Written for The Diplomat
East Timor’s new prime minister, Dr Rui Maria de Araújo, appealed for unity as a way to build a more inclusive and tolerant society. Araújo became the head of the Sixth Constitutional Government after former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão resigned last month.
While taking his oath on February 16, Araújo presented some of his plans for East Timor. First, he vowed to uphold “the essence of democratic values in Timor-Leste: peace, reconciliation, solidarity, pluralism, tolerance and dialogue.” He also spoke about boosting the country’s security. “We will give more attention to the patrol and vigilance of our maritime coast to protect our coral reefs and fish resources from illegal incursions in our sea.”
He praised the leadership of Gusmão, whom he appointed minister for Planning and Strategic Investment. He reminded the public that it was during the term of Gusmão when East Timor became “the first country in the Asia-Pacific region and the third in the entire world to be granted compliance status with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.” Araújo said he will continue to implement the Strategic Plan drafted by his predecessor and that the new government will focus “on better service delivery and on the quality of works, in a manner that is efficient, effective and accountable.”
But Araújo also indirectly mentioned some of the problems left behind by the previous government.
“One of our current difficulties is the lack of data and reliable indicators on the situation of the country. The last official data we have on poverty dates back to 2009 and told us that almost half the population lived below the national poverty line,” he said. He added that “the benefits of economic growth have not reached everyone.”
He also acknowledged the prevalence of corruption and inefficiency in the government. “Our priority is to fight the culture of bureaucratization in public administration, which has become a giant with feet of clay.”
According to Araújo, one of the first tasks of the new government will be to submit declarations of assets with the court and the Anti-Corruption Commission.
“I intend to personally deliver these on behalf of all members of government. When I leave this office, I will lodge another declaration of assets that I promise will show I have not profited from my position. And when I leave this office, I want Timor-Leste to be recognized as a world leader in open, transparent, accountable and ethical government,” he said in a speech delivered before the Anti-Corruption Commission.
Araújo is also expected to implement programs that will empower women. When he was adviser to the Ministry of Finance, he worked to identify women as potential managers and top leaders in the agency. Today, according to Araújo, women represent 32 percent of the leadership team in the office.
But can Araújo deliver on his commitments? Gusmão is confident that his younger successor can lead the country’s transition. Araújo is an opposition member; nevertheless, he was still endorsed by Gusmão because of his proven capabilities.
“His deep knowledge of the financial system, a wide experience which can not be underestimated, on the model applied to capacitate technical staff, implemented during his years in the ministry [Finance] as an adviser, and his integrity, as a person, these are the three relevant elements which are the fundamental reason behind the proposal of his name,” Gusmão wrote in his nomination for Araújo.
Araújo has much reforming to do if he wants to achieve his goals for East Timor. He is right to call for unity but it should not mean being less critical of the policies and programs of the previous government.
Thailand Scores Low on Political Rights
Written for The Diplomat
As expected, Thailand’s political rights rating changed from “partly free” in 2014 to “not free” in the Freedom in the World 2015 report released by democracy watchdog Freedom House. Thailand’s army launched a coup last year that led to the imposition of martial law in the country. The army also suspended the constitution, detained political leaders, controlled the media, and banned public protests.
The report is another troubling reminder of the worsening political situation in Thailand.
The army claimed the coup was necessary to restore stability by ending the intense clashes of various political forces. Indeed, the army dispersed the street protests but the political crisis is far from resolved. The junta merely hid the symptoms of the crisis by punishing anyone who dared to speak out against the government. Order was enforced by eroding the political rights of ordinary citizens.
The junta’s brutal policies are highlighted in an infographic published by independent news portal Prachatai. The image features some of the normal activities that have been suppressed by the government over the past nine months. Those who conducted these peaceful actions were arrested for allegedly undermining national security. The list below, culled from the infographic, reflects the paranoia of the junta leaders on one hand, and the suffering experienced by ordinary Thais on the other:
1. Holding a blank A4 paper or A4 paper with anti-coup messages
2. Covering one’s face, eyes, and mouth
3. Helping arrested protesters
4. Holding “Peace Please” T-shirt
5. Imitating the Hunger Games three-fingered salute
6. Gathering at McDonald’s
7. Reading George Orwell’s 1984 novel
8. Eating sandwiches in public
9. Playing the French national anthem
10. Wearing a Red Shirt while selling crispy fried squid
11. Issuing a statement denouncing the coup
12. Wearing “people” mask
13. Wearing “respect my vote” t-shirt
14. Approaching or being approached by journalists
15. Running for democracy
16. Holding placards that read “holding placards is not a crime”
17. Posting a photo with anti-junta and “No Martial Law” messages on Facebook
18. Holding academic seminars on the political situation
19. Gathering people to watch the premiere of Hunger Games 3
20. Distributing leaflets featuring a poem about democracy
21. Giving three-fingered salutes to Prayuth, the leader of the junta
22. Selling fruit products with (former Prime Minister) Thaksin Shinawatra’s square face logo
The list confirms the accuracy of the report by Freedom House. If simple activities like reading books and watching movies are considered a threat to the national security, how can Thais effectively exercise and assert their political rights?
But the junta seems impervious to international criticism. In recent weeks, the army has been aggressive in silencing dissent. A land rights activist was detained, an opposition leader was visited at his home by an army officer to undergo an “attitude adjustment” session, and a civil society seminar on Internet legislation was interrupted by the presence and surprise participation of soldiers at the meeting.
The junta is also readying the passage of 10 digital economy bills which some activists say could violate the rights of Internet users and mobile phone subscribers in the country. These bills, if passed into law, could further gag the new media and the few remaining critical voices in Thai cyberspace.
These are challenging times for Thailand’s democracy and press freedom advocates. It is up to the international community to push for democratic political reforms in the country.