Thursday, July 28, 2011, 00:00

Rising from ruins


When torrential rain hits the coast of Dili, capital city of Timor-Leste, children and adults run with their rubber sandals or barefoot to the narrow stretch of the beach, some jumping into the sea, others striking footballer’s poses. Boys and girls, adult men and women, all are having a good time, shouting and laughing carelessly.

All seems to be jolly.

Beachfront in the capital city of Timor-Leste, a tiny republic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, could easily pass as part of some tropical resort island with no serious historical or social burden.

Apart from heavy international police, military and the UN presence, Dili feels increasingly orderly. It boasts some beautifully restored villas built in constructivist style during the Portuguese colonial rule. The city is now home to many international restaurants, boutique hotels and one magnificent cultural center called Casa Europa.

But it is not all rosy, yet. Almost 250 kilometers to the east from the capital, the city of Los Palos shows fewer signs of prosperity. Jose Manuel Marciso, veterinary student, is holding his 9-month-old son Fretiliano, nicknamed Frente.

Frente means ‘front’ and Fretiliano is a paraphrase of FRETILIN – the first and the left wing government of East Timor after the independence from Portugal in 1975 as well as the patriotic resistance movement during Indonesian occupation (1975 to 1999).

“Life is still difficult in the provinces,” says Jose Manuel. “There were some improvements in infrastructure, but the country is still facing problems like water and electricity shortages.”

Despite the hardship that many people have to face, it would be hard to disagree that Timor-Leste has made tremendous progress since independence.

Its fate was one of the most awful suffered by any nation in the second half of the 20th century. At least 200,000 people died during Indonesian occupation (at least one quarter and possibly one third of the entire population). After voting for sovereignty in 1999, pro-Jakarta militias backed by the military ransacked the country.

What followed was international outcry. Abandoned by the world for almost a quarter of a century, East Timor finally received assistance. The International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) had been deployed to stop the violence, and then the governance was taken over by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The country became officially independent on May 20, 2002, and its first president – José Xanana Gusm?o – was sworn in.

Gusm?o inherited the poorest country in Asia with dreadful infrastructure and a population with virtually no education.

“I am afraid that our people expect too much from the government. After having nothing for so long, they suddenly want everything: the roof that does not leak, free education, free medical care. We want to give it to them all, but how? We are so poor!” he shared with these writers his thoughts and fears before becoming the president.

Not even one decade after independence, the country is, despite countless problems it had to face, unrecognizable. Its Human Development Index under the UN Development Programme is now 120th from a total of 169 countries where it is measured. Timor-Leste (now official name of the country) stands higher than Laos (122) and Cambodia (124), and is not so far below Indonesia (108).

“The new country had a card up its sleeve: offshore oil and gas, mineral wealth just waiting to be cashed in. Today the country is rolling in filthy lucre. In 2002 Timor-Leste’s national budget was less than $20m; for 2011 it is more than $1 billion”, reported The Economist.

“The government of José “Xanana” Gusm?o, an independence hero turned prime minister, is spending like mad. It has busied itself dishing out $450m for a national grid and power plant; other contracts for roads, bridges, farming equipment; improved pensions for the elderly and veterans; and spending on sundry other priorities that Gusm?o judges to be essential to growth and development.

“The spending spree is made possible by the East Timor Petroleum Fund, which held $7.2 billion as of March 1 and allows the government to draw a small percentage of it each year to fund its otherwise insignificant budget,” according to the magazine.

Lita Sarmento, member of Electoral Commission, who also works for Dutch Humanist Institute, HIVOS, says although the government did not fulfill many promises it made earlier, Timor-Leste has progressed on many social issues. “Now we have free education and free medical care. Some things like rice are subsidized by the government.”

Hilman Akil is working as an adviser on IT for the Ministry of Infrastructure of Timor-Leste. “Timor-Leste is making great progress,” acknowledges the Indonesian IT engineer and graduate of prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology and Columbia University in New York.

“Before the end of 2011, all districts of Timor-Leste will be wired. We are using bandwidth from Singapore and terrestrial digital switches of Timor Telecom. They are first connecting government offices and right after that will move on to schools.”

“Now 86 percent of adult population of Timor-Leste uses fixed lines or mobile phones,” Akil adds. “That’s 500,000 users out of a population of slightly over 1 million! In districts, the government is giving away free phones!”

The young country is implementing some of the most progressive policies in the world. Of them is the Petroleum Fund mentioned above. Inspired by Norway this initiative is supposed to guarantee that not one cent from oil or gas could be spent by the government without Parliament’s approval.

