Monday, August 3, 2009

East is East

It's only a thirty minute flight from Maumere on Flores to Kupang in West Timor (we chickened out of the 13-hour ferry boat ride). From the airport we have to walk about one kilometre to catch a bemo on the main road. It is sunny, of course, and hot and dry. Luckily there's a bemo waiting and we are soon on the long ride into town. After a short while in Kupang we conclude that all the bemos are full of 18 year-olds and are being driven by 14 year-olds. As with Maumere, there are huge speakers underneath the bench seats in the back blasting out Indo pop or hip-hop. The minibuses are all decorated with stickers, windows obliterated with kitsch images and, in one case, the scene of the Last Supper. As we vibrate towards town it feels like we're joyriding with the local kids. Kupang is the capital of the region East Nusa Tenggara, which includes Flores, and numerous other smaller islands. We learn later that this is in fact Indonesia's poorest province. The town is full of students and sprawls outwards from the old waterfront and market area. It's nothing special, but in the evening one of the streets is closed to traffic and springs to life with food stalls and tables - it's a very sociable scene and reminds us of Malaysia. In one space there's a crowd gathering around a man with a microphone. Beside him stands a man tied up inside a sack, a large tin trunk awaits. An escapologist! We wait for a while but nothing happens. Next day there is an empty sack on the ground, so we guess he got out.

The minibus to Dili collects us at 5.30am. We then trawl the streets for the other pick-ups. It's Sunday morning and there is a football match taking place before the sun has even risen. We're half asleep as we head eastwards to the border with East Timor. In Bahasa Indonesia Timor means east. So East Timor may be the only country in the world with a tautology for a name. The Indonesians call it Timor Timur or Tim Tim, but it's official name is now Timor Leste. The roads are noticeably poorer once we have crossed the border, and one town has a few derelict buildings, otherwise there's little to indicate we've entered a new country. The British government currently advises against travel to East Timor unless it is "essential", but our friend Val has been working over a year here and we are sure it will be fine. We've been told that the UN presence is still large and we take a bet on how many of the big white vehicles with those famous initials we will see before arriving at Val's. Gayle guesses 20 and I go for 30. We stop counting when we pass 40.

There's a good reason for the UN presence. (Here's the contemporary history bit, folks!) In 1974 after the Portuguese had abandoned their colony and local political parties proclaimed independence, the Indonesian army turned up uninvited. The invasion plan was known to the U.S., Malaysian, Singaporean and Australian governments, none of whom made any objections, as long as it was quick. It was, but it was not painless and a guerilla force continued fighting the Indonesians in the mountains for the next 25 years. It is thought that over 100,000 died during this period, directly from the conflict but mostly indirectly from malnutrition and disease. When Soeharto's reign ended in Indonesia, the new leader allowed for a referendum on independence in 1999. It took place after a campaign of intimidation by a pro-Indonesian militia backed by the Indonesian army. 79% voted for independence and this same militia, with the army, went on a rampage, destroying Dili and other towns killing and displacing 200,000 people. Our guidebook describes the Indonesian's withdrawal as "scorched earth", and peace was only restored when a UN peacekeeping force of mainly Australians arrived.

When the Portuguese left East Timor after 400 years of rule there was less than 20km of road and no bridges. There were only about 50 schools. Most lived by subsistence farming and coffee growing. Ironically the Indonesian government invested heavily in their new province, building a large road network and providing education across the board. Coffee output did fall, partly due to neglect but also because of the ongoing guerilla war. Sadly on departure they destroyed almost everything positive they did, and many Indonesians who had come to work in government jobs also fled when the trouble flared up. The UN finally handed over administration in May 2002 to the new independent government, but only 6 months later there were riots in Dili. The government faced huge problems trying to build new institutions, and provide the basics of running water, electricity, employment, health care and education (most secondary school teachers had been Indonesians and had left.) This is in a country with no industry, but with off-shore oil and gas reserves. In 2006 the new government was cracking up. The Prime Minister sacked one-third of the army, which lead to more disturbances and fighting and instantly created an armed rebel group. Many UN and NGO workers left the country. But in 2007 there were peaceful elections, a new government formed, and the rebuilding process restarted. Assassination attempts on both President and Prime Minister on the same day in 2008 by the rebels were foiled, and both survived. More importantly the country remained surprisingly calm. The UN still maintains a peacekeeping force and is in the process of handing over policing, region by region. There is also a large presence of NGO workers and government advisers from outside who are all trying to help with the rebuilding process. Meanwhile the East Timorese have struck a deal with the Australians over developing the oil and gas reserves that they share, despite the Australians' best attempts not to, and despite being one of the most messed-up countries, it remarkably has no debt.

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