Final Thoughts on East Timor

I was only in East Timor for a long weekend and in that time I was only in the capital of Dili. So anything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I am by no means an expert on the country. However, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the country had gone through. Dili looked like a city which had just been in a nasty bar fight. It is the first and only place I’ve been during my trip so far where I saw the effects of violence first hand.


First, let me provide a bit of background on the country. My guess is that most people either haven’t heard of East Timor, of if they did, it was in passing on a news program. Most of the Indonesia archipelago was colonized by the Dutch via the Dutch East India Company. The only exception to this was the eastern half of the island of Timor (Timur means “East” in Bahasa Indonesian) which was colonized by the Portuguese.

The Dutch and the Portuguese did not go about the business of colonization in the same manner. While traveling through Indonesia, I didn’t see much in the way of obvious Dutch influences. I’m sure there are bits of Dutch which appear in Bahasa Indonesian, but I don’t know enough Bahasa or Dutch to notice it. The Dutch, for all their faults, didn’t go about changing the religion of the Indonesians nor did the country end up speaking Dutch.

The Portuguese, however, managed to convert most of their colony to Catholicism and made Portuguese the official language. Over several hundred years the colonies grew very distinct from each other.

Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1945, whereas Portugal hung on to its colony. In 1975 they left East Timor (Timor Leste in Portuguese) and unilaterally declared them independent. That didn’t happen.

The Portuguese left in a rush and nine days after declaring them independent, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia.

The US had a role to play in this. Prior to the invasion, Suharto (former leader of Indonesia) told Henry Kissinger and President Ford of his plans and got the OK from the US for the invasion. The US didn’t want a communist government to take root in East Timor. All UN efforts to impose sanctions on Indonesia were blocked by the US. The only country to formally recognize East Timor as part of Indonesia was Australia. (It should be noted that most western nations to some degree or another supported Indonesia. The government of Portugal basically walked way and gave some weak verbal support for East Timor.)

During the next 25 years, the East Timorese fought a guerilla war against the Indonesia’s occupation which an estimated 100,000 Timorese were killed.

In 1999, under UN oversight, the East Timorese held a referendum and voted for independence. When Indonesian troops left the, out of spite, basically destroyed most of the infrastructure of the country. Today, you can still see the gutted out and abandoned buildings in Dili.

Since independence, things haven’t been rosy. As with every revolution, civil strife broke out in 2006 which brought UN Peace keepers back in. As you might remember, on the morning I left Dili there was an assassination attempt on the President and Prime Minister.

Life on the Ground

The moment you hit the ground in East Timor, you can tell this place which is in trouble. Immediately across the street from the airport was a refugee camp. In fact, most of the open spaces in Dili seem to have been converted to refugee camps including the main part and the area around one of the churches. They are mostly people from rural areas who fled to Dili after fighting in 2006.

You can’t look down the street in Dili without seeing a UN vehicle. They are mostly 4-wheel drive SUVs with air intake pipes near the roof. Many also have metal mesh around the windows. The presence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the UN are everywhere. During the time I was in Dili, I only spoke to a handful of native East Timorese. Most of the people I interacted with were outsiders working in East Timor.

Every so often, the sounds of helicopters would be heard overhead. The UN helicopters were used for even trivial transportation of UN troops. I heard from several people stories of UN personnel using helicopters to take trips which easily could have been done by car.

These operations are done with good intentions, but I can’t help but wonder how locals feel about it. As they are forced to live in tents in the refugee camps, the UN personnel live in gated communities with all the amenities you’d expect in a western country. They travel from place to place in their UN trucks and live in another world along side of the people in Dili. I was the only non-East Timorese I saw walking alone in Dili. Everyone else kept in pairs and didn’t seem to have much contact with locals.

The few people I did get to meet were very friendly. Several times while walking around Dili I had people come up to me and shake my hand. They were genuinely surprised that I was an actual tourist, not someone working with an NGO or a reporter. They were also surprised that I was an American. Most of the white people you meet are Australians. (a large part of the peacekeeping force are Australian soldiers. You can tell them apart from the UN because they are much more heavily armed and wear camouflage and armor.)

East Timor is poor. Of that, there is no question. I had read statistics about just how poor East Timor was and while I was there I tried to make mental comparisons to the Solomon Islands. I have come to totally disregard economic statistics in evaluating the wealth of a country. Not only are the statistics collected improperly, beyond a certain point they just don’t matter.

I met several people working for NGOs in Dili. I have to confess I have a built in bias against most people who are do-gooders. For the most part, I think well-intentioned people who use very blunt methods in trying to do good end up causing much more harm. The most obvious example of this would be giving away free stuff. The thinking goes something like this: people are poor, therefore we should give them stuff. That sounds great, but what often happens is when you give free stuff, the local industry built up around producing that stuff (clothes or food usually) will collapse because they cannot compete with free. Sending bags of rice to starving people sounds great, but the long term impact might be destroying the local rice growing industry. The desire to do and feel good usually trumps the actual good which is done.

I mention this because I was rather heartened to hear from people working in NGOs a recognition of this problem. Rather than giving food away, they are selling it at a price which still leaves room for local farmers to sell their product. I think westerners think that people in third world countries have NO money. There is a world of difference between little money and no money. That difference is having any sort of local economy at all.

I don’t know what, if anything, can be done for the economy of East Timor. The first obvious thing is that there needs to be an end to the fighting. The one good thing that came from the assassination attempt was that the rebel leader was killed. I’m not sure what he was thinking in trying to assassinate the President and PM. The country is occupied by UN and Australian forces. Killing the leaders and sitting behind their desk isn’t going to give you power.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what the future holds for East Timor. If they can become a poor but peaceful country in the next few year, I suppose that would be a step in the right direction. Once the UN leaves I think they will fall off the radar of the NGOs as they all move to the next hot aid area in Africa. My guess is that they will probably develop in unison with Indonesia, as for better or worse, they are the biggest market they have. Supposedly there is oil on the straight of Timor and Dili has sign agreements with Australia for extracting resources. Oil could help the country, or as in many oil producing countries, it could be a curse.

I can’t in good faith recommend East Timor as a destination for most travelers. It isn’t easy to get to and there isn’t much there to see. There are no major attractions despite the existence of a Lonely Planet guide to the country. Tourism would probably be the easiest industry to build up. There is a reasonable amount of English spoken and they use the US Dollar as their currency. If they can reach some sort of lasting peace, I could see some sort of tourism industry developing in about five to ten years.

7 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on East Timor”

  1. I was a UN election observer for the 1999 independence vote. Perhaps teaching someone to fish is better than giving the person fish; however, how does the starving person live until they learn to fish

  2. I think this recognition that hand-outs aren’t a long-term fix for anything is part of the rise in popularity of “social ventures” in business circles — companies that aren’t charities but try to address under-served markets and aim for the “double bottom line”. Of course, the class “teach a man to fish…” line comes to mind.

  3. Hey, Gary.

    Paul Theroux shares your feelings on NGOs and their in-country personnel in his book Dark Star Safari. He’s pretty cynical, but it might be a good read for you prior to visiting Africa. Continued safe travels.


  4. Wow…very informative and interesting stuff. I found your blog via bootsnaall and have read a lot of it over the last 2 days (it’s been raining A LOT!!) so thank you! Stay safe and keep it coming.


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