Last month's decision by a closed-door session of Timor-Leste's parliament to unceremoniously turf out foreign judges and legal advisers has put attention back on Australia's near neighbour.
Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, during his first term in 2008.
None of the judges and prosecutors are going just yet. Many are continuing to work amidst uncertainty over what happens next, but the snap decision caught many by surprise. It certainly knocked another story off the front page: a World Bank employee who was working for the Timor-Leste Ministry of Finance was apprehended at Dili airport on suspicions he was taking off with over US$800,000.
So what's going on?
In Dili, some speculate that the parliament's resolution relates to the ongoing court case involving Conoco Phillips and allegations of unpaid royalties and taxes; the judges, allegedly, might be a bit too independent and judicial for the Government's liking. With the country's Anti-Corruption Commission also getting its advisers targeted, others suspect the move is really about neutering ongoing investigations against members of the political elite.
For a world-weary observer it's further evidence that Xanana Gusmao, the country's Prime Minister, might not be the saintly figure some Australians think him to be.
Whatever the reasons, the parliament's decision is reminiscent more of a kangaroo court than a country that (probably rightly) claims the moral high ground at the Hague in its dispute with Australia over spying and resources.
Away from the headlines, the case also sheds light on contemporary Timor-Leste and some of the dynamics at play.
First of all, Timor-Leste's parliament is not the raucous scrutineer it used to be. This is Gusmao's second term as Prime Minister and he's had a much less vigorous chamber to deal with this time around than he did during his first term from 2007-2012. Then, the major opposition party FRETILIN waged a blistering campaign to hold the Government to account. Opposition MPs combined impassioned rhetoric inside parliament with regular dumps of compromising documentation outside detailing supposedly shonky Government contracts.
Their strategy gained international admirers but not enough support from the Timorese electorate. Gusmao's formidable brand of retail politics won out in the 2012 elections. Nowadays, there is a very different feel to FRETILIN's approach. Some of the party's most vocal and formidable advocates have left parliament. Mari Alkatiri, a former Prime Minister and previously a vociferous critic of Gusmao's improvident spending, now helms a optimistic government scheme to transform the country's remote Oecusse enclave into a free enterprise zone.
Divvying out jobs is a political settlement between senior political leaders but hardly the combative relationship democracies are built on. The result is a sleepier parliament. The vast majority of FRETILIN MP's did vote against the resolution, but it's hard to imagine previous parliaments acquiescing so quietly.
Second, it shows the current primacy of the Timorese Government vis-à-vis international donors. Whereas before it was donors that paid for advisers, nowadays, the Timor-Leste Government foots the bill for many, especially Portuguese speakers needed for legal drafting skills. A particular governmental mindset is at play here. The role of many of these advisers is less to 'advise' Timorese civil servants on how to do their job, but more to do the job for them. With nearly $17 billion in the bank, Timor-Leste's leaders perceive their country as more akin to a Gulf petro-state than an aid-dependent 'post-conflict' country. I wouldn't be surprised if an adviser drafted the parliamentary resolution, written in Portuguese. It will be interesting to see if donors kick up a fuss, especially given their extensive support to the Anti-Corruption Commission. (Australia largely pulled back from its support to the justice system a few years ago.)
Thirdly, it is further evidence that Timor-Leste's formidable leader is the definition of mercurial. Take the last few months for example. In July, Gusmao was welcoming Equatoguinean despot Teodoro Obiang to Dili; in August he was sermonising about a world of peace to the Unification Church in Seoul, and in September he received Indonesia's highest honour from President SBY in Bali.
This month, his parliamentary bloc supported the ejection of foreign legal advisers. It would be a brave person to lay money on what the Prime Minister might do next, which revolves around whether the advisers story is in, effect, 'burying the lead'.
Amidst this attention, Fairfax's Tom Allard may have been handed an even bigger scoop.
He reported last week that the parliament authorised the 'immediate commencement of negotiations' with Australia to establish a new maritime boundary between the two countries. It's hard to believe that it's less than a year ago that Dili was alleging that Canberra was spying on the Timorese cabinet and securing the services of their own team of international legal advisers to make their case. Allard's story, on the back of a notification by the Hague Court that the two countries would suspend legal and arbitration proceedings for six months, suggests something might be afoot. Could a deal to settle the long-running dispute over resources in the Timor Sea be in the offing?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user RTP.