April 2012

Timor’s hard-fought independence: 10 years on

It would be a mistake to help the Timorese and expect gratitude, says Good Samaritan Sister Rita Mary Hayes. They deserve our assistance because of what we have done to them and not done for them.

BY Rita Mary Hayes SGS

Let me state clearly that this reflection is simply that, and is based on my experience in a rural mountain district in Timor Leste. I have no access to Government policies or proposed decisions; no contacts with people of influence and ‘in the know’.

As with most countries, Timor Leste is complex: in its history, in its various ethnic groups and languages and in its social composition and aspirations. This year marks the tenth anniversary of independence gained from Indonesian occupation and is also the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Portuguese colonisers.

The first democratically elected government in 2002 inherited a country in an unimaginable state of devastation: in the aftermath of 1999 there was barely a building left standing and not burnt out; there was not an animal of any kind not even a bird to be seen.

The first Easter is a life-long memory as people prayed, rejoiced and rendered thanks for their deliverance. At night, the streets were flooded with families walking and laughing and greeting everyone, simply because they could, as there were no militia, no curfew, no patrolling soldiers brutalising citizens at will. Most people were living under blue tarpaulins provided by the UNHCR and eating UN-donated emergency rations.

Soon little kiosks opened and open-air markets were selling vegetables that the people had grown in the cleared land in the districts and often in the deep water-filled drains in Dili. The Rupiah was still the prevailing currency but the Aussie and the American dollars were also traded throughout Dili. The change to the American dollar solely, brought a steep increase in the cost of living and, together with the decision to make Portuguese, as well as Tetun, an official language, were early indicators that this little nation had difficult times ahead.

In Dili now, there are grandiose buildings everywhere: mainly public buildings and mainly built by mainland China. There is a thriving business community comprising Timorese, Indonesian and Chinese owners with a sprinkling of Malaysian, Australian and Philippine businesses. There are a number of hotels and a few local tourist companies. Building activity is evident everywhere as are motor bikes! Eliminating corruption is, and will be, a major challenge.

In the Districts, little has changed. People are largely subsistence farmers struggling to earn sufficient to maintain their large families. The coastal fishing communities seem particularly poor. There is no sewerage and no running water into the homes. However, there are some monies coming into the communities from the Government as they have introduced veterans’ pensions; money to families who have had members killed in action or as victims; and old age pensions.

Electricity is being rolled out and there are good indications that Xanana’s Government’s National Plan is being implemented, if painfully slowly for all those waiting! The roads are in a truly appalling condition and are major impediments to a whole range of improvements and benefits that could be taking place.

The people have experienced two different Presidents, two Prime Ministers and two different party-led Governments. These coming elections can now be based on choice based on their experience as well as their hopes. They are ready for it.

There have been a couple of major set-backs on their journey to settled nationhood so far: in 2002 and 2006. They have weathered these due to wise leadership and an overwhelming commitment to democracy. Remember, this is a new nation that had never experienced democracy in their home country and for many, I believe, the notion was a confused one.

Many thought, because of the lifestyle evident in the lives of the UN and other internationals from democratic or independent countries, that once both of these were achieved, one automatically got all the developed countries’ lifestyle benefits as well. There is still some coming-to-terms with the actual reality as they battle a daily grind to exist.

Nor is there a great work ethic, and this for many reasons. They would not like my saying this (although many Timorese say it themselves!). They do not take kindly to criticism from ‘outsiders’. They had been for too long left without any help from other countries despite their frantic pleas, made at great cost, to be assisted.

My impression is that they accept help but there is also a fatalism in them. They have survived without help and believe they will continue to do so. ‘Helpers’ have come and largely gone, and while they are genuinely sad that this is so, they also see it as that is how their life is. This is due, I think, to a mixture of their experience and their inherited animism.

There is also in the Timorese, the Liza Doolittle attitude: “We can still muddle through without you!” There is an impatience in Timorese for foreigners in positions of power to be gone and let them run their own show.

I think it would be a mistake to help the Timorese and expect gratitude. They deserve our assistance because of what we have done to them and not done for them. They need people who will stand with them, not over them. And the least they can expect is that they be treated justly (for example, oil revenue) and that we, Aussies, are vigilant that Governments never again perpetrate injustices against them in our name.

Rita Hayes

After 35 years teaching in Good Samaritan Secondary Schools, 23 years as principal, Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes spent 15 years ministering in Timor Leste, and returned to Australia in 2015. She currently organises the Good Samaritan Scholarship Program for mountain village children in Timor, and is a volunteer with the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in Melbourne.

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