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The Globe as you know it is changing.

Since 2007, Southeast Asia Globe has been a space for some of the region’s best writers and photographers to take our readers behind the headlines into the stories that shape people’s lives. Every month, you could expect to pick up our latest print edition and find high-quality journalism, analysis and artwork waiting on every page. And since 2007, we’ve fought to uphold our promise of quality and independence to you, our readers.

But, like we said, the world is changing. Print publications just aren’t reaching the audiences they need to fulfil their promise of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Advertisers continue to invest in digital platforms while printing costs creep ever higher. Print may not be dead, but it’s fighting for its life. And we’re tired of waiting by a sickbed for its condition to improve. We want to be present at the birth of something new.

That’s why Southeast Asia Globe is relaunching as a member-driven platform featuring daily long-form features combining world-class journalism with enthralling art design and data-centered tech. Through our core pillars – Power, Money, Life and Earth – we are focusing in on the central issues that our readers have always engaged with most, with the same in-depth coverage of politics, business, social affairs and the environment that you’ve come to expect since 2007.

But leaving print behind us doesn’t just save our backs from lugging stacks of magazines across Southeast Asia. It opens up a global readership who don’t just want to read the news, but have a say in the stories that we tell and the way that we tell them. We’re not asking you to take out another magazine subscription – our stories are open to all. What we’re offering our members is a space where they can pitch and vote on the stories that they think deserve to be told. We want to inspire an engaged and active community of members who vote for, comment on and contribute to the stories that matter most to them. We want to work with our members to curate the way they engage with the news – not just as readers, but as an active extension of our editorial team.

That’s how we’re changing to bring you great stories. Here’s how we’re not.

We’re independent. Always have been, always will be. We’re not owned by any corporation or aligned with any state. We choose the stories that we tell, and the way that we tell them.

We’re creative. We’re not interested in churning out breaking news stories on the hour, every hour. We believe that the best stories are the ones that come alive on the page, digging deeper into the issues that shape Southeast Asia – and bringing you along for the ride. From our dedicated designers to our new software development team, our commitment is to constantly challenge ourselves to find new ways of reaching out to our readers.

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Above all, we’re optimistic. And yeah, we know what you’re thinking. Faced with impending climate collapse, the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments across the world, widening wealth and income inequality and deepening divisions rooted in race or gender or creed, it’s hard not to open the papers and feel the weight of the world pressing down. But we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe that when people work together, they can make their little corner of the world a more just, open and equal place.

And that’s why we can’t do this without you. We believe that across the globe is a community of people who care deeply about social justice, environmental action and press freedom – and who will join in to help make those ideals a reality. We’re not just holding our hand out – we need your voice to play a vital role in building Southeast Asia Globe into a leading space for progressive causes in the region. Tell us what stories the mainstream media is missing. Share with us the causes that matter most to you, and how we can champion those causes not just across Southeast Asia, but the world.

Our vision is clear. By 2025, we want to be recognised for building a great space for outstanding journalists from across the region to explore new ways of telling Southeast Asia’s most vital stories. Let’s bring together a community of engaged and loyal members who want to help reshape the media rather than just read it. And we want to reach a point where our readers, not advertisers, are the ones working to support our shared vision of an inclusive media.

We can’t do this without you. Let’s get together and build something that we all believe in.

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No end to Timor-Leste’s political infighting

By: David Hutt - Posted on: May 20, 2016 | Current Affairs

Despite optimism following a governmental shift that promised an end to political instability, recent events suggest the old ways live on in Timor-Leste

In the opening pages of his book Beloved Land, Gordon Peake described his first days in Timor-Leste. It was 2007, and while the Australian National University researcher sat in the patio of Hotel Timor, in the capital Dili, he noted that the voguish café was the preserve of malaes – foreigners, most of whom had come as advisors to help develop the newly independent nation. When he left the country four years later, many of the foreigners had gone and Hotel Timor had become a favoured haunt of the East Timorese elite.

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Dissent: Timor-Leste’s president, Taur Matan Ruak, is proving a vocal opponent of the current powers that be. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Peake’s familiarity with East Timorese politics led him to a conclusion that, he said, outsiders often fail to perceive: it is a country of “family relationships, friendships, romances and antagonisms that collectively render ideas and concepts such as ‘accountability’ and ‘separation of powers’ almost completely impractical… Kinship and opaque connections are the ties that bind – not five-year plans and detailed strategic documentation.”

The East Timorese political elite is made up of a small cache of associated figures. Most fought during the 24-year independence struggle against Indonesian occupation and subsequently took up positions of power once independence was secured in 2002. But these intra-elite connections are often far from amiable.

Tensions date back to the independence struggle but came to the fore in 2006 when what started as disputes within the military soon became a battleground between the political factions, sparking widespread riots, mass displacement and concerns over the country’s future.

