Fleeing the Jurisdiction

Where the sun rises
August 6, 2007, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Government, Timor-Leste

Banking around over the palm-fringed coastline in the small prop plane, Dili seemed like some forgotten seaside resort. A millionaire’s folly, a lavish plaything tossed unwanted into the undergrowth. Though at a distance, its grand colonial buildings, statues and plazas appeared wracked only by time and nature, the violent truth became obvious once my feet touched ground.

Before even exiting the airport, certain disparities became clear. Firstly, arriving near the same time were three separate flights, not one more than half-full. One for UN staffers, one for contractors and one for the rest. Watching the blue-badged brahmin caste swept through customs, my eyes alighted on a small notice glued to the grimy stuccoed wall of the immigration building. It admonished against giving money to the children from the nearby refugee camp, lest they see a future in begging. Worthy though it may be to usher the youth of a developing nation, especially, toward a sustainable and fruitful living, the effect was somewhat dispiriting, and I felt immediately on the defensive. Could I not savour that paradisiac aerial view a little longer? It seems it’s true what they say – things only ever seem perfect when viewed from a great distance. And I’d come back to earth with a bump.

Edging a year and a half’s worth of luggage past the throng, eager as advertised, I was met and spirited away by 4 wheel drive. In an early introduction to the security alerts against which, I am learning, life in Dili is measured, we chose a circuitous route to avoid reported trouble near the headquarters of Fretilin, the political party that had formed government post-independence, and which was attempting to rally against its likely loss of this status given a failure to win a parliamentary majority in the recent elections.

Depositing my belongings at a dour, razor wire-ringed compound, my hosts took me along the coast road, cautiously past yet more refugee, or IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps interspersed with embassies and dilapidated hotels. Water buffaloes grazed at the salty grasses beneath bearded mangroves, broad-leafed bananas and topheavy papayas. Trotting pigs rooted through strewn garbage, with their young striped for camouflage like the passing convoys of Australian and New Zealand troops. Under the benificent gaze of the famous statue of Christo Rei, we stopped at last, and over a beer, the niceties were quickly dispensed with in favour of a rapid-fire political bulletin. While I took in the remarkable dry season sunset, one of my hosts (who runs a restaurant famed for its prawns though these delicacies are, for him, taboo) quietly remonstrated me for the abysmal treatment of indigenous people in my country of birth. Coverage of the abysmal health and education outcomes of Australian aborigines had gained significant coverage in Dili newspapers, understandable in a country with an undeniable historical basis for its skepticism of Australian policies. Many here think this is what happens, I was gravely told, in a country run by whites. Is it any wonder now that, with Dutch, Portuguese and Indonesian colonial influences warded off at such great cost, the Australian presence, so close and so pervasive, is viewed with a particularly race-conscious suspicion?

It has been a strange time to arrive – uncertainty hanging humidly in the clove-scented air. With the Parliament already boycotted since its first sitting last week, no government has yet been installed. Rumours have been rife as to the status of talks with most tipping a coalition led by the former President, the former guerilla leader and hero of the Falantil resistance, Xanana Gusmão. With the decision repeatedly delayed by the cautious diplomat Jose Ramos-Horta, tensions are high and many now fear a spillover into the rioting that last year left much of the already-razed capital city in smoking ruins. My first day of work was dominated by a huddled discussion of what was to be done if Fretilin supporters, angered by their leadership being ousted after five years, took up arms. A calm, moustachioed man who had lost his own family home in the previous wave of turmoil, reminded all present that the work could continue without an office and the resources within, but not without them.


3 Comments so far
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I was thinking I must drop in on your blog to see how your transition had gone, and was then further prompted by reports of the appointment of Xanana Gusmao.

Glad to hear you landed, even if with a bump. Stay safe.

Comment by Carla

Look forward to hearing more. Was interested in going to Dili to bum around and absorb the place in preparation for my research. But was told that it is not safe for an international to live their sans security. Interested to know your thoughts.

Comment by Vasco Pyjama

It must be very strong to live in this country…

Regards from Spain!

Comment by Dédalus

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