East Timor Turns the Corner

It had been 10 years since my last visit to East Timor and when we wandered onto the dusty tarmac after the flight from Bali, it did not appear that much had changed.

The road into town was a bit better and there were more businesses, most notably, I suppose, Timor Plaza, the country’s first shopping mall, which locals with money hail as an outpost of quality consumer goods. There are nice restaurants and hotels and a few new government buildings but Dili is hardly humming with economic activity.

In a town that was literally burned to the ground by the Indonesian military and its militia allies after the 1999 pro-independence referendum, the seaside embassy row is now the most prosperous place in Dili. Is the massive US Embassy bigger than Beijing’s imposing structure or is Australia’s No. 1? The Japanese and even the South Koreans are not far behind. The Portuguese, of course, have a grand new building in the former colony they abandoned to civil war and invasion by Indonesia in 1975.

As one of the newest countries in the world and sitting astride oil resources and a strategic position between Indonesia and Australia, Timor-Leste, as it is formally known, has been the site of intense diplomatic maneuvering since 1999. On the day I left, the US military was conducting Exercise Crocodilo, a joint military-training operation with the Timor-Leste armed forces. It is the latest manifestation of Washington’s aggressive “pivot” into Asia.

Local friends were laughing about a US “invasion” of Dili as American helicopters crisscrossed the sky and US soldiers went out for evening beers at local bars. The Chinese, who have spent heavily on various building projects in East Timor, were said to be deeply irritated and the irony could hardly be lost that the United States once worried about East Timor becoming a haven for leftists in 1975, and tacitly approved the Indonesian invasion. Now the US has added the country to its growing list of nominal military allies in its delicate strategic dance with China.

Elsewhere in Dili, however, the very hard work of building a future goes on, a task made more urgent now that the deadline has arrived this year for the withdrawal of the remaining United Nations peacekeeping troops still in the country. The last time the UN left, in 2006, internal political tensions and gang violence collapsed the government. Now, successful elections again have been held, a new president, Taur Matan Ruak, took over in May from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta and the country is overwhelmingly peaceful. That Horta, who is a unifying figure, can step away from politics is a sign that things are headed in the right direction.

With its massive oil reserves offshore — perhaps US$40 billion worth and much of it the subject of contentious negotiations with Australian companies — East Timor’s future largely depends on avoiding the resource curse of potential corruption and waste in the sharing of the bounty.

The country’s impressive oil and mineral resources minister, Alfredo Pires, is quietly building a system to handle the revenues and development with maximum transparency. Dili has signed on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and is considered a “compliant country” by the global initiative (Indonesia is merely a candidate and has filed no reports on the EITI Web site). Pires and his allies know that corruption is a threat but he explained in his office that openness is the best defense against graft.

The government’s budget is online for all to see and the annual parliamentary discussion of the national budget is broadcast live on TV. Anyone can see how much revenue is coming in and where it is going by logging onto http://www.transparency.gov.tl/. There is hardly anything like that anywhere in Asia as far as I know, least of all in Indonesia.

There is much to be done in Timor-Leste and Dili, population 500,000, remains the sleepiest of capitals, with empty beaches and grinding poverty still evident. Beneath the surface, however, it seems the country may be turning a corner — and opening up the books is one important part of that equation.

(A. Lin Neumann is one of the founders of Asia Sentinel. This originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe.)