The man who organised parallel protests in Dili during the Saffron Revolution says despite Timor-Leste’s poverty, life is easier there than in Burma
DILI – “It is not like Myanmar, we are free here, no police or security always checking us, no worries like that”, says Kyaw San Naing, who says he was the first Burmese to arrive in Timor-Leste after the 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia, and ensuing violence as the Indonesians and their local Timorese militia allies retreated.
Despite rural poverty in what is possibly Asia’s least developed country and high cost of living in Dili, Kyaw San Naing is very happy with life in the country that, for a time after formal independence was attained in 2002, touted itself as “The World’s Newest Democracy”.
“I came in 2001”, he recalls, putting his experience as a hotel worker in Rangoon to good effect on the floating Central Maritime Hotel, which for a time functioned as luxury guesthouse for visiting VIPs and as accommodation provider for the United Nations missions in the country, after much of Dili was destroyed during the 1999 violence.
In 2005, he co-founded the Beach Café, sitting on the coast road not far from Dili’s docks and lighthouse. Now one of the city’s landmark restaurants, and known as the Bagan Beach Café, it offers a mix of Burmese, Asian and some western cuisine, in a nicely-shaded setting away from the sun’s glare and din of dust-dispersing traffic outside.
In 2006, however, “Dili erupted”, as Kyaw San Naing put it, with police and army factions shooting it out on the streets and divisions between Timor-Leste’s easterners and westerners degenerating into violence. 10% of the Timorese population were driven from their homes and the fallout lasted for almost two years, culminating in apparent assassinations attempts in February 2008 on President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao – the iconic guerrilla leader who fronted the war for independence from Indonesia.
“I stayed in Dili throughout all the trouble in 2006”, Kyaw San Naing says. “The restaurant was not touched, thankfully”. However the violence raised questions about Timor-Leste’s long-term stability, and he decided it was time for a change.
One hundred meters down the road from the first Beach Café, he helped establish a second – this one a pub and restaurant sitting above a small hotel. Bagan Beach Café is now run by two other Burmese, who declined to be interviewed for this story. “We would like to, but maybe it would be dangerous for us to talk to The Irrawaddy”, one of the group said.
The Beach Café – second version – is now a sort-of Australian-themed pub and diner, with an array of big screen TVs showing Aussie rules, rugby and cricket – drawing some of the many NGO workers and growing numbers of tourists from Timor-Leste’s much-larger neighbour to the south. Saturday and Sunday night showings of English Premier League bringing in groups of Timorese, who like football fans in Burma, support the likes of Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool. Free wifi helps bring in daytime customers, who struggle with the often-slow service provided by Timor Telecom, perhaps a legacy of the telecoms monopoly given to the company by Timor-Leste’s first post-independence Government.
“I manage the kitchen here now”, says Kyaw San Naing, now working for the Australian owner of the business, who expended the original cafe into a bar and hotel.
He is planning to marry a Timorese woman – a niece of Prime Minister Gusmao with whom he has one child, 14 month old Sophia Helen Johnson. “I got the name Johnson back in the early days”, he says, as most of the people he met could not pronounce his name.”It became a nickname, but now everyone calls me Johnson”, he says.
Cross-cultural marriage will pose some challenges however, in one of only two majority-Christian populated countries in Asia. “Almost everyone in Timor is Catholic”, he says, “and I have to become Catholic if I want to marry”. He says he is happy to do so, with wife-to-be Lucia suggesting that he just “follow what the priest says, and it will be easy”.
Kyaw San Naing says he will travel home next year, with Lucia and Sophia, and hopefully meet his brothers who are now based in Japan, but will also visit their parents for the first time in seven years. “We are Mon, but my parents live in Rangoon”, he says.
He wants to acquire a Timorese ID, which does not require citizenship. “Like I said, I am happy here, I can go to the beach, drive up to the mountains, no hassle, and I think most of the other Burmese here are too”, adding that he thinks there are around 35-40 of his compatriots living in Timor-Leste, almost all in Dili.
However, some of the niggles that overseas Burmese have to put up with elsewhere are a factor in Timor-Leste too. There is no Burmese regime embassy in Dili, so Kyaw San Naing and the other Burmese must travel to Jakarta for any passport-related business. “We have to pay 10% of our income to renew our passports”, he says, echoing a complaint made by Burmese in Singapore recently. Burmese passports require renewal every three years.
“That is the Myanmar law though”, he says, adding that he and others are more annoyed by the middleman system they use to remit money back to Burma. “We have to send through Singapore”, he clarifies, “but if I send US$500, maybe only 420, 430 gets back to my mother in Myanmar”.
An hour into the conversation, politics – perhaps invariably – comes to the fore. Kyaw San Naing says he is “not political”, but tries to keep an eye on developments at home. “I did not know the President met with Aung San Suu Kyi”, he concedes, referring to the recent meeting between Thein Sein and the National League for Democracy leader in Naypidaw. “I have DVB (the Norway-based Burmese satellite TV service) at home”, he says, “but have been too busy to watch last few days”.
Keeping the discussion political, I tell Kyaw San Naing that I was here in Dili when the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’ took place in Burma. “Do you remember the demonstrations here?”, he asks, referring to solidarity protests in Dili. “Yeah sure, I was at one of them”, I said, recalling the mix of nationalities, including dozens of Timorese, who came out in Dili. “I was the organiser”, Kyaw San Naing says, quietly but proudly. “You know, I don’t always get into politics, but the military was shooting monks and beating people”.