Timor-Leste: “The new Bali”. That is the bold claim the Timorese Ministry of Tourism would have you believe. And sitting on the sandy, sun drenched beach – for the briefest of moments, you could well believe the impoverished nation is Bali-esque.
But then you notice the child defecating on the beach and the large pig following closely behind, sniffing with wild excitement, and then promptly gulping the faeces down. Bacon is off the menu for the rest of my stay.
But the mere fact Bali, the Indonesian resort, is glorified in the government’s propaganda can not be understated. Indonesia is of course the same nation which once occupied Timor – a dispute which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths since 1975. But now this fledgling democracy is independent, on a sure footing – and is even able to compare itself to its once arch enemy.
3 News is in Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) to witness the New Zealand Defence Force pulling out, after first landing here 13 years ago. Back then, the soldiers arrived in the midst of mass violence – as pro and anti Indonesian factions clashed. After pulling out in 2005, a fragile and ill-equipped government had little hope of quelling riots which broke out a year later. The NZDF was once again called upon, and has been here ever since.
The latest contingent of soldiers who arrived six months ago were shocked to see the contrast. Many had been here during 2006, patrolling and heavily armed. One told me he feared for his life each time they went out; not knowing who was dangerous and where the next bullet would fly from. But last night, we sat talking, not a weapon in sight, at a restaurant, and interacted with locals. We then went down to one of their local bars. It’s certainly not a conflict zone, and for that the New Zealand contingent are all unreservedly proud of the role they’ve played in Timor’s progress.
But the nation has some immense challenges ahead of it. The average woman here has seven children, and can expect to feed them on just a few US dollars a day; if that. There’s very limited infrastructure – a running toilet is something only the rich have. Almost half of the population is under the age of 15. Unemployment is rife, and these factors are a tinderbox if the right conditions exist. However, the Defence Force, along with the United Nations is adamant it’s overseen the development of local forces, which will be able to cope with any unrest.
That is the official line, but there are people who disagree. Dr Dan Murphy has been based in Timor since 1998 and has seen it all. He literally had to remove deeply embedded bullets with his hands, during the worst of the violence. Dr Murphy says the chance of success for the new government is 50-50, but doubts the local police and military have the capability to deal with any serious outbreak in violence.
Tomorrow we will visit the United Nations, which is tasked with ensuring ongoing stability. They will argue a transitional body will remain which will continue to build capability in the local police and military. What will also need equal attention is economic growth to lower unemployment and alleviate crippling poverty. Until that’s addressed, the threat of unrest will remain. So too the threat that local forces will be unable to cope, and have to call on the international community again.
The need for economic development is no doubt why the Timorese Tourism Ministry is promoting Dili as the next Bali. It’s far from it, but now the country has an unprecedented opportunity to give it a go. This time on their own, pigs and all.