dili, I am leaked a copy of the Prosecutor Generals investigation list and Ms Pires' name is on the list over a $2.04 million contract to her husband's business.
Belo believes the investigation into Emilia Pires and others will go nowhere due to 'the influence of higher powers'.
"The people in Dili know this will come to nothing. Countless other members of government as well as members of parliament, past and present, are under similar scrutiny. This scrutiny is due to media activity, and it's for this reason that media and citizens are about to be muzzled."
Gusmao has consistently defended Pires, one of his closest allies, stating the hospital contract was awarded fairly. In fact, Pires was a personal appointment to head up the Ministry of Finance by the soon to retire Prime Minister.
“Emilia Pires’ husband does not need contracts with the government. He is the owner of a factory,” he told the East Timorese people. “Minister Emilia’s husband does not need a contract or project from the government. It was because these things needed to be acquired that we said, go and buy them from there.”
Gusmao has also constantly attacked the Anti Corruption Commission (KAK) in the East Timor media in defending his Ministers against corruption allegations stating KAK investigates "trifling matters".
The PM warned the Anti Corruption Commission: “I warn KAK, you prepare for that. You are just looking at cigarette money.”
In 2010, Gusmao derided former Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao calling him "stupid, incompetent and a liar" over his Deputy's constant concerns over corruption. Carrascalao resigned alleging that Gusmao was protecting the finance ministry and endemic corruption involving hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.
Belo says that not even lucrative government contracts awarded to Gusmao's nephew Nilton Gusmao dos Santos and his daughter from his first marriage, Zenilda Batista Gusmao were properly scrutinised by the judiciary.
The only significant corruption conviction was the gaoling in 2012 of former Justice Minister Lucia Lobato. She was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
To impede criticism of the government's management of the country, the authorities recently took the extraordinary step of arresting outspoken opponents former Presidential candidate Angela Freitas and detaining one of East Timor’s most revered former commanders and head of the Maubere Revolutionary Council, Paulino Gama, better known as Mauk Moruk, detained.
Ms Freitas has since been released but is under virtual house arrest awaiting trial.
Ms Freitas tells me that she was arrested at Dili Airport after returning from Indonesia following a series of operations. East Timor Police held her for 72 hours.
"They accused me of abuse of power and gun running. They claim I wore a military uniform but at the time of the accusation I was in hospital in Indonesia," she added.
"They also claim I brought into East Timor two container loads of guns. They searched my house, the search everywhere and found nothing. Where are the two containers of guns?
"There are no guns."
Freitas, who holds Australian citizenship, is now facing a possible 10 year prison term.
She has little doubt who is behind what she describes as "trumped up" charges against herself and Mauk Moruk.
"Xanana is totally behind these false charges and arrests. He is trying to shut down everyone. Just look at the new media laws they have been written to silence the media and shut down public debate over government negligence."
The future of Moruk, the former chief of staff of the Red Brigade, remains uncertain. He remains in Becora Prison without charge.
Moruk was detained for ‘wearing a military uniform in public’; East Timor's Prosecutor General has requested 12 months to prepare the State's case against Moruk and his followers.
Moruk has been an outspoken opponent of Gusmao's handling of East Timor's finances since returning from exile.
Human rights lawyers are concerned Moruk will not get a fair trial due to the government's influence over the judiciary.
Alleged corruption and political manipulation aside, Gusmao's greatest challenge is that potentially his legacy could well include a despised resources curse.
The World Bank has already sounded the alarm with an independent review on the progress of the Timor-Leste Country Assistance program reporting frustration in many areas.
“The Bank’s contribution to building civil service capacity and fighting corruption was limited and achievements modest, while the Bank’s efforts at engagement in the national strategic planning process had little impact on the Government’s strategies.”
NGOs also warn that high unemployment, poverty and malnutrition; and a deplorable health care system are real threats to East Timor's future stability and security.
So grave are the country's finances, reports economic watchdog La’o Hamutuk, that East Timor could be broke within a decade.
