Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University. He is in Timor-Leste doing research for a book.
Two men stare down from the sepia-tinged election posters of Rogerio Tiago de Fatima Lobato, former Minister of Interior of Timor-Leste, jailed for distributing weapons during the 2006 crisis that brought the country to its knees.
The most prominent image is that of the 60-something candidate himself, wearing a natty dark suit and a look of steely determination. By his side is Nicolau, his dead brother and one of the greatest heroes of the resistance against Indonesia. One of his staff saw me staring at the poster as I waited for the candidate to wend his way through Dili's heavy traffic. 'His brother is supporting him,' he said, 'even from the grave.'
It was a powerful reminder that the present is interwoven with the past in this small country with deep personal connections and a small and entwined political elite.
The candidate has led a dark, rip-roaring adventure story of a life. The former Portuguese army reservist and part-time Latin teacher was Minister for Defence of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste proclaimed on 28 November 1975 and snuffed out nine days later by the invading Indonesian army. He spent nearly a quarter of a century trotting the globe in exile. He was received warmly in Pol Pot's Kampuchea and received military training from the Chinese and Vietnamese governments and Western Saharan rebels. He visited Castro's Cuba. In the 1980s he spent years languishing in an Angolan jail following a conviction for diamond smuggling.
It is also a life punctuated with unimaginable grief. He lost each of his twelve siblings during the conflict. The Indonesians had a policy of seeking out and eliminating all members of the Lobato family; the graves of many are still unmarked and Nicolau's bones have still not been returned.
Rogerio Lobato was sentenced to seven years for his involvement in distributing arms to a shadowy armed group in 2006 but spent less than a year inside. Released from prison in 2007 on the grounds that he needed to seek urgent medical attention overseas, he left the country on a Learjet lent to him by the Kuwaiti Government. He was subsequently pardoned by President Jose Ramos-Horta, the man he is now competing against.
The cheery candidate who bounds into the room looks the picture of health now and dismisses the argument that this is a vanity campaign. He is ready to give up a seemingly lucrative career receiving government contracts to take up residence in the presidential palace. Although not considered one of the front-runners, he claims to be confident about his chances ('What would be the point of running otherwise?') and recites a raft of campaign promises.
A President Lobato would make his first priority reanimating discussions between his country and the oil companies that are now deadlocked on whether gas should be piped to the southern coast of Timor-Leste or Darwin. He would strive to create a better business environment for small Timorese enterprises and foreign investors alike. He would strengthen Dili's already good ties with Beijing but would not brook the establishment of a Chinese military base on Timorese soil.
He is unapologetic about his role in 2006 and claims his motives were misunderstood: 'don't forget that I am actually the only one of the big fish to have stood trial', he said. Many in Dili would concede the point: the UN Commission of Inquiry recommended further investigation into what senior figures in the political elite did or did not do during the crisis; the Timorese leadership has not pursued these cases. 'There is too much political interference in the judicial system which is why I am making justice a central campaign theme', he declares.
Our conversation slipped quickly into the past and the connections between the various runners and riders competing to be president. Many have known each other for decades. Lobato has known Jose Ramos-Horta since they were teenagers; in his youth he taught Latin to a young woman called Maria do Ceu da Silva Lopes, another candidate who recently entered the contest. He remembers her as a good student; she remembers an enthusiastic teacher with impeccable Latin who conjugated with relish the verbs amare and matere, to love and to kill.
The fact that senior political leaders know each other shouldn't come as a surprise. In a country of just over a million people there must obviously be connections. But it is an indication of how concepts in the international donor toolkit (such as 'accountability' and 'separation of powers' can be difficult to implement and adhere to. Although these individuals have formal positions, with clear constitutional distinctions between them, it is hard to separate titles and office from personal relationships, friendships, fall-outs and long histories. Perhaps for that reason, no Timorese politician seems to remain a pariah in perpetuity.
When I left his office, Lobato's outside porch was thronged with men who said they were ready to lend support to candidate Rogerio. One supplicant told me he was the brightest and the most worldly of all the candidates. I replied that some people overseas might find this potential turnaround from jailbird to candidate baffling, perhaps even a little distasteful. 'This is not Australia', he said. 'You need to understand that.'
Photo by the author.