Xanana Gusmão, an independence hero and president at the time, had long harboured an intense rivalry with Mari Alkatiri, then prime minister and secretary general of the ruling political party, Fretilin. Alkatiri took much of the blame for the 2006 crisis – including allegations that he hired hit squads to assassinate political rivals, though these were most likely circulated by Gusmão – and eventually resigned, but not before insinuating that the events had been engineered with the intent to spark a coup against him.

The following year, Gusmão stepped down as president to establish his own political party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). At that year’s parliamentary elections, which were marred by violence, the CNRT secured a majority of seats through a coalition with smaller parties and Gusmão became prime minister. Fretilin contested the constitutionality of the coalition and Alkatiri called for a ‘campaign of disobedience’ amongst supporters.

However, by the 2012 elections, which the CNRT also won, tensions between the two largest political parties had reposed and, three years later, rapprochement seemed a very real possibility when they formed a ‘national unity’ government.

In February 2015, Gusmão announced he would resign as prime minister, and he nominated Rui Maria de Araújo, a former health minister under Fretilin, to take his place. This move promised to bring together politicians from the CNRT and Fretilin in a power-sharing agreement and end more than a decade of political instability.

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The boss: Xanana Gusmão, the independence hero who went on to lead his country. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

At the time, Damien Kingsbury, a professor of international politics at Deakin University in Australia, told Southeast Asia Globe that Araújo’s accession was a “good outcome… he is competent, well liked and respected, and able to reach across the political divide”.

He added, however, with some prophecy, that the national unity government would leave Timor-Leste without a viable opposition and that by 2017’s parliamentary elections there would either be a return to political infighting or a slide into a “Malaysia-type domination of politics by coalition”. When interviewed again last month, Kingsbury said such cracks are now beginning to appear.

On February 26, Taur Matan Ruak, a former military commander who became president in 2012, stood before the country’s parliamentarians and announced: “The state of Timor-Leste is far too centralised. It centralises skill, power and privileges. It excessively wastes resources, allowing thousands of Timorese to become second-class citizens.”

The president alleged that the motivation behind forming the national unity government was not the public interest but the self-interest of officials, who could divide the country’s spoils between themselves. “They do not use unanimity to solve [Timor-Leste’s] issues; they use it for power and privilege. Brother Xanana takes care of Timor while Brother [Alkatiri] takes care of Oecussi,” Ruak said.

Oecussi is a small, impoverished district of Timor-Leste cut off from the rest of the country and surrounded on all sides by Indonesia’s West Timor province. A costly Special Social Market Economy Zone (ZEESM) is currently in development in Oecussi and, in 2013, Alkatiri was chosen by Gusmão to preside over this economic zone. According to the political grapevine, with tensions between the CNRT and Fretilin cooling, he was bought off by Gusmão and has used the ZEESM to enrich himself and his clique.

Such corruption allegations are a mainstay of East Timorese politics, with Transparency International ranking it 123rd out of 168 countries in its latest corruption index. Yet underhand dealings are utilised opportunistically and pragmatically. After becoming prime minister in 2007, one of Gusmão’s first tasks was to prevent another 2006 crisis.

“[The new government] gave rewards to the surrendering [military units] whose desertions from the army had set the crisis in motion, offered cash grants to persuade displaced [citizens] to return, funded lavish pensions for disgruntled veterans,” reads a 2013 report by the International Crisis Group.

As time went on, Gusmão became known for his propensity to ‘buy peace’, and the political stability achieved since the 2007 elections has been largely attained through the division of state contracts to veterans groups and between rival elites, according to a 2015 report by Development Progress.

“The allocation of contracts to influential elites is widely considered a necessary evil,” reads the report. “As one former Fretilin MP argued: it is ‘better to have people benefit from contracts, even [if they are] not awarded transparently, than fomenting coups’.”

There was hope that such logic would be abolished when Gusmão handed power to Araújo. However, Kingsbury said that, just a year later, optimism in Araújo is fading. He is widely seen as a “puppet for Gusmão” and government policy “doesn’t proceed unless Gusmão says so”. What’s more, Araújo’s policies are strikingly similar to his predecessor’s, including the distribution of state contracts to prevent hostilities.

When President Ruak addressed parliament in February and accused Gusmão and Alkatiri of corruption, it was nothing that journalists and political commentators hadn’t been talking about for years. However, Michael Leach, an associate professor at Swinburne University, Australia, told Southeast Asia Globe that a president partaking in such opprobrium was both “new” and “significant”.

“Despite the political stability and end to intra-elite tensions the national unity government has brought,” Leach added, “the downside is the lack of opposition. Whenever there is a vacuum, new players will enter.”

Ruak himself offered a similar sentiment: “Since there is no opposition party, the president takes on the role.” And one of his first acts as the self-ordained opposition came late last year when he attempted to veto the state budget for 2016. Under Gusmão’s administration, from 2007 to early 2015, state budgets grew substantially. And Araújo’s proposal for the 2016 state budget, at $1.5 billion, was almost equal to the previous year’s.