Head of La’o Hamutuk, Charles Scheiner says that oil and gas revenues provide 95% of Timor-Leste state revenues and four-fifths of GDP. East Timor’s budget in the current year is $US1.5 billion for its 1.2 million population.
Mr Scheiner said many expect the Fund’s balance and investment earnings will pay for state activities after the oil and gas fields are exhausted, which could be by 2020 if the Greater Sunrise project remains stalled.
“Unfortunately, the $15 billion Petroleum Fund may be empty five years after that.”
Mr Scheiner pointed out that as one of the most petroleum-export-dependent countries on earth, Timor-Leste faces daunting choices, and it remains to be seen if its leaders will make the difficult decisions that will rescue their people from the 'resource curse’, which afflicts people from Nauru to Nigeria.
Mr Scheiner said investments in education and health, combined with improvements in rural roads, water and sanitation, could provide a foundation for a sustainable, equitable non-oil economy.
“Unfortunately, the current path -- where most of the country's non-renewable wealth goes abroad, with financial benefits accruing to a small elite while the impoverished rural majority grows even larger -- repeats the common, disastrous pattern.
“How will East Timor sustain its current 50 to 1 trade deficit in a decade, when there is no oil money left to pay for imports?” Mr Scheiner declares.
Agio Pereira, East Timor's Minister of State, touted to replace Gusmao as Prime Minister, is not afraid to speak his mind even in the much-controlled environment of Gusmao.
"People are too pessimistic."
"You can't develop a country in just 12 years. Look at the massive destruction that occurred over the 24 years of Indonesian rule.
"How can we fix everything in such a short period of time?" he questions.
The Australian educated Pereira says the East Timorese are still prisoners of their freedom and the struggle for their freedom has not ended.
"Every day is a struggle. But you know, reality is manmade and we can change our reality and make East Timor strong for the future of all our people.
"Yes, poverty in our country is frightening, but we have a strong sense of family and solidarity. Families work together to overcome poverty."
With the average monthly salary of just $80US, Pereira says extended families use their meagre resources as a collective to ensure the family group does not go without.
As the Prime Minister's retirement date draws near, Belo and others remain sceptical about Gusmao's official retirement motive: "it is time to hand over the Country to its younger leaders" but at the same time, head up a Council of Elders to "steer the progress of the country" from the sidelines.
"It could be another 'Xanana game'," says Belo.
The much talked about Council of Elders, or Transitional Council, which will require a constitutional amendment, will include past political leaders including Gusmao, Ramos Horta, former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and Fretilin legend Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres.
However, younger politicians from Gusmao’s own party CNRT and Opposition Fretilin believe Gusmao is only handing over the reins of the country now because he wants a “fall guy” for East Timor’s potential financial crisis and wants someone else to be blamed for the depletion of the Petroleum Fund.
“Once the disaster strikes, brother Xanana will try and come back as the hero to save the country again,” one veteran Fretilin politician concludes.
Belo has suffered personally for his corruption busting reporting. His newspaper Tempo Semanal has been starved of advertising dollars from the country's major advertiser the government.
Reportedly, they offered him "sponsorship" recently but on the proviso he would be kinder to the government.
Belo, as is his want, told the government what to do with their sponsorship.
For Belo the war against the Indonesians - in which 300,000 of his countrymen and women were murdered - ended in 1999 when Australian troops dispatched the last of the murderous militia, yet his personal war against corruption continues, and he has no fear of being jailed again for bringing his people the truth.
"They've charged me with criminal defamation, they've jailed me and they've threatened me with death, but even if they can kill me, that doesn't mean they win."
Some would say that statement not only makes Belo eccentric, but mad. But in the eyes of most he remains a hero.
Footnote: East Timor's President Taur Matan Ruak has sent Gusmao's media laws off to the country's top court to test whether they are constitutional.
*A version of this story appeared in The Australian on 4 July 2014
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