East of Eden

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Timor-Leste, or East Timor, depends on an oil-funded sovereign wealth fund to finance 80 percent of its public spending. Now officials forecast they will deplete the fund in the next decade, raising serious questions about how the Southeast Asian nation will survive in the future, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

Half the country lives on less than $1.90 a day, an amount indicating extreme poverty. Half of the country’s children under five years old suffer from malnutrition, added the Associated Press.

These issues and others will likely be at the forefront of voters’ minds on May 21 when they elect a new parliament to govern the former Portuguese colony, which won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.

These voters have a lot to parse when it comes to the candidates.

Xanana Gusmão, for example, an ex-guerrilla fighter who led the country’s independence movement since the 1970s and became its first president in 2002, is running on the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party line with the promise of exporting $50 billion worth of natural gas from the Greater Sunrise fields on the country’s southern coast.

Australian energy giant Woodside, which is now slated to develop the natural gas fields, however, has sought to process that natural gas in Darwin, Australia – meaning Timor-Leste would benefit from exporting raw materials rather than more lucrative value-added products, wrote Agenzia Fides, the Vatican news agency.

Timor-Leste’s president, José Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his nonviolent efforts to advance his nation’s independence movement, has said he would allow Chinese companies to develop Greater Sunrise if they agree to build refining and liquefaction infrastructure in the country, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gusmão’s main opponent is Mari Alkatiri, who served as Timor-Leste’s first prime minister from 2002 to 2006 when he resigned amid civil unrest stemming from an army mutiny. One might have thought that would be the end of his political career. But he became prime minister again from September 2017 until May 2018. His party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, moreover, is considered to be exceptionally well-organized.

Gusmão, Alkatiri, and Ramos-Horta are among the so-called “1975 generation” of freedom fighters who have been running against each other for office since independence, wrote Inside Story, an Australian news magazine. In that time, clashes between protesters and security forces have become regular occurrences in the country’s streets – especially among poor folk who understandably demand a better quality of life.

In 1975, when the Portuguese withdrew, the country saw a brief civil war, an invasion by Indonesia, and “some of the “worst atrocities of modern times in their struggle for self-determination,” a struggle that killed more than 200,000 people, a quarter of the population, noted the BBC.

The older generation helped turn the page on these times, dreaming of a future of freedom, peace, and prosperity for their children. Now, it needs to move fast in order to make sure their grandchildren have the funding to make those dreams come true.

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