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Power: Timor-Leste’s political elite, including Taur Matan Ruak (front, left) and Rui Maria de Araújo (front, right). Photo: Reuters/Lirio Da Fonseca

When they were in opposition, members of Fretilin, including Alkatiri, often criticised Gusmão’s expenditure, suggesting that too much went on costly megaprojects and vanity developments, which diverted vital funds away from healthcare, education and basic services needed by the maubere (masses). Another criticism was that the government’s ample spending was depleting the country’s finite financial resources. The vast majority of state expenditure comes from oil and gas revenues that are accumulated in a state-owned investment fund. However, as Southeast Asia Globe reported last year, these funds could be exhausted within a decade.

Despite Ruak’s efforts to veto the state budget, the country’s 65 parliamentarians voted it in unanimously.

A few months later, Ruak clashed with the national unity government again, when he refused to reappoint the commander of the Timor-Leste military. The move sparked calls by MPs for his impeachment, though commentators agree this is unlikely to happen.

Ruak’s opposition might stem from a genuine desire to hold the government accountable. As he told parliamentarians in February: “When the 2016 state budget was vetoed, members of parliament thought that I was defying their unanimity. However, I genuinely felt that I was… helping our people. I’m ashamed whenever I visit the sucos [villages].”

However, his stance as the government’s counterbalance could be pure politicking. According to Leach, Ruak is likely to join a newly formed political party, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and could run for prime minister at next year’s parliamentary elections. Ruak has made no public statement about his membership of the PLP – its current president is the former corruption commissioner, Adérito Soares – although it is widely believed to be the case by commentators and politicians. In November, a number of parliamentarians called for Ruak’s resignation, claiming it was unconstitutional for the president to be campaigning from office.

If Ruak does step down as president and run for prime minister on the PLP ticket, next year’s parliamentary elections could see two rival camps cross swords. Leach believes that the CNRT and Fretilin will compete separately but “a post-election alliance is clearly a strong possibility in light of the present national unity government”.

The domination of Fretilin and the CNRT at the polls will be hard to overturn. At the three parliamentary elections held since independence, the two parties combined have never achieved less than half of the national vote.

Nevertheless, Ruak is well liked in Timor-Leste. He was an independence fighter and military commander, and his populist position on spending more on ordinary East Timorese should win over swathes of the electorate.

“Most East Timorese support the reduction in tensions within the political elite that the national unity government has brought,” said Leach. “However, there are clear strains of dissatisfaction with the government’s development policies.”

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Passion: supporters of Fretilin, one of Timor-Leste’s two main political parties, at a speech by former prime minister Mari Alkatiri. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

To achieve electoral success the PLP might have to form alliances with other smaller parties, including the Democratic Party, which secured 11% of votes at the last election. However, its popular figurehead ‘Lasama’ de Araújo passed away last year, leaving the party without its linchpin. Leach is confident, nevertheless, that by next year’s election “Timor-Leste will see a new and substantial opposition force”.

Kingsbury agrees. Although he feels that, while opposition to the government will be beneficial, “there is too little [opposition] beyond the elites”. The fact remains that Ruak is just as much a member of the elite as Gusmão and Alkatiri.

Araújo’s accession to prime minister promised to usher in a generational and political shift – away from the politicians who fought for and won independence, and campaigned on the merits of this, toward a younger generation of leaders not beholden to the intra-elite tensions and connections formed decades ago. And away from consanguinity politics toward something more technocratic and formal. So far, this has failed to happen.

“This transition is still in its early phases, and it is a necessary one,” said Leach. “The 1970s and ’80s leaders of the resistance struggle, who retain considerable historic legitimacy, cannot be expected to govern Timor-Leste forever.” 

All at sea

Timor-Leste’s critical maritime dispute with Australia explained

On 22 March, thousands of East Timorese gathered outside the Australian Embassy in Dili to accuse the Australian government of ‘illegally occupying’ disputed territory in waters off Southeast Asia’s youngest nation. Tensions date back to 1972 when Australia negotiated maritime borders in the oil-rich Timor Sea with Indonesia, then the coloniser of Timor-Leste. Once independence was achieved, many in Timor-Leste accused Australia of taking advantage of the oppressed nation to secure lucrative and ‘illegal’ ownership of its maritime areas. An agreement in 2006 essentially split the Timor Sea in half between Timor-Leste and Australia, but now protestors are demanding realignment.

The dispute is of huge importance as the oil- and gas-rich seas around Timor-Leste are vital for the country. According to the NGO La’o Hamutuk, 80% of the country’s GDP and 95% of its state budget comes from petroleum revenue saved in a national wealth fund. However, this pot might be exhausted within ten years and, without additional sources of oil and gas, which might lie in the contested maritime areas, the economic future of Timor-Leste looks uncertain.