East Timor independence fighter set to become PM again

Ballot-counting almost finished in East Timor on Sunday, with a three-party coalition headed by independence fighter Xanana Gusmao leading in the vote, making him likely to be prime minister for the third time in one of the world’s youngest nations.

The Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP) is ahead with 49.41 percent, while the Fretilin party, whose Secretary-General Mari Alkatiri is incumbent prime minister, is second with 34.34 percent, according to data from the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration.

As of Sunday afternoon, 607,272 votes, or 98.26 percent, had been counted, but the final result is expected by Monday morning.

With the votes counted so far, the AMP is set to win at least 34 seats in the 65-seat Parliament, while Fretilin is likely to win 23, similar to what it achieved in last year’s election.

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East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri voted in Dili’s Farol neighborhood on Saturday, May 12, 2018. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The result is expected to end months of political gridlock that has delayed development programs in the country, which voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999 and gained full independence in 2002.

An AMP source said that Gusmao, a former president and prime minister, will reassume the premiership and Taur Matan Ruak, a former president and head of the People’s Liberation Party — which is part of the AMP coalition — will be a deputy prime minister.

Arif Abdullah Sagran, a local political observer, said he is pessimistic that a government led by Gusmao will bring any change to development and social welfare in East Timor.

“Gusmao’s programs were always populist. They looked good only in the short term,” Sagran said, adding that Fretilin will not be much of a challenge to the future ruling coalition.

“The challenge will come from within the AMP, because the three parties that make up the coalition are very different from one another. The only thing that unites them is that they were facing the same opposition.”

Both sides refused to comment on the results until they become official at the end of the month after verification by the High Court.

Arlindo Amaral, a 38-year-old taxi driver who voted for Fretilin, said whatever the election outcome, what matters most is that all parties should be willing to work together to push for development in East Timor.

“The next government should be able to create more jobs, provide better electricity and clean water, and make their campaign promises a reality,” he said.

Youth unemployment remains high at 11 percent, according to the World Bank, and about 65 percent of East Timor’s population of 1.2 million is below 25 years old.

President Francisco Guterres called for elections after he dissolved Parliament in January following the collapse of the Fretilin-led minority government, which failed to secure Parliament’s approval for its budget and program.

The country’s revenue mainly comes from its oil and gas sector, which contributed around 70 percent to gross domestic product (GDP), which in 2016 was $1.783 billion, according to the World Bank.

The story first appeared in Arab News

East Timor PM urges calm as voters await election result

East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has urged his people to remain calm after they voted on Saturday for MPs who will determine a new prime minister and form a majority government to execute much-needed development programs in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“I appeal for the people to be calm, and for politicians and political parties to accept the results, because it was a very free and fair election. Whoever is defeated, it’s the people who really win the election,” Alkatiri said in an interview at a hotel near his Fretilin party’s headquarters.

Ballot-counting is still underway in the former Portuguese colony, but two political giants have expressed confidence that their respective party and coalition will win.

Alkatiri headed a minority government that collapsed after a three-party coalition led by former President and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao refused to approve the government’s budget.

Alkatiri said he is confident that his party will win more than 30 out of 65 seats in Parliament. His Fretilin party narrowly won the previous election in July 2017 by securing 23 seats.

“We’re already the winner,” he said after casting his vote.  “Fretilin never lost a single election throughout its history.”

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East Timor PM Mari Alkatiri talked to journalists after casting his vote in a polling station in Dili’s Farol neighborhood. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

If his party wins, Alkatiri said the next government will work “to get poor people out of poverty. This is my target for the next five years.”

Every aspect of development is crucial, but what East Timorese need most are clean water, infrastructure and community housing.

Gusmao said he is confident his coalition will get more than the 35 seats it secured in last year’s election.

There are signs of electoral fraud, such as ink that washes out quickly and people who voted twice in different places, he added.

“In some places, there were fewer ballot papers than registered voters,” he said in an interview at his party’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) headquarters.

