DILI — When Joshua Kohn and Lea Mietzle set out backpacking around Southeast Asia, East Timor was not on their itinerary. But after visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and then parts of Indonesia, the two young Germans revised their plans to include the region’s newest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. “We became interested [in East Timor], it was really cool” said Kohn. During their 12 days in the country they took in some of the main landmarks: trekking up the highest peak, the near 3,000-meter-high Mount Ramelau, followed by a bone-rattling motorcycle ride eastwards to Jaco, a tiny uninhabited island. With secluded white sand beaches fronting turquoise seas and kaleidoscopic reefs — all offering lush diving — East Timor aims to triple annual visitor numbers to 200,000 by 2030, part of a plan to diversify an economy that depends oil and gas for almost all government revenue.
DILI — Celebrating with party supporters at the headquarters of his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, Xanana Gusmao was his usual mix of backslapping and banter last Tuesday. “I’m anti-smoking, don’t be like me,” he said, laughing, before lighting one up. He could afford to be a bit facetious given that three days earlier the coalition he leads won a parliamentary majority in what was the second election in less than a year in East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste. The last vote in July 2017 led to a minority government led by Mari Alkatiri of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin. But Gusmao and his coalition allies in the Alliance for a Parliamentary Majority blocked Alkatiri’s budget, and soon after, in January, the government fell, only 4 months after it was sworn in. Alkatiri, a Muslim of Yemeni descent in what is one of only two Catholic majority countries in Asia, told me that he thought his party would win at least 30 seats, up from 23 last year.
DILI — A three-party alliance led by Timorese independence hero Xanana Gusmao ousted the short-lived Fretilin minority government in East Timor’s election held Saturday, though the top party in the ruling coalition refused to concede the outcome late Sunday. Gusmao and his allies won 49.59% of the vote, according to official figures released Sunday, with only a few ballots left to be counted. That gives the Alliance of Change for Progress 34 seats in the Southeast Asian country’s 65-member parliament, a fragile majority. Gusmao’s alliance, which emerged as the Parliamentary Majority Alliance — or AMP — to oppose the Fretilin-led government formed last year under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, claimed before the vote that it could win up to 43 seats.
DILI — Voting took place today in East Timor to choose 65 members of parliament, who Timorese hope will form a stable administration after a year of political uncertainty and the quick collapse of a short-lived minority government. “The winner is already here in front you,” said Mari Alkatiri, leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review after voting shortly after 7 a.m. at a school near Dili’s picturesque waterfront. Alkatiri was prime minister of a short-lived government formed after the last election in July 2017. But his coalition held just 30 of the 65 parliamentary seats and its minority government soon fell, after the Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition coalition declined to support Fretilin’s program for government.
KAITEHU – “Two hours walk, it grows there,” Bendita Ramos said, pointing back over her shoulder and beyond her pink-painted 2 room house toward mist-shrouded hills behind. She was talking about bitter bean, a poisonous legume growing wild in the Timorese countryside. The bean needs arduous and careful preparation before it can be eaten as a supplement to a corn and rice-dominated diet. “We have to boil it 7 or 8 times, and change the water each time,” Ramos said.
DILI – Gusmao’s administration was tarnished with corruption allegations against two of his highest-profile ministers. And despite eye-popping growth, oil and gas extraction have not generated jobs for the hundreds of thousands of Timorese who eke out a living as subsistence farmers or are jobless. Moreover, the oil and gas revenue that comprises around three-quarters of GDP will run out in around a decade, meaning there is an urgent need to develop other sectors of the economy. But Araujo does not have long to implement his policies, as elections are due in 2017. Tourism and agriculture will be two priority areas, he said: “At least we could set some foundation for the next government to follow on these.”
DILI – Cornelio Gama, aka “Elle Sette” (L7), a former member of parliament in East Timor and leader of a murky clandestine group called Sagrada Familia, had just come home from a peacemaking mission at the University of Dili in the country’s capital. “There is a dispute between the rector and the students,” he says, “so I went there to try and resolve.” Peacemaker for a morning, Gama and his brother Paulino, better known as “Mauk Moruk,” are in fact at odds with the East Timor government, which they see as illegitimate.
DILI – Bendita Fraga, a 40-year-old housewife living on a farm near Dili, said that electrification had allowed her family access to new sources of clean groundwater. Pooling with neighbours, the farmers in the village bought an electric pump to extract water from a newly drilled 12-metre well. “With the pump, we can drink cleaner water and grow more crops with the extra water,” Fraga said. That would have been impossible before the government’s recent expansion of the power supply, which now covers around 60 per cent of the population.
DILI – Gusmao’s continuing presence in government means that new PM Araujo, who spent recent years as an adviser to various Timorese ministries, could find himself overshadowed. “That could be the impression from outside, but everybody in the government agrees with the concept of teamwork, and so far he [Gusmao] has been a very good team player,” Araujo said when asked if Gusmao’s presence in government might be a distraction.
DILI – East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, faces bleak economic prospects, amid predictions that the oil and gas that account for three-quarters of the country’s gross domestic product could run out in less than a decade. “We are aware of the risks and we working toward managing those risks,” Araujo said, discussing the vital but finite oil and gas reserves. The government has almost $17 billion saved in a petroleum fund, but estimates based on current spending and energy price forecasts suggest the fund will be depleted less than a decade after the last of the oil and gas has been extracted.