Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   In Retrospect
   Photo Feature
   Food for Thought
   Dhaka Diary
   On Campus
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home



Timor-Leste The World's Youngest Republic

Dr. Shamim Ahmed

The aircraft an Indonesian private airline "Merpati" carrying me taxied to a halt at the President Nicalau Lobato airport (named after the assassinated leader) at noon. Aboard the aircraft, I could identify the island with mountainous terrain and the coastline fringed by coconut plantations. The airport, modest in outlook was located next to the sea. Airport formalities were very simple and prompt. Only three small desks attended to the passengers. I was whisked away by Mr. Lanka- the administrative officer at the WHO office to Hotel Audin- my abode for the next few weeks.

Many would still prefer to call it East Timor. However, the official name of the world's youngest republic is Timor- Leste.It lies in Southeastern Asia, northwest of Australia in the Lesser Sunda Islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The country has a land area of approximately 15000 sq. km and includes the eastern half of the island of Timor. Timor comes from the Malay word for "East".

Apart from my official assignment, Timor Leste aroused special interest within me, particularly because so much 'noise' was generated regarding the bloody birth of this nation under the charismatic leadership of Independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Timor Leste is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US $ 478. About 40 percent of the population lives on less than 55 cents per capita per day. Two thirds of the rural population, about 600,000 people experience food shortages at some time during the year. Unemployment rate is as high as 50%.

The Portuguese began to trade with the island of Timor in the early 16th century and colonised it in mid-century. East Timor declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975. However, unfortunately it was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. It was incorporated into Indonesia in July 1976 as the 27th province of East Timor.

A campaign of pacification followed over the next two decades, during which an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 individuals lost their lives.

On 30 August 1999, in a UN-supervised popular referendum, the people of East Timor overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia. During 1999-2001, anti-independence militias - supported by Indonesia - conducted indiscriminate violence. On 20 May 2002, East Timor was internationally recognised as an independent state. Possibly, Timor-Leste is the only country to have achieved independence through a UN supervised referendum.

During my visit I was informed by my colleague from Myanmar, Dr. Soe Aung that there was a Bangladeshi restaurant in town. I was overjoyed and decided to move to a hotel close to it. The following day, I moved to Hotel Dili 2000,opposite the main Catholic Cathedral- few minutes walk from Queen's Restaurant- the Bangladeshi restaurant.

Dili, the capital is a small, pretty city. Sandwiched between the Timor Sea and the "Ekoli" chain of mountains, the landscape is simply mesmerizing. Washed by the blue waters of Timor Sea, Dili boasts of a beautiful coastline. Dili is a 6 km by 4 km city and has a population of about 1.5 lakhs only.

However, Dili still lacks basic civic amenities. Most of the city roads are dotted with numerous potholes and the pavements are worn out. The city is virtually without streetlights and I had to rely on vehicular light for my nocturnal movements. Garbage and litter are strewn everywhere. The city parks with broken benches and overgrown hedges are not frequented by visitors. There are no recreational outlets and an unusual calm prevails after sunset. Hundreds of torched houses stand in mute silence-, reminiscent of the orgy of senseless destruction carried by the Indonesian militia at the declaration of the result of the referendum.

Dili has few hotels worth mentioning. Most of them would fall into guesthouse category. The outstanding one is the elegant floating hotel-"Central Maritime Hotel" anchored at the bay.
However, there are many restaurants offering wide varieties of different cuisines of different nationalities.

The Queen's Restaurant- the Bangladeshi restaurant was few minutes walk from my hotel. Nostalgia predominated and I made the most of it, gobbling away, from fish curry, vegetables mix to daal and paratha. Of late, the restaurant has become a meeting place or 'adda khana'for the South Asians. For lunch, we used to walk across the road in front of UN House and relish over rice, fried fish and vegetables at makeshift "Italian" restaurant run by an Indonesian lady. The Timorese relish hot, spicy food and would invariably add chillies chutney to their dishes.

There are about 25 Bangladeshis in Timor engaged in different trades. Few have ventured in boutique shops while others are employed in electronic shops. Some excel in snacks selling mughlai parathas and samosas.

The presence of UN Peacekeeping mission is visible every where. Apart from the army personnel, the Bangladesh Air Force maintains a contingent at Maliana district bordering Indonesia. Bangladesh is also participating in the UNIPOL (UN Police) to maintain law and order.

There are few Bangladeshis also working at different ministries as part of the civilian wing of the peacekeeping mission. Despite extreme poverty, incidence of theft, dacoity, burglary, rape and murder are extremely rare. The UN Peacekeeping Mission is scheduled to remain till May 05. It would be interesting to see how the Timorese manage their affairs after the departure of the UN Mission.

The Chinese, Singaporean and the Vietnamese own most shops mainly stuffed with Indonesian goods. The 'poorest' province of Indonesia has now become a 'gold mine ' for Indonesia. An irony of fate.

The Muslims comprise a tiny 4%. The majority of the people are Roman Catholic.

Dili is gifted with an impressive mosque located at Campaalor. The mosque is spacious enough to accommodate 5000 people and was constructed during the "Indonesian" times. I offered my Jumma prayer during the course of my visit and was moved by the large congregation. Interestingly, the present Prime Minister is a Muslim, Dr. Mari Alkatiri, a freedom fighter and one of the architects of modern Timor.

The Timorese relish chewing 'Paan'. The Timorese would spatter their lips and mouth red chewing paan. Betel leaves, betel nuts and grounded tobacco (proxy for zarda) are openly sold in the markets. The good thing is that they have not learned to spit like us.

The main language is Tetum, spoken mostly by the present generation. Other equally important languages are Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia. English, however is little understood and spoken.

There are no movie houses but the Timorese are fond of Hindi films and songs and Indian film stars are very popular. Hindi DVDs and VCDs are sold even on the pavements. The drivers would tune to their favourite Hindi songs while driving. I even found the office goers humming some Hindi numbers over computers. Although the language is not understood at all! The only newspaper, the Timor Post is circulated together in all the four main languages.

I made a few forays to different districts namely Manatuto, Baucau and Liquica. The roads scarily meandered in serpentine fashion along the coastline, often 3000 ft. above the sea level.

The country is blessed with several beautiful beaches but there are very few tourists as the facilities are quite limited. The only beach worth visiting is the Kristo Rei Beach, on the outskirts of Dili.The mountains form an elegant background. Atop the mountain is the huge statue of Virgin Mary- the landmark of Dili built during the Portuguese era. The area offers a spectacular panoramic view of the capital

Travelling inland, I found the terrain generally mountainous. The countryside appeared dry and arid with little vegetation.

I also visited the heart of Dili is the "Tais market"-tin shed outlets of woven cloth (Tais) and handicrafts. Many of the skilled artisans have either been killed or have fled the county.

The country faces great challenges in continuing the rebuilding of infrastructure, strengthening the infant civil administration, and generating jobs for young people entering the workforce. The health system is still very weak with an acute shortage of doctors. Maternal and infant mortality are high and so is malnutrition among children. One promising long-term project is the planned development of oil and gas resources in nearby waters, but the government faces a substantial financing gap over the next several years before these revenues start flowing into state coffers.




Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004