Paradise still lost


August 21, 2009 11:30pm

TEN years ago, East Timor voted to become an independent nation after years of colonisation, repression and violence. So what has changed?east timor

THE VIEW FROM the beer garden of Dili's Hotel Turismo is a picture postcard tropical paradise. The courtyard's arches frame a blue ocean with yachts and fishing boats bobbing about. Food hawkers and taxi drivers catch a quick nap by the beach. And around the chipped circle of cement at the centre of the beer garden, adorned with a faded Victoria Bitter emblem, are sandalwood, coca and aloe plants. It is easy believe you're in just another laid-back, slightly faded South East-Asian paradise. But watch a little longer, perhaps long enough for the first Bintang or Tiger beer to put a dent in your tropical thirst, and the true nature of Dili will start to emerge.

A low-flying military chopper clatters overhead, travelling somewhere at pace. A good number of the thousand or so United Nations vehicles, predominantly gleaming white Toyota Landcruisers - some with smash-proof wire covering their windows - rumble by to break up the idyllic view. If you're lucky the convoy of feted former freedom fighter and now Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao will barrel past, heading for his heavily fortified residence adjacent to the hotel, where UN soldiers stand guard with machine guns ready.

You might, even allowing for the soothing effect of the beer, come up with a few questions you'd like to ask the Prime Minister about his fledgling nation. Maybe you wonder what all the troops are still doing here, and what sort of progress has been made in kick-starting this economy to boost the Third World conditions many of the people live in. You might even want to raise the topic everyone seems to talk about, corruption, and what he's doing to stamp it out.

But, if you're like me, you won't get the chance. The message delivered to our East Timorese fixer was that the PM was too busy, or maybe not interested, in meeting the group of eight visiting Australian journalists in Dili recently. It's disappointing, because 10 years after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia, the questions won't go away. Is the world's newest nation already sinking into the mire of corruption? Are the people benefiting from better health and education? Australia has invested a lot of money and effort to help East Timor and failure of such a close northern neighbour would be a real concern.

Ten years ago, on August 30, 1999, Gusmao was still under house arrest in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. On the streets of Dili, and across the tiny soon-to-be nation, his countrymen and women were casting their votes in a UN-backed independence referendum, giddy with the prospect of ruling themselves for the first time in centuries.

That elation was soon to fade. Almost 80 per cent of East Timor's tiny population - now just more than one million - voted in favour of independence. Instead of celebration, the vote spurred an outbreak of violence across the then Indonesian province as pro-Jakarta militias went on a week-long terror campaign, killing about 1400 people and forcing an estimated 300,000 over the border into West Timor as refugees.

The killings produced a foreign policy crisis for Australia, which led the push for an international force to impose security. On September 20, the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), led by Australian General Peter Cosgrove, started deploying to East Timor to put an end to the violence. That also put paid to Australia's cosy relationship with Indonesia. Australian forces have remained there, with 650 currently deployed to maintain security.

On May 20, 2002, Timor Leste was officially recognised as a nation. Gusmao, the Guevara-like figure who had inspired his people for the 24 years of the Indonesian occupation, during which 100,000-250,0000 people lost their lives, was its first president.

The Turismo has long been centre stage in East Timor's various struggles. It was a regular meeting point for foreign journalists seeking to connect with Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) freedom fighters, following Portugal's withdrawal from the country, which precipitated the Indonesian incursion and another 24 years of colonial barbarity. Even now there is no better place to tap straight into the corps of foreign overseas aid workers and journalists who have fallen in love with the country and return compulsively to write about the place, or work to help develop its meagre capacities.

Jill Jolliffe, the author of Balibo - the story of the five journalists who were killed by Indonesian troops in the 1975 invasion - shares the breakfast buffet in the central garden area with us most mornings. And it was recently once again home to former ABC reporter Tony Maniaty, whose book Shooting Balibo retraces his steps during the days leading up to the murders.

Maniaty, back to advise for the film's producers, was haunted by the fact that the place appears frozen in time. He was assigned the same room, number 11, he retreated to all those years ago, exhausted by the strain of reporting in a war zone. It has changed not at all, except for the bars added to the windows, perhaps as a concession to the gangs which roam the streets at night, causing most foreigners to retreat behind 3.5m-high fencing often tipped with razor wire. Even Joao, the groundsman at the Turismo, is still there, quietly tending to the garden and greeting visitors in his self-taught, heavily accented English.