A spokesman for Gusmao’s Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP), Tiago Sarmento, said there are reports that six supporters’ homes were burnt down in Oecusse, an East Timor exclave surrounded by Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province on the western half of Timor Island.

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East Timor President Francisco Guterres (second from right) posed with election observers from Election Commission of Thailand and its chairman Supachai Somcharoen (second from left), after he cast his vote on Saturday, May 12 in Dili’s Farol neighborhood. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Luis da Costa Ximenes, an election observer and director of the Dili-based conflict-prevention NGO Belun, said that the group identified 107 incidents during the one-month campaign period, including verbal abuse on social media from fake accounts.

Alkatiri said the incidents were minor, and the election was held in a “very professional” way.

“Show me one election in the world that is without a single incident,” he added.

There were 784,286 registered voters out of a population of 1.2 million in East Timor, which was annexed by Indonesia for 24 years before it voted for secession in 1999 and gained full independence in 2002. Official results will be announced on May 28 after verification from the High Court.

The story first appeared in Arab News

East Timor’s weekend elections expected to end political gridlock

IMG_0951Voters in East Timor will go to the polls on Saturday after President Francisco Guterres dissolved Parliament in January because the minority government led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri failed to secure approval for his government’s budget and program.

The elections will be the second in less than a year and are expected to produce a clear winner to end a political gridlock that hampers development for a population of 1.2 million.

It was the first time in East Timor’s 15 years of independence that the Parliament was dissolved, said Arif Abdullah Sagran, a former member of East Timor’s election commission.

The two political blocks are competing to secure at least 35 seats in the 65-member Parliament to form a majority government.

“This will be a hotly contested election. We will not have political stability if none of them is able to win at least 35 seats,” Julio Tomas Pinto, a political science professor at the National University of East Timor, said.

Alkatiri’s Fretilin party narrowly won the July 2017 elections with 23 seats, followed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the party led by first president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao, which won 22 seats.

But the two political giants were on opposing sides and the Fretilin formed a minority government with the Democrats, which had seven seats, while Gusmao’s CNRT went into coalition with the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which had eight seats, and the Khunto party, which had five seats, forming a majority in the Parliament.

Pinto said that the CNRT, PLP and Khunto have been campaigning under a new banner, the Alianca Mudanca ba Progresso, or Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP), and the alliance could win the election if the three parties can maintain the same results as last year’s elections.

He added that public perception seemed to favor Xanana’s CNRT as the winner, while Sagran said support from the grassroots for the Fretilin looked strong.

“But there is no guarantee, we have too much floating mass,” said Pinto, who served as secretary of state for defense from 2007 to 2015.

According to data from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), there are 784,286 voters and 48 percent of them are women.

The number of eligible voters are roughly the same as last year’s amount, which saw voters not showing up at voting booths.

“We hope voters turnout will be higher this time,” Pinto said, adding that democracy in one of the world’s youngest nation was being tested with the upcoming elections, which he said would set an example for the younger generation.

Gusmao and Alkatiri are two of the most prominent figures in East Timor, which gained its independence in 2002 after it voted to end Indonesia’s 24-year occupation in a referendum in 1999.

The two political lions have dominated East Timor’s politics and both served as the country’s president and prime minister. Caretaker Prime Minister Alkatiri, a Muslim leader of Yemeni descent in a Catholic-majority country, served as the country’s first prime minister in 2002-2006, alongside Gusmao who served as the country’s first president in 2002-2007. The latter also served as prime minister in 2007-2015.

Pinto said members of CNRT and its coalition were mainly former resistance guerillas who fought during Indonesia’s occupation while Fretilin members were mostly diplomats who had been abroad advocating for East Timor’s independence.

“However, we don’t want to contradict the two of them because both forces are assets for East Timor. This election will be a test case of our elite’s political maturity,” Pinto said.

“The people are fed up with the elite’s arrogance. When (the opposition) directly rejected the government’s budget without even deliberating, it was clearly harsh politics and I think the people were quite disappointed with that,” said Sagran, who is president of the Center of East Timor Islamic Community, and like Alkatiri is one of the few Muslim figures who have held positions as government officials in East Timor.

