Asia’s newest independent state which has only recently emerged from conflict is slowly but surely rising from the ashes.
One could describe Timor-Leste, Asia’s newest nation, as a poor little rich country.
In terms of per capita oil reserves – one million people with 800 million barrels of oil and 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – Timor-Leste is indeed affluent.
That’s just the wealth from oil. Its other natural resources include gold, manganese, marble, sandalwood and abundant fish in its territorial waters.
But more than 80 % of its people are very poor and half are illiterate.
They depend on subsistence farming in the hot, semi-arid land, eking out a living growing rice, coffee, corn, tapioca, sweet potatoes, soybeans, mangoes, bananas and vanilla.
However, Timor-Leste finally appears to be fairly stable politically after a long and traumatic struggle towards self-rule.
While it still remains in dire need of basic infrastructure development, the country of Timor-Leste has come a long way from the backward Portuguese colony that it once was, the Indonesian occupation and from some of the worst atrocities in modern times committed by militias following the 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia.
Working together: Businessman Norman Burhan exchanging documents with a Timor- Leste Chamber of Commerce member during the signing of MoUs. Looking on are Mohd Ali (second left) and Ramos-Horta (third left).
Between the referendum and the arrival of UN peacekeeping force in September 1999, it was a reign of terror by heavily armed anti-independence militias.
Much of the country’s infrastructure, including main roads, bridges, administrative centres, water supply systems, schools and almost all of the electrical grid were destroyed in a merciless “scorched earth” campaign.
The militias killed some 1,400 people and forced about 300,000 others to flee to West Timor as refugees.
Timor-Leste’s independence was finally restored on May 20, 2002, with power handed over from the United Nations to the first constitutional government, but the country remained fragile.
In 2006, fighting between rival factions in the military, sparked by the sacking of 600 soldiers, killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes. A year later, there were riots in the streets of Timor-Leste’s seaside capital of Dili after elections led to a five-party coalition government.
On Feb 11, 2008, President Jose Ramos-Horta was seriously injured in an assassination attempt and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was shot at in his car but was unhurt.
The president survived, has recovered fully and in August this year, pardoned the 24 men who were convicted on charges relating to the supposed double assassination attempt targeting himself and Gusmao.
The men, mostly ex-soldiers led by Gustao Salsinha, had been sentenced to between nine and 16 years’ jail, but only served less than six months. In forgiving them – Ramos-Horta, who along with Gusmao are now guarded by Malaysian police serving under the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) – said: “Timorese should let the past be the past and look ahead with confidence.”
That gesture by the iconic leader and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner has helped further stabilise the country.
But the big investors, other than those in the oil and gas industry, don’t seem confident enough to explore the huge potential for profits. The biggest investment mission so far was an 87-member Malacca state government-led delegation which arrived last week.
“This is certainly the largest group of people I have received, other than a visit from a 4,000-strong United States’ Marine Corps,” he joked when the delegation, comprising Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, senior state officials and prominent business leaders, called on him.
Malaysia and Malacca are certainly dear to him. He has visited Malaysia “on countless times”.
Malacca, also a former Portuguese colony, has been forging closer links with Timor-Leste over the past few years through Mohd Ali’s special representative, Joseph Sta Maria, a businessman of Malacca Portuguese descent.
The semi-autonomous Oecussi enclave in the northwest portion located in Indonesian Nusa Tenggara Timur was where 18 men and 62 women from the group of Portuguese, who had captured Malacca in 1511, moved on and set up a settlement on the island of Timor.
Ramos-Horta expressed gratitude to Malaysia and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for the tremendous support given to Timor-Leste in every aspect from the start of the country’s birth.
“In 2006, when we had a crisis, I called the then Foreign Minister (Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi). Within a matter of hours, a political decision was made and within a week, a force was deployed to keep the peace.”
“Even many developed countries could not do this in such a fast manner,” he said.
Ramos-Horta said with peace and stability restored, the country was focused on development, using what he described as its “modest oil resources”. It is certainly not. The country’s specially instituted “Petroleum Fund”, into which Timor-Leste’s oil revenues are deposited now, holds US$5.8bil (RM18.1bil) while revenues from the yet-to-be exploited Greater Sunrise oil and gas field are expected to reach US$13bil (RM40.7bil) over the field’s 30-year lifespan.
The country’s immediate challenge is to build the much needed infrastructure for sustainable job growth and raise the standard of living for the population – almost half of which is now under the age of 15 – through education, human resource development and job creation. In spite of the global economic crisis, Timor-Leste experienced growth of over 10% in 2009.
“The economy has been good over the past three years and for many years to come, Timor-Leste will have between 7% and 8% of growth.
“There is no other way but to go up and forward. We need thousands of kilometres of roads; currently 80% of our roads are in absolute disrepair. We also need to build hundreds of bridges, ports, airports and communication systems,” Ramos-Horta added.
He urged Malaysian investors who had proven know-how in various fields, including oil and gas, construction and education, to take up the many opportunities available in the country and contribute towards its development.
“You can help transform our country. Malaysians can play a central role in the development of Timor-Leste. We have a very good relationship and you have proven to be great friends,” he said.
Ramos-Horta said Timor-Leste practised a totally open economy and its revised rate of taxes was the lowest in Asia after Hong Kong.
But he admitted that issues involving land and property remained unresolved and “confusing” in some cases. He drew laughter when he cited a case in which a piece had been “sold” to three different buyers.
The president said the issues were seriously looked into to bring about a better system.
Even before his assurance, members of the Malacca delegation had already identified prospective projects and businesses under joint ventures with key members of the fledgling Timor-Leste Chamber of Commerce.
A total of 17 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed during the three-day visit.