Subject: U: On Timor's hard road

On Timor's hard road

COMMENT: Phillip Adams | November 10, 2007

There are many East Timors. Here, a dry, dusty Mexican border town. There a Boot Hill Cemetery on a hilltop, an ideal setting for a spaghetti western. You climb to a tiny village perched in a setting as Andean as Machu Picchu. Or walk from a Hawaiian beach into a jungle straight out of Borneo. This church is Portuguese, that army base recalls Iraq. The seemingly endless stretches of destroyed buildings evoke Nagasaki.

But most of all East Timor reminded me of Israel. A tropical version of that promised land. Here’s why. Both are relatively newborn – Israel 59 years ago, East Timor just five. Both are absurdly small. At birth, Israel was 27,000sq km; East Timor even tinier at just 15,000sq km. At independence the population of Israel was 700,000 – about the same as East Timor when the Portuguese left. In East Timor, after 25 years of resistance killed hundreds of thousands, it has reached 1 million.

In both cases, determined people faced hopeless odds yet miraculously endured. Both had their demands for nationhood reluctantly ratified by a UN that found all the fuss embarrassing. And both are organised around religions that, in their regional context, are starkly anomalous. Both are surrounded by vast populations of Muslims. One is Jewish, the other Catholic.

For all their apparent cohesion, both are towers of Babel – places of ethnic complexity and language differences. A common enemy has bonded each of them. Remove that threat and Israel’s seething internal differences – between the Orthodox, the liberals and the secular Jews, for openers – would intensify. And with the Indonesians no longer showing interest in East Timor, the fracture lines have opened up among its people.

Having paid such a heavy price for their little nations, both the Israelis and the Timorese are clearly formidable. Of course, the parallels break down in terms of comparative international clout and military capacity, with the Timorese as poor as anyone on Earth. Yet in another vital regard they resemble the Israelis. Everyone in the country is fiercely interested in politics.

With the executive producer of Radio National’s Late Night Live, Chris Bullock, I spent two weeks in Timor-Leste. We went from the main cities to remote coastal communities and villages high in the mountains. We met thousands, interviewed scores, returning with 16 hours of recording. People would emerge from their mushroom-shaped homes of thatch and bamboo to tell us their stories, with dignity, sadness, anger. And the talk was of politics.

While 1400km might sound like a walk in the park, we’re talking the world’s worst roads. And everywhere we heard battered radios (often the only technological development to separate villagers’ lives from the worlds of the ancestors they revere) playing the parliamentary broadcasts from Dili. It was the budget debate, and lasted a week. They were listening as though their lives depended on it. Which, in fact, they do. For unless wise decisions are made about the money that is starting to trickle from oil and gas royalties, East Timor won’t make it. The problems are so vast, the needs so desperate. For electricity, shelter, clean water, education, and medical attention to lower the infant morality rate. For road-building and for jobs.

Having paid a higher per capita price for independence than any nation on Earth, the Timorese recently turned on each other. The fires lit by the departing forces didn’t just destroy Dili – we didn’t see a village anywhere that escaped Indonesian vengeance – and the Timorese finished the job. Not even the power of Catholicism in their lives was enough to prevent old enmities flaring up.

With the rains coming, those impossible roads will soon be impassable. Villages separated by wrecked bridges will be cut off. The Australian army and the UN will try to help with food – as will the new government, with Xanana Gusmao as PM and Jose Ramos-Horta as President. Even the demonised Mari Alkatiri, the head of Fretilin who was forced from the prime ministership last year, convinced me of his best intentions – and of his determination to keep the lid on further violence. But the skyrocketing birth rate has produced many thousands of unemployed youths, and they’ll have to move fast to head off their anger. That’s hard in a country without a trained bureaucracy – especially one recovering from 25 years of war and that more recent impulse for self-immolation.

But like the Israelis, the Timorese are a remarkable people. They have proved themselves indomitable. Ask the Indonesian military. And as Ramos-Horta reminded me, repeating the story he recently told the UN General Assembly: “We’ve only had five years of independence – and it takes that long to establish one Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.”

Next week, why politics is personal in East Timor.

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