Gusmao is enjoying a boost in his popularity after he served as chief negotiator during negotiations with neighboring Australia that resulted in the signing of a treaty on maritime borders between the two countries in March. The treaty promises major revenue sharing with Australia from exploitation of rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

According to East Timor’s Maritime Boundary Office, the permanent maritime boundaries served as “the final step in realizing full sovereign rights” for East Timor as a newly independent state since the seas which surround the island sustain its people and are integral to their culture and livelihoods.

If CNRT wins the elections, Gusmao could assume another premiership but Sagran said Gusmao could appoint someone else from within the coalition ranks as prime minister.

Pinto said that the elections could also be a test of the country’s constitution, which he said was adapted from its former colonizer Portugal.

He said there were articles in the constitution that did not have detailed explanation, such as the deadline to propose the second budget to the Parliament if the first one was rejected. This means each party could interpret them in accordance with their own interests.

“We will see if our constitution will really fit with our people or just be a copy from the Portuguese, which is not entirely implementable here,” Pinto said.

This article was first published in Arab News

 

Saudi couple meet Indonesian maid they forgave for murder of their child

A Saudi couple from Tabuk have met the Indonesian domestic helper they pardoned after she was sentenced to death for murdering their 11-month-old child in 2009.

Ghalib Nasir Al-Hamri Al-Balawi and his wife arrived in Indonesia on May 3 for a week-long stay, which included a visit to Cirebon in West Java to meet Masamah bint Raswa Sanusi and her family.

“I didn’t seek for anything else by giving her pardon but God’s mercy,” Al-Balawi said through a translator during a press conference at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Jakarta on Monday.

He said that he was very impressed with the hospitality showed by Indonesia during their first visit to the country.

Arief Hidayat, an official from the Foreign Ministry’s Directorate for Protection of Indonesian Citizens Abroad, said that the couple’s visit was facilitated by the Indonesian Consulate General in Jeddah in appreciation of the couple’s compassion and willingness to forgive Masamah.

“We took them to Cirebon by train and they were greeted by the acting Cirebon district head upon arrival,” Hidayat said, adding that they also took the couple to the safari park in Cisarua in the mountainous Puncak area, a popular destination for tourists from Middle Eastern countries.

Masamah’s lengthy trial began in 2009 after local authorities accused her of murdering Al-Balawi’s child after they found her fingerprints on the baby’s face.

Masamah has always maintained her innocence and said that she only rubbed the baby’s face after she found it unconscious. She was sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 but the district attorney appealed and she was sentenced to death in 2016.

During her appeal trial in March 2017, Al-Balawi pardoned her and decided not to demand blood money, but Masamah still had to serve the remaining two and a half years of her prison sentence.

She was released from prison in January and stayed at the consulate general’s shelter until she was cleared to leave and return to Indonesia in March.

Al-Balawi and his wife’s visit came after the execution of an Indonesian national who had been working as a driver, Muhammad Zaini Misrin on March 18 after a court has found him guilty of murdering his employer in 2005. The news of Misrin’s execution caused a national outrage.

The Indonesian government said they didn’t received notification prior to his execution and said that the execution was untimely as Misrin was undergoing another legal avenue to have his case reviewed.

Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Osamah bin Mohammad Al-Shuaibi said the Saudi authorities had done their part to inform the Indonesian embassy about Misrin’s execution including a notification on the day of the execution before it was carried out.

“What we need to do now is inform those who want to visit Saudi Arabia about the law and that they have to follow the rules in Saudi Arabia. It is our duty to explain to them,” Al Shuaibi said.

“We have to respect the laws in our respective countries,” he added.

Hidayat said there are 20 Indonesians on death row in Saudi prisons and Indonesian officials in Saudi Arabia were making sure that their legal rights were met.

“But it would not annul the crimes that they committed,” he added.

This article has been expanded from its original version in Arab News

Indonesia rebuffs claims it issues tourist visas for Israelis

The Indonesian government said Sunday it was not issuing tourist visas for Israeli passport holders, debunking a report from an Israeli news outlet, which claimed that it was accepting applications for tourist visas from Israelis.

