East Timor’s capital now seems serene and lively, and a version of normality looms – but the country has confounded observers before.
By Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch
The first thing a returnee to Dili notices upon emerging from the airport is nothing: Empty fields behind the fence across from the parking lot, where until recently hundreds of tents sheltering some of Timor’s thousands of conflict-displaced once stood.
The camp was dangerous, inside and out, with political instability prompting riots, and the occasional projectile aimed at passing vehicles – the ubiquitous gleaming white UN SUVs a favorite target. Now only trees are left, a welcome sign that East Timor may be veering toward a long-awaited normality, even stability.
Six kilometers across the city, Marcelo has spent most of the past two years living in a tent just off Avenida Nicolau Lobato, close to restaurants and hotels used by Dili’s plentiful expat aidworker and consultant contingent.
The government has allocated over US$4,000 to enable him to take his family home, with more promised, and replace the house burned down by gangs from the west of the country. A mid-2006 split in the army caused riots in Dili, and over 100,000 East Timorese, or over 10 percent of the population, were unable or afraid to return to the homes they had been driven from.
“My family is from the east, we were attacked by lorumonu,” Marcelo told ISN Security Watch, referring to East Timorese from the western part of the country. The 2006 chaos was marked by a hitherto-unknown, for the most part, east-west divide that permeated the army and later polarized the country on regional lines.
Westerners in the army saw themselves as second-class cadres, with top positions going to easterners, who saw themselves as the revolutionary vanguard that did most to force an end to Indonesian rule. When hundreds of westerners were later dismissed from the army, violence ensued, leading to the resignation of prime minister Mari Alkatiri under intense international pressure, and saw police control revert to the UN Mission in East Timor.
The new house is in another district, close to Dili’s international airport, and Marcelo admits “there’s a lot to do to get that place fixed up.” But he has time on his hands. With thousands of youth coming onto the job market each year, competition for the meager 400 openings that come up each year across the whole country (according to World Bank statistics) means that he is unlikely to find work soon.
“I’ll drive a taxi,” he predicts, joining the legions of cars on Dili’s streets, where the meager fees charged barely cover the rising fuel costs that high oil prices bring. High oil prices, however, have funded Marcelo’s homecoming.
“It is about time we received some help to go home. The government has plenty of money, but we don’t see any of it,” referring to Timor’s over US$3 million in oil revenues accrued since 2005. The windfall is long-overdue to a population that endured one of the world’s harshest military occupations since World War II. Some estimates putting the death toll from fighting, displacement, disease and malnutrition – caused by Indonesian brutality between 1975-99 – at around 200,000. Out of a 1975 population of around 750,000, the casualty count per capita possibly exceeds any conflict anywhere in the post-war era.
How that money is used, even if it can be used in the near future, remains to be seen. The socialist-lite FRETILIN government lost elections held in 2007, partly as its final year in power saw only 3 percent of projected budgetary outlay actually get spent, and partly due to recriminations left hanging from the 2006 violence.
The current government is an unwieldy four-party coalition under independence hero Xanana Gusmao, who led fighting against Indonesia from Timor’s jungle-laden mountains, and later spent seven Mandela-like years in a Jakarta prison. However, Gusmao’s halo has slipped of late, and his party only garnered 22 percent of votes in 2007, perhaps down to a controversial speech made during the 2006 crisis, when he appeared to legitimize the east-west divide.
Those elections passed off without real incident, though FRETILIN sought to undermine the government from the outset, invoking what it perceived as a disputed clause in the Timorese Constitution that it believed mandated FRETILIN to form a government, despite getting less than 30 percent of the vote. Pro-FRETILIN elements took to the streets, but the violence soon abated.
By early 2008, Dili’s people began to relax once more, after the spate of curfews and ongoing tension prevalent since 2006. What might seem a reversion to type was sparked by an 11 February 2008 shoot-out at President Jose Ramos-Horta’s house just outside the capital. Western rebel leader Alfredo Reinado led a group of his men to Dili in what was deemed a coup attempt. Ramos-Horta was shot and seriously wounded, while Gusmao’s car was fired upon separately.
Dili went into lockdown once more, and people wondered exactly what took place that morning. No official verdict on events has been published, contradictory accounts have proliferated. Australian media published material from a report by Timor’s main forensic scientist, which pointed, potentially, to a different version of events than that propounded by Ramos-Horta.
However, Dili seems serene, and potentially lively, with new eateries and watering-holes opening along its mountain-backdropped, white sand beaches. The town stays awake later at night, and with IDPs going home, a version of normality looms, not least as Reinado’s death did not spark any political discord.
Still, East Timor has confounded observers before, lapsing into violence when this seemed unfeasible, and then running peaceful and valid elections when fears abounded that violence- or graft-ridden polls loomed.
Conspiracy theories and a welter of unexplained, incongruous links surrounding an alleged coup attempt and hit on the country’s leading politicians may yet undermine the latest placid veneer.
It has taken Marcelo two years to escape from his IDP camp, a long wait on a short road home. Apropos, there may be more twists on the byway to peace yet for East Timor.Show