Wednesday, 9 September 2009

ABC News Off Air

The Two Timors

On my recent trip to East Timor I inevitably ended up having drinks one night with the other correspondents who had flown in to cover the story of the ten-year anniversary of the referendum on independence.

We were all reflecting on East Timor and its progress over the past ten years. A reporter from the Financial Times joined us and had just interviewed East Timor’s Finance Minister.

“It’s the tale of the two Timors,” he said.

“The story depends on who you talk to.”

“You can’t write about both,” another reporter at the table said to him. “So which one are you going to write about?”

I think you can write about both and they're both part of the story so here are my two Timors.

According to the East Timorese Government, the country is making great progress. East Timor’s economy is growing at almost 13 per cent - the second fastest rate in the world. East Timor’s main revenue is from oil and gas. Its petroleum fund has grown to $5 billion and is being managed so it can provide for future generations. There are also billions of dollars flowing to East Timor in the way of international aid yet poverty is still widespread.

Many of the East Timorese I spoke to asked questioned why more isn’t being done to provide clean water to people and to fix up infrastructure such as roads.

At a market in Dili, stall holders say it can be difficult transporting their food from out of town because the roads are in such poor condition.

Laurenca Da Silva says by the time the produce gets here it can be ruined and on those days she can struggle to make ends meet.

Around Dili the complaint from many young men is that they don’t have work.

21-year-old Ilidio Da Silva is one of Dili’s unemployed. He told me he found it hard to join in the anniversary celebrations.

He wants the government to create more jobs and training so young men such as him can participate. He also called on political leaders to refraim from exploiting divisions among East Timorese so that people could remain free.

In 2006 East Timor was in crisis. The International Crisis Group says the root causes go back years to political and ideological divisions within East Timor's Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of East Timor during and before the Indonesian occupation. But the crisis was sparked when a mutiny split East Timor’s army and the police force imploded. The forces were divided internally and against each other. The divisions between officers from the east and west of the country spilled onto the streets of Dili and thousands of people were displaced.

In 2008 the President Jose Ramos-Horta was shot and a coordinated attack was launched on the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Now almost all the internal refugees have returned home, the government has been paying them to leave makeshift camps. East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta describes the program as a huge success.

But 25-year-old student Ivo Noel says returning home was hard. Initially he says he wasn’t accepted and his neighbours threw stones.

He says the tensions have eased and his main concern now is that there isn’t a repeat of the violence.

“We must support peace,” he says.

But he warns that the government too has a role.

“The leaders must put more young people into training and school. If everyone is busy and has something to do we won’t be able to cause problems.”

In the past 18 months East Timor has become much more stable but the international community is still responsible for keeping the peace.

East Timor is trying to develop a tourism industry and in the lead up to the anniversary held its first international sporting event – the Tour de Timor.

An Australian airline was a major sponsor, the Northern Territory Government also pledged support yet Australia’s official warning for East Timor says reconsider your need to travel.

From all accounts the Tour de Timor was a success – thousands of East Timorese lined the track to cheer on the cyclists and the event helped put East Timor on the map as a destination for foreign tourists.

President Ramos-Horta says the $90,000 from the public purse for prize money was a worthwhile investment.

Ivo Noel says the Tour de Timor was good because it brought more foreigners to East Timor but he wants to know where the money came from to host the event and if people such as him will benefit.

The referendum anniversary was an interesting time to be in East Timor.

The event sparked a conversation about what type of nation the East Timorese want to live in, it was an opportunity to look forward by looking back. The contradictions playing out in East Timor reflect this tale of ‘two’ countries – the Timor of the past and the Timor of the future.

This anniversary showed that the Timorese are willing to face up to these challenges as they try to realise their hopes and dreams for the future. East Timor is still trying to resolve the tensions between where it is going and where it has been.

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