Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

With 37 votes in favor, 19 against and 3 abstentions, Timor-Leste’s parliament initially approved on November 11 the general terms of the government’s proposed budget of $1.763 billion for the year 2012.

2012 promises to be an exciting and significant year for this tiny nation. It will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Restoration of Independence, the 100th anniversary of the Manufahi Revolt and the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first Portuguese in the country. It will also conduct the third presidential and parliamentary elections since democracy was restored.

During the budget deliberations, civil society groups questioned the abnormal increase in the budget, the country’s continued dependence on oil revenues, and the unusually high number of mega infrastructure projects. But the most controversial issue was the decision of the government to obtain foreign debt next year. Timor-Leste currently has no debt from other countries or international financial institutions.

The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis notes that the increase in the country’s budget is one of the highest in the world. In nominal terms, the 2012 budget is 35 percent higher than 2011. If adjusted to inflation, it’s 25 percent larger than last year, while the budget has grown 273 percent since 2006. The group cited a report from the IMF World Economic Outlook that identified Zimbabwe as the only country in the world whose state budget grew faster during the last four years. Many are concerned about the inflationary impact of rising state expenditures.

Many from the Institute are also concerned that the budget doesn’t reflect the need to develop non-oil industries. Income from oil and gas provides 95 percent of state revenues, making Timor-Leste the most petroleum-export dependent country in the world. “In the medium term, our oil wealth can’t even pay for provide half the level of services the government will provide next year. That’s why we need to develop our non-oil economy.”

Meanwhile, some parliamentarians criticized the decreasing budget allocation for the education, health, and agriculture sectors and alleged that the government “prefers investing in mega projects which are beyond its capacity to execute and will end up in misuse of lots of money.” One of these huge infrastructure investments is the Tasi Mane Project, which will involve the development of an integrated petroleum infrastructure in the county’s south coastal zone in the next two decades.

But the most controversial, if not unpopular, budget-related issue is the plan by the government to secure $33 million in loans for the Dili sanitation and construction of national roads. It’s the first time the government has asked parliament to approve a proposal to borrow money from foreign institutions, and it immediately drew opposition from civil society groups who initiated a petition drive signed by more than 137 organizations based in 32 countries urging the government to “keep the nation debt-free and refrain from borrowing money from international lenders to protect its future generations.” The groups warned that “Rather than repeat the mistakes of other developing countries that have struggled with debt during recent decades, Timor-Leste should learn from their experiences, which often inflicted great hardships on their people.”

Despite the criticisms, the government maintained that the budget is service and development oriented, and will stimulate the local economy while addressing the human development needs of the people. The government also boasted that the budget process is one of the most transparent in the world. Indeed, it created a Budget Transparency Portal that allows the public to access budget documents. It also provides a daily summary of budget deliberations in parliament.

For the government, the budget proposal reflects the renewed optimism in the country’s future, but for many civil society groups, the budget could harm the economy in the long run.

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s Troubling “Peace” Bill

The Malaysian Parliament has unanimously approved the controversial Peaceful Assembly Bill, which critics warned would make it extremely difficult for citizens to organize protest activities. Activists denounced it as a repressive measure intended to curtail the people’s freedom of speech and expression.

The opposition, for its part, was so outraged by the hasty introduction of the measure (MPs received copies of the bill only on November 22) that they staged a walkout during the voting process. Outside the parliament, lawyers organized a “freedom walk” to dramatize their rejection of the bill, which they think is in violation of several international human rights norms. Protesters also took Prime Minister Najib Razak to task for reneging on his pledge during the Malaysia Day celebration in September to review section 27 of the Police Act 1967 in order to uphold the people’s freedom of assembly.

Lim Chee Wee, president of the Malaysian Bar, identified the dangerous provisions of the bill that could undermine the constitutional rights of Malaysian citizens:

1) Prohibition of street protests;

2) Prohibition of organization of assemblies by persons below the age of twenty one years;

3) Prohibition of participation in peaceful assemblies of children below the age of fifteen years;

4) Unduly onerous responsibilities and restrictions on organizers and assemblies;

5) Excessive fines for non-compliance of the bill.

Civil libertarians are also horrified over the other insidious provisions of the bill, like the prohibition of rallies near a place of worship or any area that the government may declare as “protected,” the banning of foreign journalists in a protest assembly, and the granting of power to the police to use tear gas, chemical-laced water, batons and shields as well as arbitrary arrests on participants if these are deemed necessary by authorities to make the assembly peaceful and orderly. Activists are also worried over a provision that gives police forces the right to disperse an assembly if participants are heard giving statements that “promote feelings of ill-will, discontent or hostility among the public.”

Police are given such extensive powers to disperse assemblies without official permits that even an outdoor birthday party can be classified as an event that needs police approval. Furthermore, the police can impose numerous conditions when they approve the conduct of an assembly. And, if they decide to disperse a crowd, they are given the right to use “all reasonable force” in dealing with protesters.

Perhaps the restrictive Peaceful Assembly Bill is the government’s preemptive legal effort to prevent another Bersih (clean) march, which could further weaken the ruling coalition’s chances in the next elections. Bersih was organized in July by election reform advocates, but it has evolved into a strong political movement after the police violently dispersed a crowd of about 50,000 in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Maybe the bill won’t be able to stop Bersih or other protest assemblies organized by the big political forces, but it can minimize the influence of these events by limiting the protest actions in select venues. And because of the broad definitions used in the bill, it can also affect the activities of non-political groups.

After Bersih, everybody expected the government to implement reforms that would convince the people about its commitment to democracy and transparency. But with this bill, it seems the government prefers to provoke its enemies and weaken their ability to shape public opinion by banning street protests. The bill appears proof that the government is afraid of the radical potential of Bersih and the emergence of a Malaysian Spring that could finally deliver the fatal blow to the ruling coalition’s decades-old reign in Malaysia.

Written for The Diplomat

2 Responses to “Timor-Leste’s Debt Plan”

  1. A petition is circulating opposing borrowing by Timor-Leste. Individuals can view and sign it here – http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/support-a-debt-free-timor-leste.html

    John

  2. many more signatures 2 go…

    DJ

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