“The government could only propose investments funded from raw material money, but such proposals have to be publicly discussed, and then approved by Parliament,” explains Petroleum Fund Consultative Council Member Nuno Rodriguez. “The essence is to guarantee transparency on how the government is managing our oil and other resources.”

Difficult negotiations with Australia over the shared natural resources were concluded in what could be called a compromise. In 2009, former prime minister and head of FRETILIN, Mari Alkatiri, explained to these writers in Jakarta, “Timor-Leste’s main source of revenue is Bayu Undan’s oil, reaching an overall total of $5 billion this year. The oil field is expected to last until 2024. As a result, Timor-Leste no longer needs to depend on international donors.

“The Timorese government has also signed an agreement with Australia on the exploitation of the largest oil field in the Timor Sea, Greater Sunrise. The negotiations are currently over the direction of the pipeline. In this field, the main operator is the Australian company, Woodside. Proceeds are to be divided 50-50 between Timor-Leste and Australia.”

Timor-Leste has moved with great speed from one of the poorest countries on earth to low mid-income nation. Its economy grew by 8 percent, and its GDP (on PPP basis) reached $3 billion in 2010, according to the latest CIA Factbook. Unemployment still stands at around 20 percent, but is declining.

In late 1999, about 70 percent of the economic infrastructure of Timor-Leste was ruined by Indonesian troops and anti-independence militias. Genocide and economic destruction that lasted almost a quarter of a century traumatized its citizens.

However, the country does not seem to have the nerve or appetite to challenge Indonesia and its military in the international courts.

“We are too small and too weak”, Ramos Horta, now president of the country and also a Nobel Peace Price winner, told these writers several years ago. “Indonesia is our neighbor and we have to live with it.”

“In recent years, with the support of the international community and with the unremitting efforts of its own, Timor-Leste has maintained political stability and sustained economic growth, and much progress has been made in all fields”, explains China’s Charge d’Affaires Fang Xinwen.

“The recent handover of police responsibility from UNPOL (United Nations Police) to PNTL (National Police of Timor-Leste) is the best proof of the improvement of security situation. It is widely recognized that the Timorese government has done tremendous work to attract foreign investment, create more jobs, and make more investment in agriculture, non-petrol economy, human capacity building, infrastructure and public service.”

Not all went smoothly. In February 2008 a gunman injured President Ramos-Horta. Prime Minister Gusm?o was also shot at. But the worst scenario of civil conflict never materialized and Timor-Leste managed to subdue its divisions. Now, three years later, Gusm?o is negotiating entry of his country to ASEAN. It is expected that Timor-Leste will get in this year, or the latest in 2012.

Chinese hand in Timorese revival?

No strings are attached and no conditions imposed. What China has been doing in Timor-Leste over the past nine years is sincerely and selflessly try to help the island country enhance its capability to develop independently, says Fang Xinwen, Chinese Charge d’Affaires in Timor-Leste.

“No political conditions are attached. We never seek any selfish interest or expand the sphere of influence,” he explains, adding the primary objective of China is to make the best use of the budget – maximizing limited funds for maximum benefits for the local people.

“China is the first country to establish diplomatic ties with Timor-Leste (after it became independent in 2002). The past years have witnessed continuous development of friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries in all fields,” he says.

“Except for a few government buildings, we have attached more attention to projects related to the wellbeing of the local people. Our cooperation and projects in agricultural, medical, educational fields as well as human resources training have been well received by the Timorese people,” Fang says.

“China has built the Presidential Palace and the Foreign Ministry office building. Three more are under construction: residential quarters for servicemen, an elementary school and office building for the Ministry of Defense and the National Defence Force of Timor-Leste (F-FDTL) headquarters,” says Fang.

Material assistance has also come in the form of rice, edible oil, agricultural machinery, office furniture, etc., he adds.

As a developing power, China is providing assistance… in various forms, to other countries, particularly those least developed, while striving for its own development, Fang says.

“We fully respect our Timorese friends. We never impose our will on them. China as the donor country and Timor-Leste as the receiving country are truly on an equal ground,” he explains.

China is also taking part in the construction of electric grids as most leaders in this country would like to see “electricity in every household” as soon as possible.

“China is putting in all power transmission lines, and is cooperating with a Finnish company, Wartsila, which will be building a gas engine power plant,” says Hilman Akil, an IT adviser with Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Infrastructure.

According to Petroleum Fund Commission (of Timor-Leste) member Nuno Rodriguez, China is “learning” what Timor-Leste needs. “These can be in the form of aid or in the form of contracts with the government such as the contract to build the entire power sector,” he says.