Some things have changed since the Portuguese left in 1975. Back then there were only 15km of sealed roads in the whole country. But taking a short stroll on the promenade, turning left to avoid Gusmao's machine-gun toting guards, the continuing lack of development is striking. Two doors down from the Turismo, in the opposite direction to casa Gusmao, is the Vatican embassy construction site. A billboard depicts an impressive white structure, replete with a flashy glass frontage and sweeping driveway. The project was scheduled for completion in January, 2009. A peek through the corrugated iron gates of the work site shows it to be barely started, and virtually abandoned. It appears not even divine help can get a construction project completed in this city.

Riding in one of the many yellow cabs that trundle the one-way thoroughfares at a lazy 20km/h, it's apparent that not much is going on, nor has been going on, in what you'd call the central business district. A solitary crane breaks the Dili skyline. It doesn't appear to move during the week or so we are there. The roads of Dili are lined with buildings burnt out in 1999, or in the more recent problems in 2006. New, glossy, often foreign-owned buildings, sit behind 3.5m-high fences garlanded with razor wire. Disrepair is the rule for most buildings, and burnt-out cars double as play equipment for children.

The expat haunts, filled with block-headed security personnel and endless NGO staff, are an exception, with their new slick paint jobs and generous selections of mocktails and high-end liquor.

A hospital project in Baucau shares a similar fate to the Vatican embassy, and many fear it is a symbol of what they say is growing corruption. An Australian researcher, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the hospital was to be built by a Korean company, which won the tender despite quoting $2 million more than its competitors. A year after work began, the project was about 15 per cent complete. Calls from the Asian Development Bank and the UN to strip the company of the contract have supposedly fallen on deaf ears.

Why, isn't clear. But just when strong leadership is needed, there are those who say Gusmao's position has been weakened by the need to govern with a coalition of four parties. On the other side is a strong opposition from Fretilin, which held power from 2001 to 2007. In the meantime, claims of corruption and favouritism in the awarding of tenders thrive.

East Timor is blessed and cursed, with equal parts challenge and opportunity. Infant mortality, measured in 2007, is one of the highest in the world at 5.2 per cent. Life expectancy is just 59 years. Only about one third of homes have electricity. The country, one of the world's poorest, generates $US776 per person a year. Removing oil and gas revenues from the equation, the figure drops to $US379.

But it is beautiful, temperate, and under the tepid waters of the Timor Sea lie billions of dollars worth of oil and gas riches. Petroleum related revenues, from the part Santos-owned Bayu Undan oil and gas field in the Timor Sea, almost doubled in 2008 to US$2.4 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.The assets held in the country's Petroleum Fund, which has been set up as a nest egg to ensure Timor's resource wealth is not squandered, rose to $US4.2 billion in 2008, and have continued to rise. And the development of Woodside Petroleum's Greater Sunrise field, slated for an investment decision later this year, could provide a similar amount of revenues to that projected to remain in Bayu Undan - about $US11 billion.

But driving around Dili, and especially the outer districts where you often have to negotiate pot holes 30cm deep and metres wide, the signs of this money being put to use are few. And unrest never seems far from the surface. Maniaty reflects in his book that the place "seems to revert to self-inflicted pain every two or three years". The presence of refugees, known here as internally displaced persons, at a camp virtually in the centre of town, is testament to the fact that independence was not Timor Leste's panacea.

FERNANDA MESQUITA BORGES is a striking woman. Intelligent and well educated, she sits in the Turismo's dining room at 8am on a balmy Tuesday. Borges, an MP in the minority National Unity Party (Partido Unidade Nacional), is one of the many East Timorese expats who have returned to help the country rebuild. A former commercial banker in Australia and graduate of the University of Wollongong and the University of New England, where she did her MBA, she is well spoken and measured. So it is something of a shock to hear the words "basket case" fall from her lips.

But Borges, along with some of her parliamentary colleagues and a number of journalists and overseas aid groups, has concerns at the growing claims of corruption in East Timorese political life. "We are very much a young country trying to democratise," she says. "There's a lot of . . . alleged corruption (amongst) high level officials in government. People know, people see it, but it's very hard for people to give evidence."