Agung Sampurno, a spokesman for the immigration department of Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, said that there was no tourist visa specifically for Israelis as Indonesia already has a free-visa policy for nationals from 169 countries to enter the country for tourist or leisure purposes.

Israel is not included on the list since Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

“Our visa policy has not change in accordance with our foreign policy,” Sampurno said.

Israeli news portal Haaretz.com reported on Thursday that Israelis could soon see the “gorgeous destinations” that they “could only see in the movies” by applying for a tourist visa to Indonesia beginning on May 1, and the report described the process as “expensive and lengthy.”

According to the report – which did not provide information from the Indonesian authorities – Israelis can apply for the visa through the “Israel Indonesia Agency” and that “talks are underway to let Israelis get their Indonesia visa in Israel.”

“The news report that said Indonesia was giving out tourist visas to Israel is a hoax” Sampurno said.

The agency’s website was still accessible on Friday but was no longer so on Sunday. According to the website, a single-entry visa costs applicants $135, with which they can stay for 30 days, and an extension for another 30 days will cost applicants $35.

According to the website, “in April 2018, the Ministry of Immigration of the Republic of Indonesia decided to open up a temporary visa quota for Israeli passports to travel to Indonesia under all foreign visa categories to determine the impact and potential of increased bilateral relations between the nations.”

It also featured pictures of a white sandy beach with turquoise blue water and a destination believed to be Raja Ampat, a cluster of 1,500 jungle-covered small islands known as a diver’s paradise and located on West Papua province on the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.

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Screenshots from the now-defunct Israel Indonesia Agency website, which claimed it offered assistance for Israeli passport holders to secure tourist visas to Indonesia.

“There is no such ‘Ministry of Immigration’ in Indonesia,” Sampurno said.

A statement from the Foreign Ministry said the Indonesian government institution in charge of any immigration issues is the Directorate General of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.

“The Directorate General of Immigration of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Republic of Indonesia neither recognize nor has relations with Israel Indonesia Agency.”

The statement also said the information in the agency’s website was “wrong and misleading” and that the only way for Israeli passport holders to secure Indonesian visa was through the “calling visa” process.

Sampurno said the calling visa mechanism is available for citizens of nations with which Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations.

The decision to grant a calling visa involves a number of government agencies with the Foreign Ministry at the lead and the conditions applied to a calling visa holder are very restrictive.

“The visa holder’s whereabouts is limited to a certain place. For example, if the holder stated in the application the place would be in Jakarta, the visa holder can’t go further even to the suburbs of Jakarta and the visa holder can only enter Indonesia through Jakarta’s Soekarno Hatta airport,” Sampurno said.

“There will also be constant monitoring from the authorities to the calling visa holder,” he added.

The story was first published in Arab News

 

Indonesia to host Pakistani, Afghan scholars for peace conference

Indonesia will host a meeting of “ulema” (Islamic scholars) from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia on Thursday in an effort to support the Afghan peace process, the country’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla announced last week.

In a concluding speech at a three-day gathering of international Muslim scholars, Kalla said Indonesia could play a role in building peace in Afghanistan by hosting the meeting on May 11. It was scheduled to be held in March in Jakarta but was delayed after a call from the Taliban to boycott it.

“We hope to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, we still have a problem there,” Kalla said at the vice presidential palace on May 3.

The plan to hold the meetings of the ulema from Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan arose after a delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council led by its chairman Karim Khalili visited Indonesia in November. The council had asked Indonesia to support the peace process in Afghanistan through the ulema’s role.

The plan was further discussed when Kalla visited Kabul in late February to attend the Kabul Process conference, where he was the guest of honor.

“The people will listen to the ulema and they have trust in fatwas that the ulema issued,” Kalla said.

Afghan cleric Fazal Ghani Kakar, who was one of the participants in the conference, confirmed that the meeting will take place and that he has been invited to attend.

