East Timor is, surprisingly, emerging as one of the success stories of the 21st century, writes Peter Westmore.
Two years after East Timor’s first national election, in which the Marxist Fretilin Government was decisively defeated, the country’s parliament has undertaken a series of major initiatives which will lay the foundations for a future based on the Christian values of this small nation.
The Government has introduced a national pension for the aged and for war veterans; it has commenced a registration process to settle the unresolved issues of land ownership; and it has adopted a national criminal code which makes abortion illegal, despite intense efforts by the United Nations Population Fund, and the Alola Foundation, headed by Kirsty Sword (Australian-born wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao), to legalise abortion.
The previously existing penal code inherited from Indonesia banned abortion in all instances.
The drafting of a new penal code began in 2005, when Fretilin – which had been given control of the government by the United Nations after independence in 2002 – was still in power. At the time, the Alola Foundation began lobbying for a change in the law.
It commissioned a study by three Australian academics, which was released recently, while East Timor’s Parliament was considering new legislation. It stated, “Experience from the international arena suggests that criminalising induced abortion makes it unsafe. It is advisable from a public health approach, not to criminalise the termination of pregnancy but regulate it.”
Early in 2009, East Timor’s Council of Ministers, led by Xanana Gusmao, recommended adoption of a law that would have permitted abortion for cases affecting the physical or mental health of the mother – in effect, legalising the practice.
However, when the draft legislation went before the parliament, MPs voted by 45 to 0, with only 7 abstentions, to maintain penal sanctions on abortion, except in instances where abortion was the “only way” to prevent death to the mother as attested to by three independent physicians.
Amendments to permit abortion in cases of foetal abnormality and pregnancies resulting from rape were rejected.
A preliminary paragraph states that life “from the moment of conception” is entitled to protection. Abortionists are subject to up to eight years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances. The law also recognises the conscience rights of doctors to refuse to perform abortions.
The legislation will curb the activities of the international abortion-provider, Marie Stopes International, which has set up premises in the capital, Dili.*
The legislation was the subject of intense debate in East Timor. As over 90 per cent of the population are Christians, the legislators were acutely aware of the strong support for human life in the community.
In the meantime, East Timor is grappling with the effects of the global economic downturn, which is expected to limit the international assistance given to the country since independence.
Despite widespread poverty, which has resulted from 460 years of Portuguese colonialism and 25 years under Indonesian occupation which divided the people, East Timor has posted remarkable development over the past two years.
In a recent interview, East Timor’s President, José Ramos Horta, said “East Timor posted one of the best economic performances in the world in 2008, with 12.5 per cent real – not oil-based – growth. It’s clear that economic growth alone does not mean that the centuries-old problems of extreme poverty have been resolved. But I again want to emphasise that our economic growth last year was based on agriculture, which improved with good rains and an increase in coffee output.”
The Government’s principal source of income is revenue from oil and natural gas fields in the Timor Sea.
This has funded a range of government programs, including the innovatory payment of $US20 a month to the elderly, war veterans, widows and orphans. In a country where most people are still part of the subsistence economy, this pension has proved tremendously successful in providing money to the poorest in the country.
The East Timorese Government is also working to address some of the other significant problems facing the country, including the problem of chronic unemployment, particularly around the cities of Dili and Baucau, and the issue of IDPs, the internally displaced persons who were forced into emergency accommodation after violence erupted in 2006.
The number of IDPs has fallen from a peak of about 130,000 in 2006 to about 10,000 today, in part because the government has provided subsidies for families which were forcibly displaced by violence to take up residence elsewhere.
The IDP problem has exacerbated the perennial issue of very high unemployment, creating a sub-culture where gang activity has emerged as a significant law-and-order problem in the capital.
Nevertheless, East Timor has emerged as one of the success stories of the 21st century.
– Peter Westmore
* Ary Laufer, Regional Director of Marie Stopes International in Australia responds in the 8 August 2009 issue of News Weekly