East Timor and the Still Evident Problems

Image: Erik Jelinek for Joup

The Indonesian-era integrasi monument in Dili, depicting a personification of East Timor breaking free of its colonial chains.

I went to see my boat contact on Monday morning. The boat had already come and gone … though only to the south coast of the island, and would be back on Friday. This has left me with a dilemma: do I stay for a further four days in the hope that I will be taken when they return, or do I give up now and jump on the next plane out of town. I’ve already invested a good deal of time into getting this ride that it would seem a shame to surrender so close to a possible victory. Yet I’m also feeling restless as there is only so much that East Timor has to offer. Plus I would be mortified to overstay my welcome with Caroline (and her long-suffering housemate Gabe) and become an irksome burden for her, who has shown me so much kindness and hospitality – far more than I could have asked for. So whilst I ponder my next steps (the pessimist in me having already decided that no matter what my decision it will surely be the wrong one) I have decided to write about East Timor and its current situation, as it is not only a country that garners little attention in the international consciousness due to its (let’s face it) insignificance, but also because its problems are unlike those of other Asian countries and are more akin to those of sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that Timor’s the poorest country in Asia, with a human development index and GDP comparable to Tanzania, and that its recent (and even less recent) past has been an unhappy and unfortunate one. When Indonesia invaded in 1975 one of its main arguments to get its Western allies onside was that such a small, skill-less and resource-less country was unviable and would inevitably become a gateway for Communism in the region, precipitating a domino effect. How great the Communist threat was I have no way of knowing, but the arguments about unviability are no fabrications. The territory was small, mountainous, with poor transport links, barely able to feed itself, with no industry or source of revenue to speak of (the Portuguese initially set up shop to exploit the precious local sandalwood, but by the time they left there was almost none to be found on the whole island), and only a very small number of educated locals.

Image: Erik Jelinek for Joup

Terraced fields that have been abandoned and left to degrade, now only used as pasture. East Timor is currently unable to produce enough food for its own consumption.

When the Indonesians left in 1999 things hadn’t changed much: the level of general education had improved significantly (though from an admittedly very low base); a lot had been invested in infrastructure, but following the scorched earth policy of the militias after the independence referendum most of these gains were lost (70% of buildings – 90% of schools – were destroyed, 13 years on and it is still possible to find many such empty shells that are yet to be rebuilt or torn down; and entire electricity transmission systems dismantled before the international community stepped in); agriculture went backwards as locals were herded into detention camps and the market flooded with cheaper Indonesian imports that tilted domestic tastes to rice, a crop wholly unsuited to the Timorese climate; and the only employment outside of agriculture being in a bloated civil service where jobs were simply a means of buying docility, and all the work carried out by Indonesians whilst the Timorese shuffled paper and gained absolutely no skills whatsoever. At its birth then, East Timor was a country with absolutely nothing going for it (except for a little offshore petroleum production).

If those problems were not enough East Timor also suffers from identity issues. For their entire history the Timorese have been defined by who they are not, rather than who they are – either not Portuguese or not Indonesian. In the struggle for independence it was easy to unite against a common, outside enemy. Now that the spotlight is shined inwards (or perhaps, more accurately, off) the startling heterogeneity of the country becomes apparent. With a total population of just over a million in an area the size of ???????? there are at least 16 ethnic groups each with their own language. And it’s not unknown for these groups to foster historic grudges towards each other. From this Babel the founding fathers chose Tetun, the most widely spoken local language, though still only the mother tongue of less than a quarter of the population, and Portuguese, only spoken by the elite educated before 1975, as the official languages. Furthermore Portuguese was chosen as the language of education, which has obvious benefits as it is a well-established language of scholarship with a body of literature and textbooks. The problem is that very few teachers speak it, and so there is a small army of Portuguese teachers in the country teaching the teachers. The choice of Portuguese was also contentious because of the other rivals for the spot: Bahasa Indonesia and English, which are the languages of Timor’s two neighbours, both of which seem to be outcompeting Portuguese. The evidence is that when I’m walking along here the local children should “Mister!” and “Whatisyourname!” instead of “O senhor!”. Similarly Bahasa is widely used by people from different ethnic groups, at the market Bahasa numbers fly back and forth, and even the national newspapers are written in Bahasa. Fostering a common national identity will not be easy. Christ, just getting people to understand each other will be an achievement.

Image: Erik Jelinek for Joup

In many communities the arduous task of collecting water is an everyday reality.

The task for the first government must have been daunting to say the least. Where do you even start when there’s no water, no schools, no electricity, no skills, no hospitals, no functioning bureaucracy, very little money and no roads worth the name? Luckily the international community finally stepped up to the plate, albeit 25 years too late. 10 years on from independence and East Timor is actually quite a success story: stability, both political and communal; electricity making inroads into the country (24 hour electricity has just been extended to the major provincial towns this last year, although most of the countryside still isn’t connected); schools are ubiquitous, though the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired; there are some hospitals and basic medical provision. Although there is still a very long way to go, much has been achieved in terms of physical infrastructure, with transport links being the furthest behind (important not just for tourists like me to get around comfortably, but for farmers to be able to get their produce to market quickly and affordably).


In some ways though physical things are the easy part – throw enough money at it and you can build just about anything anywhere. It’s much harder to change attitudes, habits, social customs and superstitions that can be an even greater impediment to development. I will talk about just two areas where I’ve heard humanitarian workers explain the situation, although, from my conversations with other aid workers, the problems are common in many parts of the world, with small local twists.

Image: Erik Jekinek for Joup

Kids on the south coast near Viqueque. Note the lighter colouration of their hair, one of the signs of malnourishment, which, unfortunately, is very common in East Timor.

