East Timor's President Francisco Guterres (right) arriving to announce the dissolution of parliament in Dili recently. AFP Photo
A young boy lying next to corn husks in Rimenze, South Sudan, during a famine last year.

THINGS are not progressing well for two of the world’s newest independent nations — South Sudan in Africa and Timor Leste in our own part of the world.

South Sudan is the newer of the two and the worse off, by far. Tribal rivalries, the original trigger for the nation’s carve-out from Sudan in 2011, have continued unabated and even gotten worse, resulting in grave instances of atrocities, and even famine, despite the continued presence of United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian personnel.

Tens of thousands are known to have died in the few short years since South Sudanese gained their “freedom” and four million of them displaced from their homes.

The prospects for even a respite from what surely is nothing less than civil war are so dim that the African Union has now called for sanctions to be imposed on the country’s warring factions, backed by the UN.

Early cynics of the country’s independence as the answer to its challenges can hardly cheer the irony of the international community now contemplating the exact same resort to sanctions that forced the hand of the government of Sudan to grant its troubled south independence.

What exactly will the new rounds of sanctions, if applied, achieve aside from bringing greater misery to already long-suffering South Sudanese?

Why exactly is it that difficult to bring the country’s tin-pot rulers to heel? The country has little strategic value to any of the big global powers although its oil reserves have attracted Chinese interests.

China, incidentally, went along (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) with South Sudanese independence despite China being understandably leery about regions breaking out to form newly-independent countries.

The continuing political unrest in South Sudan cannot be good for anyone, least of all those from without with vested economic interests in the country.

Now, Timor Leste. At least its challenges are still largely confined in the political arena but that is still cold comfort.

Despite the lingering influence of such independence-era statesmen as Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, the new country has so far shown scant capacity to rise above its internal political divisions.

In last year’s elections, a more or less hung parliament ensued which, predictably, resulted in paralysis and now more uncertainty as fresh elections have just been called.

Timor Leste was granted independence in 2002 after much resistance when it was incorporated as a new province of Indonesia in 1975 when Portugal, the colonial power, pulled out.

It appears on hindsight the territory achieved unity of purpose only to expel Indonesia, whose influence after a quarter century of vigorous efforts to absorb Timor Leste lingers today, most noticeably with Bahasa Indonesia remaining the local lingua franca.

Political differences have descended into sporadic violence before, including a military/police mutiny in 2006.

At the very minimum, political uncertainty and instability mean Timor Leste’s pressing economic challenges to make life slightly more meaningful for the majority of its desperately poor population will not be prioritised as they should be.

South Sudan and Timor Leste are poster children for how natural wealth in oil and gas can be more a curse than a blessing for their people.

As the ruling elites in both bicker and fight over control of the nations’ natural resources, independence means little, and mostly only continued misery for ordinary people in both nations.

In Timor Leste’s case, even a legislated mandate to channel wealth derived from exploitation of its natural resources into a wealth fund has not insulated the country from but only stored up trouble.

It remains highly debatable if national wealth should mostly be sequestered away for the future, when there is a crying need to invest in the development of human capital and such basics as public health in the here and now.

Both South Sudan and Timor Leste were born out of supposedly universal ideals about self-determination, freedom from oppression and popular elections and economic enfranchisement of the masses.

South Sudan today joins the ranks of not a few other African nations for whom time more or less stood still, even more than half a century after each of them gained independence.

There were quiet if influential voices among the global power elites which of course dared not openly speak up about the fact that Timor Leste’s best interests really lay with absorption by Indonesia in 1975.

What is done cannot be undone now. But, we should at least recognise that political idealism is a poor substitute for a healthy dose of realism.

John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via: johnteo808@gmail.com

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