Together with Cuba, China has been a huge help to the island country’s medical sector as well. A number of Cuban and Chinese doctors are working at the National Hospital in Dili. While hundreds of Cuban medics are working all over the country, China has sent top experts who are mainly staffing the hospitals. Both countries provide scholarships to medical students, and are “determined” to set up a medical school in Timor-Leste.

“Chinese doctors are great. They are all very professional, especially those working in the maternity ward and the urology department,” says Senior Nurse Hermina Guterres.

“I had a chance to work with one doctor from the maternity ward. He was excellent, and a great inspiration. Some Chinese doctors were asked to serve their second term by the hospital.”

Almeiro Manuel Pereira Suares, another senior nurse, is particularly impressed with two doctors from Sichuan province – Dr Cheng and Dr Lee of the urology department.

“The advantage of having the Chinese doctors is that Timor-Leste does not have to pay them. They are very precise in their work – extremely professional!”

A patient called Beni from Palipaso tells China Daily Asia Weekly that she has a niece who is learning acupuncture from one of the Chinese doctors. She has decided to go all the way – to learn the Chinese language as well – Beni adds.

According to Fang, a Chinese agricultural team is implementing the Hybrid Rice Demonstration Project in Manatuto, which is in the “popularization stage”.

China has four medical teams in Timor-Leste. Fang says, “The fourth team is working at the National Hospital. We also provided training opportunities to more than 500 Timorese officials and technicians for advanced study and short-term courses in China.”

“Since 2009, the Chinese government is offering six government scholarships to Timorese students every year. All these projects are at the proposal of the Timorese side, and (carried out) jointly by the Chinese and Timorese Governments.”?

Foreigners add special flavor

Islands and beaches, mountains and history… Timor-Leste is a stunning country. Across the street from the beach, in the capital city – Dili – foreign expatriates are sipping chilled drinks and picking on their tapas on the elevated terraces of elegant cafes and restaurants like Esplanada.

Meat may be imported from nearby Australia, but almost all fish and seafood is now local, and so are the vegetables and some fruits.

Hardly anyone would disagree that the presence of foreigners from all over the world has improved the quality of foods and diversified cultures of this tiny country.

Not long ago a forsaken place and the poorest part of Asia, Timor-Leste would attract only UN employees and international security forces. Now it attracts both expats from the entire world and, paradoxically, economic migrants, particularly from Indonesia.

Dili is a booming town with cafes and restaurants, sea promenades (some of them still under construction), Internet cafes and new, smart hotels.

Land Cruisers with ‘Police’ and United Nations insignias are still patrolling the streets, although officially Timor-Leste is now in charge of its own law-enforcement. Streets feel much safer now than several years ago.

IT expert and Columbia University graduate – Hilman Akil – is one of hundreds of Indonesian expatriates living in Timor-Leste. He enjoys his life in Dili, and in his own words, wouldn’t want to go back to “polluted and chaotic” Jakarta. “I love it here. I couldn’t stand to live in Jakarta anymore. I spent too much time in traffic jams there.”

Handry, cashier at Japanese Wasabie restaurant in Dili says, “I am from the city of Surabaya. I think there are more than 1,000 Indonesians here in Dili on working visas, more without visas. Most of us love it here. I think it is because of the higher standard of living here. Only problem here is that there is still a lack of entertainment, so the guys go home every three or six months.”

Indonesian Nugraha Katjasungkana, who is an adviser at the Department of Communication for the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality, says it is easy to live here.

“(There is little animosity) towards people like us. During the conflict some people like me worked for independence of this country. So in a way we belong here,” he says.

Out of thousands of men and women who served in UN security forces after 1999, many intermarried with the locals. Some stayed in Timor-Leste opening restaurants and other services.

Dili is still a small sleepy town but with dozens of nationalities, it is creating a subdued cosmopolitan flare. Portuguese were until recently forming the backbone of the police force, Brazilians are helping with vocation training, and Cubans sent hundreds of doctors to help this young country. Australian accent can be heard everywhere, but there are also Chinese people working in construction, electrification of the nation, and in the main hospital.

Jose Rocha, a Timorese who grew up in Portugal, returned several years ago to his native land, opening the first luxury hotel on the outskirts of Dili – Arbiru Beach Resort.

“It was very difficult to start business here. Administration was disorganized. There was no long-term thinking and Indonesian occupation triggered a culture of corruption. But I came home and in 2000, I first worked for the United Nations… then opened this place. I trained my own staff; all of them are Timorese. Now they are wonderful. One thing is for sure: Timor-Leste has a great future. It is a stunning place – islands and beaches, mountains and history. It is only a matter of time when more people will decide to come here.”

China Daily Asia Weekly on May 27, 2011, page 12-13