Excerpt from Democracy, Representation, and Accountability in Timor-Leste, Nov. 2015, The Asia Foundation
Civil society plays an important role in fully developed democracies, balancing the private and public sectors, and helping ensure ordinary citizens have a voice in government. In Timor-Leste civil society (including labor unions) is considered weak, especially compared to its neighbor Indonesia. But looked at in another way the country might be described as having quite “think” civil society, but in a form we are not used to describing as such.
The factors driving the development of civil society were different in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The development of think civil society in Indonesia was driven by the forced exclusion of Islam-based political parties from the political process. Unable to participate in the formal political process, and living in an environment lacking essential services, these activists devoted their energies to development a network of community-driven education and health CSOs that provided the primary social safety net in Indonesia for decades, supplying services the government could not or would not provide.
In Timor-Leste, decades of repression and insecurity under Indonesia colonial rule created different pressures. The Indonesians, in an attempt to pacify the colony, provided essential services, but at the same time created a climate of danger and insecurity. In response, Timorese developed very strong voluntary assiciations devoted to liberation and personal security. These are, of course, the armed and unarmed liberation movement, and the clan-based gangs or militia.
Post-liberation the military and civilian leadership of the movement moved into formal national and local politics- leaving civil society. But the rank and file formed veterans’ groups, arguably the strongest voluntary associations in the country. The gangs and militias based in strong ethnic and clan networks also continued, and while these are in some sense criminal organizations, they also provide some protection and services to their members.
The understandable reluctance to include these sectors as “civil society’ may account to some degree for the perception that civil society is underdeveloped in Timor-Leste and while its clear these are associations akin to civil society, it remains an open question whether it is possible for these associations to evolve towards a more positive social role.
As the government becomes more centralized and powerful, space for both formal and informal civil society in decreasing. A recently passed law restricts freefom of assembly, severely constraining CSOs ability to publicly demonstrate against unpopular laws or government policies.