Borges says many laws keep government financial dealings secret, making it difficult to thoroughly examine government accounts. "When we call for papers we haven't been given any," she says. "It makes it very frustrating and I think people lose confidence." Borges's fear is that if corruption becomes entrenched, it will be seen as the way business is done in East Timor.

Other problems include an overloaded courts system, a poorly trained police force and a general lack of respect for the rule of law. "Without it, we are not going to succeed. I think we'll become a basket case. We are heading towards that. It's very sad to have to say it. But I'm also very realistic and pragmatic and without the rule of law who's going to be the boss? It's going to be a couple of people, and that's not what the people fought for. It will be a complete disaster. Particularly with the oil potential."

Borges says the small amount of money which has started to flow from the country's oil fund has caused problems, which could get worse as the revenues continue to flow. Gusmao, she says, has surrounded himself with the wrong sort of people since the 2007 election and risks destroying the legacy of his years of freedom fighting. There have been accusations involving Gusmao in improper deals, some involving his family. Borges says he needs to tackle the claims of corruption which he campaigned to root out. "If he doesn't do anything about it, it will backfire on him," she says. "Does he have the courage to do that?"

One of the Government's most controversial decisions was to buy, from China, three power plants to provide 180 megawatts of power for the small country at a cost of about $US400 million. There is a need for more power, but not that much. In 2004, the Asian Development bank estimated the power demand for Dili was just 12.5MW, while only 5 per cent of rural households were electrified.

The power plant proposal has a number of flaws, critics claim. It will burn heavy fuel oil, an outmoded and highly polluting process, which will require importing fossil fuels, despite Timor's own vast reserves. There are also questions about the openness of the procurement process and why an environmental impact statement was not done. Some argue instead for small-scale hydro and solar generation plants. In any case, this small rural nation with little industry will not need that much power for years to come. So why is a nation with vast gas reserves building oil-fuelled power plants which will produce much more power than it needs? The answer is not clear.

AT PRESIDENT JOSE Ramos Horta's compound, about 30 minutes out of Dili, three or four UN guards check our identification before waving us through on foot. It seems a small security contingent for a man who was shot here early last year while out on his morning walk. The president's house is a modest two-winged affair, with an open villa in the middle. Posters of Al Pacino in The Godfather, John F. Kennedy and Che Guevara hang on the outside wall of one wing, while the President's two pet eagles sit quietly in their cage metres away.

Ramos Horta looks well for a man who almost died after being shot twice in the stomach in February last year. He refuses to bite when asked whether corruption is threatening to undermine the nascent democracy. "There is a principle that I hold as a sacred one: that is the presumption of innocence of everyone that one might accuse," he says. "There have been allegations, going back to the first constitutional government. I'm always extremely careful about making judgments on people just because I hear stories one after another. We have institutions . . . we have the ombudsman, we have the prosecutor general, I have been briefed by the Government, by the Prime Minister . . . about their efforts to stamp out any corruption that might arise. I personally spent 24 years of my life struggling for this country to be free, and I do not want my homeland . . . to be implicated as a country that could be considered, listed by Transparency International, as one of the most corrupt in the world. I don't want to be part of it."

Horta's concern is reflected in the fact that he has engaged his own lawyers to look at the Chinese power plant issue, and is also concerned about the cost and potential environmental impact. He is sanguine however. He believes that East Timor will largely be able to stand on its own two feet by 2012, with the size of the UN mission substantially reduced then. He also implores those watching East Timor's first stumbling steps to be patient - the nation is, after all, just seven years of age.

On my last night in Dili I can't sleep. It's not that I'm troubled by this country, although there is admittedly enough to keep one awake at night. No, on this particular Friday night there is a party at Gusmao's house. I can smell the barbecue as I wander past on my way to the neighbouring supermarket, and the melodies of what sounds suspiciously like karaoke keep my colleagues and I wondering what protocol we use to complain when the PM keeps us up until 1am. I pass the time flicking through the book A Woman of Independence, written by Gusmao's Australian wife Kirsty Sword Gusmao. I happen across a passage which stands, seven years on from the independence celebrations it describes. "...he (Xanana) had never really desired to be president, and the only appropriate words, really, were not words of congratulation at all but those which for 24 years had spurred Xanana and the resistance on. 'A luta continua (the struggle goes on)', I whispered into his beard as finally he reached my side and the sky erupted in colourful bursts of fireworks."

The first lady's words still ring true.

The author travelled to East Timor as a guest of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.



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