Kakar, who is the former chairman of Afghanistan’s Nahdlatul Ulama, said that the meeting would be timely because there was an urgent need to find resolution to the problem in Afghanistan, which he said was suffering from radicalism and extreme interpretation of Islam.

“The core issue will be how to build trust between the Afghan and Pakistan ulema because both sides have their own influence on the warring factions in Afghanistan,” Kakar told journalists at the palace.

“This will be the first round and we hope this will open the gate for further discussion,” Kakar said.

He said that he had high hopes for the meeting because “most of the extreme ideas are coming from the Pakistani side, so sitting with the Pakistani ulema is the first step together to reach a better solution.”

He also said there would be at least five ulema from Afghanistan attending, and ulema from the Taliban were expected to come because the political faction of the Taliban has expressed interest in joining the meeting.

“We are very thankful for Indonesia; it has always played its role in brokering peace within the country, and in neighboring countries. We are looking forward to this being a good step for Afghanistan,” Kakar said.

Riefqi Muna, a foreign policy researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said  there was a lot that Indonesia could share from its experience as a Muslim-majority country with a stable democracy that has had its own share of secessionist and communal conflicts.

“We are not going to lecture them, but there are best practices experiences that we can share, so it is necessary for Indonesia to take part in pushing for peace process in conflict-torn countries,” Muna said.

“Facilitating a place for conflicting parties to meet is a step to build peace and for conflict resolution,” he said.

The story was first published in Arab News

 

Indonesian president urged to ban child marriage

Women’s rights activists in Indonesia are pushing President Joko Widodo to issue a presidential regulation that will make child marriage illegal in the country, where its prevalence is one of the highest in world.

They submitted on Apr. 20 their proposed draft of a presidential regulation to Widodo, in lieu of a law to prevent and abolish early marriage. Presidential spokesman Johan Budi, confirmed that the meeting took place in Bogor Palace.

Naila Rizqi Zakiah, a public attorney from Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) and one of the 18 activists invited to meet with him, said they raised three issues: Child marriage, the bill to amend the criminal code, and the bill against sexual violence.

“The first issue the president responded to was child marriage,” Zakiah said.

“We asked him to issue a presidential regulation in lieu of a law to prevent and stop child marriage. We’ve come up with a draft, and we submitted it to him for his perusal.”

She said Widodo responded “positively” to the proposal after they explained to him that child marriage could deny children their basic human rights and hinder national development.

“We submitted this draft because we think rampant child marriage in the country is an emergency situation, while the procedure in Parliament to amend the articles on the minimum age to marry in the marriage law could be lengthy,” Zakiah said.

The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection has urged Parliament to prioritize amending the 1974 marriage law to raise the minimum age for females to marry to 20 and for males to 22.

The law requires parental permission for those under 21 who want to marry. The minimum legal age for women to marry is 16, and 19 for men.

Parents can request a legal exemption from a religious court to marry children younger than that, with no limit on the minimum age.

Women’s and child rights activists have been advocating to raise the minimum legal age for females to marry to 18, in line with the child protection law that categorizes those under 18 as minors.

“It’s still not the ideal age to get married, but would be the minimum (acceptable),” said Maria Ulfa Anshor, a commissioner for the Indonesian Child Protection Commission.

“We appreciate the president’s response. We’ve been waiting for so long for this move, especially since the risks and dangers of child marriage, such as the high maternal mortality rate, are so real,” she added.

“I hope there will be no more child marriage, because the courts give exemptions to do so.”

The Constitutional Court in June 2015 rejected a request to review the marriage law and raise the legal age for girls to marry from 16 to 18.

According to UNICEF, child marriage in Indonesia is rampant, with more than one in six girls, or 340,000, getting married every year before they reach adulthood.

Child marriage is most prevalent among girls who are 16 and 17, but there has been a decline among under-15s.

The debate about banning child marriage resurfaced following media reports of a 14-year-old girl and her 15-year-old boyfriend in South Sulawesi province who sought an exemption from a religious court to get married, which they obtained. They reportedly got married on Monday.

The story was first published in Arab News