First Impressions of Timor Leste

East Timor. Image from Wikipedia
East Timor. Image from Wikipedia

To begin to explain Timor Leste (East Timor) it is probably necessary to start at the beginning and give some background to the country. It is a place that most people are probably not familiar with and as countries go, it is relatively new.

If you look at a map of this part of the world, what is geographically known as the Malay Archepelego, it is divided up between several countries: The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, and Papua New Guinea. All of those countries which exist today have borders as a result of some decision made by European governments hundreds of years ago. What is today the Philippines is the territory which was a former Spanish Colony. Malayisa was several former British Colonies (Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo), Brunei was a British “protectorate”, Indonesia was the Dutch East Indies, Papua New Guinea was the British half of the island of New Guinea and Timor Leste was Portugals hunk of the area.

The process of independence for these countries all followed different paths. In the case of East Timor, the Portugese left in 1975. They were scheduled to become an independent country, but were invaded by Indonesia, who (under Suharto) believed that all the territory in this area should be Indonesian. They Indonesians did something similar in 1965 when it invaded Dutch New Guinea and annexed it to Indonesia as the province of Irian Jaya.

The United States and Australia supported the Indonesian government at the time to prevent a Chinese supported communist government from taking hold in East Timor.

The invasion didn’t sit well with the East Timorese. The certainly had no say in the matter, and moreover, had very little in common with the rest of Indonesia. Unlike the former Dutch colony, they were primarily Catholic, not Muslim. This set off an independence struggle which lasted until the UN held a referendum. In 2002, East Timor became an independent country and got a seat in the UN.

It is interesting to note what the name of the country means. The island of Timor is a bastardization of Timur which means “east” in both Malay and Indonesian. The province of East Java for example is “Jawa Timur” in Indonesian. The name Timor was given to the island because it is the eastern most of the Sunda Island chain. The name East Timor really means “East East”. Timor Leste is “East Timor” in Portugese.

Of all the places I’ve been on my trip, East Timor has the most recent history of violence. In 2006 violence erupted between factions and the UN was called in again.

On paper, East Timor has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world at around $800 per person, per year. The moment you leave the airport, across the street you see a refugee camp run by the UN High Commission on Refugees. It is packed with flimsy tents. I didn’t expect to see or have heard of any refugees in East Timor prior to arriving here.

As you drive into Dili, you also can’t help but notice that 10-20% of all the vehicles are white with UN written on the side. There are also helicopters flying around everywhere. Everyone at the place I’m staying either works for the UN or an NGO.

Of the places I’ve been, East Timor reminds me most of the Solomon Islands. Very poor with peace keepers. In the case of the Solomons, they had RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) which is mostly Australian and New Zealand troops with some cops from other island nations.

I’m not sure how liked and wanted the UN is here. I haven’t been here a day yet. On one hand, they spend a ton of money and probably do keep violence from springing up. On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of the locals resent a bunch of foreigners running around in nice cars, flying helicopters everywhere and living in gated communities like kings.

Many of the houses you see on the road in from the airport were just cement shells with no roofs. It looked like photos you’d see of a bombed out city after WWII.

The currency in East Timor is the US Dollar, which is surprising, but a good move. Picking a stable currency is a smart move for a small country and avoids the problems with rampant inflation you see in other countries (Indonesia has 10,000 rupiah to the dollar approximately). They might have been better off with the Australian Dollar or the Euro, but even with the recent slide of the dollar, it was probably a smart move.

Going from Bali to East Timor really shows the difference between the cost of living and the difference in currency values. By all measures, Java and Bali are more developed than East Timor, yet things are often cheaper there. I think much of that is explained by the currency (although, prices might be radically different once you get away from Dili. I’m sure foreigners get a charged a premium for somethings.)

I’m only here for three days, so I don’t know how much of the area beyond Dili I’ll be exploring. I think the capital and talking to locals and UN officials will easily fill up my time.

1 thought on “First Impressions of Timor Leste”

  1. i will follow with great interest your posts, gary. east timor’s struggle for independence occupied much headline space, especially with the tremendous amount of blood shed in the birthing process. most of what i know (sadly) about east timor i got from two of my medical school professors- a forensic pathologist who helped identify bodies after the violence subsided and a psychiatrist who worked with timorese torture victims and their families. and as you can very well imagine, they didn’t paint a very pretty picture. yes, the presence of expats was met with an expected amount of disdain… notwithstanding all this, i do ho hope you have an interesting time in Timor Leste. Be aware of wonder!

Comments are closed.