Food is a huge problem in Timor. The country doesn’t grow enough to feed its own population. As I’ve mentioned before the occupation brought with it a taste for rice (and noodles too) and the Timorese will now refuse to eat much else. The problem is that in Timor farmers get only one rice harvest a year, whereas in Indonesia and other southeast Asian countries two or three harvests are the norm. Naturally outside rice outcompetes the locally grown stuff. And yet people will not switch to other, more suited, crops such as cassava or breadfruit which, although grown in small scale, could easily provide for the entire population and then some. Similarly there are many cows and goats throughout the country, and yet no milk or other dairy products, except that which is imported. There is great, nutritious food there, but it just isn’t used, either through lack of education, skills or some taboo. This leads to widespread malnutrition. People are not dying of hunger – there is more than enough to eat – but they are not getting the right food and often eating little else but rice or noodles (or rice and noodles, a particularly popular combination). In some regions feeding bananas to children is taboo, although it may be their only readily available source of vitamins, and coconuts, especially their nutritious juice, are often ignored.

Then there’s money. The majority of the working age population are either un- or underemployed. It’s one of those countries that gets mentioned where “X many people are living on less than $2 a day”. I don’t like those figures because they are rarely give a meaningful picture of facts on the ground. A lot of earnings are undeclared. Most men smoke profusely, and a packet costs $1. Many men also love to gamble on cockfights and will think little about having a $20 flutter irrespective of whether they have any money coming in or not. (Please note that I deliberately used the word men in the previous two sentences. In developing countries men are notoriously profligate in their spending habits. If you want to your money to go to a useful cause when travelling in poorer countries then try and buy things from women as much as possible, as they will make sure that it is spent on providing for their children and families. This is one of the most important things that any of us as tourists can do: ensure our money is going to local people who need it.)

Image: Erik Jelinek

This huge, recently completed church in Suai is a great example of the fact that there is money in East Timor, but not always used effectively. The building dwarfs everything else in town and is built to high specifications, yet there is not a single decent road in the district, electricity is available only 12 hours a day and all schools are in a state of disrepair. Build a church? OK, but first do the basics.

Obviously there is money around. Partly because it gets spread around thanks to the traditional safety net of the extended family. What belongs to you belongs also to your brothers, sisters as well as first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, etc, etc. In entirely agrarian communities this makes sense as a bad harvest due to accident can quickly lead to death, whereas such sharing spreads risk. In a world of jobs and salaries one person getting a decent, steady job at a ministry can lead to a mass influx of relatives who end up squatting your house, living off your hard work, buying themselves motorbikes and betting on cockfights with your money. No wonder that some Timorese, when given the opportunity of a promotion turn it down, as there will be little benefit for them despite plenty more work. Such disincentives make free enterprise difficult, not that it would be easy anyway, given the small market and inadequate facilitating infrastructure. There is no way Timor can compete with the economies of scale of Indonesia and China. The only hard cash coming into the country is from oil and gas revenues, but those do not provide jobs as everything is done by foreign firms. The government is angling for the petroleum and natural gas to be piped ashore and processed on the south coast, but the arguments against are still the same: no infrastructure, no reliable supply of electricity, no skilled workforce, no nearby market, and not even a functioning port that could receive the ships required to build a processing plant in the first place.


One of the few things keeping the country going is outside money, and one of the topics of conversation on everybody’s lips, Timorese and expat alike, is the departure of one of those sources. The UN peacekeeping mission, UNMIT, will be winding down its operations and leaving the country before the end of the year. The UN has already left once, back in 2006. There followed a period of political instability, an attempted coup and rioting, forcing the UN to return once again to restore order. Everyone is wondering, and waiting to see, whether history will repeat itself or if Timor can at least maintain its own internal security. What is certain though is that two thousand UN police and other staff will be leaving, taking with them their generous salaries that pay for rent, domestic services, food, entertainment and sundries. Timor’s economy will take quite a knock. Of course other UN agencies, such as the UNDP, WFP, etc. will still be there, as will many NGOs, but the effect will be palpable. Many expats, especially NGO workers, who usually have substantially smaller salaries, will probably be quite happy as supply and demand will flip and the exorbitant rents tumble.

Image: Erik Jelenik

“Buy local, build Timor-Leste!” A great sentiment, with one minor flaw: apart from fruit and veg at the market there is nothing that you can buy that is produced in Timor.

With such a litany of hurdles in its path I can’t see East Timor making it on its own as an independent, self-sufficient state despite the petroleum revenues and its leaders, who seem to be a generally competent bunch as far as these things go. Apart from a little tourism or a mass exodus to Europe (most Timorese automatically qualify for Portuguese citizenship and a number are already receiving Portuguese state pensions) there doesn’t seem to be much going for this unfortunate country. Strangely enough, had Indonesia not invaded I believe it would only have been a matter of time before East Timor came knocking on its door anyway, asking to form some sort of union. It would have spared a lot of heartache and suffering and even saved Indonesia a lot of money, as East Timor was a substantial drain on military and economic resources. Odder yet is the fact that since East Timor gained its independence Indonesia has been making significant profits there as their firms are close, cheap, can speak the language, and have the expertise necessary to develop the country (such as the drilling contractors in Betano).

Is there a solution, a path to prosperity and peace for East Timor? I don’t know, but I hope so as the country and its people have so far received a bum deal in life.

Erik Jelinek

Erik Jelinek

Erik is an seasoned traveler who started his own blog Smoke Me a Kipper on a 1-year holiday…but much to his liking ended up getting prolonged. He found out that the world is far bigger and far more interesting than you could ever imagine. Erik’s correspondence appears courtesy of his site.

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