Featured image: A message for Australia on the streets of Dili. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
I didn’t know what to expect of Timor-Leste when I was sent there on assignment. There are no direct flights1 from Kuala Lumpur (for now), which immediately makes it a faraway destination to my mind. And the accommodation2 booked for my colleague and I in Dili had only one online review at the time, with one accompanying photograph and no website address. Our destination seemed more elusive than thought.
This caused some pre-departure anxiety. To make things worse—and for reasons best known to the airline—we arrived in Dili without our check-in parcels. Indeed, parcels containing work items. And then other logistical issues cropped up that needed urgent ironing out upon arrival. Everything was up in the air and we didn’t have much time. So we made sh*t up along the way and pulled through rather well.
But had there not been all the initial drama we wouldn’t have met Billy, the taxi driver. And this is how it happened: We were on our way from the airport to the motel when I saw a Perodua Kelisa, a now obsolete popular Malaysian budget compact car. I wondered if it was called by the same name as the car had no external branding. Excitedly I asked the driver what it was, and he responded: Pajero.
I’m no automobile expert but I happen to know what a Pajero looks like. I tried again, pointing to the small car. “Mobil itu, mas” (That car, brother). He changed his mind: Honda Jazz. I gave up. That 15 minutes taxi ride from the airport to town cost USD10.
A subsequent ride to the printers cost us an additional USD10 for a return journey. Dili turned out to be an expensive town to run errands by taxi so I started exploring other travel options.
A motorcycle would cost USD15 a day if rented from our motel. A reasonable price but ridiculous option considering we had parcels to pick up from the airport, among other things (that being I was the only one who was game for a motorcycle).
The other option was to rent a car. A motel staff offered a Pajero for USD55 a day but I wasn’t sure what exactly he meant by “Pajero”. And if he did mean the Mitsubishi Pajero as universally understood, well we didn’t need such a big car.
A third person then offered an off-duty taxi … for me to drive myself. A flood of fantastic ideas rushed into my head. But it was getting late and the conversation was heading towards (potentially awesome) absurdity. I had to remind myself we were there on a work trip.
I stepped outside for a think and was introduced to Billy, a taxi driver who lived right next to our motel. Billy offered to drive us around for all our errands and make himself available through the day until dinner. He was a gentle and kind man who let us decide a fair rate for him. We eventually paid him USD50 and got him a meal3, for which he was very grateful.
We had a tight week and not much time for sightseeing. But with Billy we managed to run our errands, set up a booth at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum and have just enough time for a quick visit to the Arquivo & Museu da Resistência Timorense.
The museum is a must-see in Dili and charges just USD1 for entry. It’s a well thought-out and professionally designed permanent exhibition that takes you through the long history of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence.
Visitors journey through a timeline of events since the days of Portuguese colonisation, up until the Indonesian occupation and eventual statehood in 2002. Their resistance is well documented, detailing the different local factions and their allegiances, the governments that betrayed them and solidarity groups abroad that supported their cause.
For me the exhibition was also a great reminder of the importance of radio4. In times of conflict and communication lockdown the radio plays a crucial role for communities to transmit stories out to the world. The smuggling of one radio equipment into a conflict area can be a game changer. It was true then for the Timorese as it is today for many communities around the world. To add, radio still has the widest reach globally.
At the Arquivo & Museu da Resistência Timorense, a photograph of a Timorese wearing a badge that says ‘Women are on the move’.
The museum visit brought about some familiar feelings in me: a deep and passionate hate for armed conflict. The death and displacement of people, rape of women and children, abject destruction, glorification of hyper-masculinity and gleeful profiteering by weapons manufacturers. It was interesting to see the iconic AK-47 rifle featured on the Timor-Leste national emblem to symbolise centuries of resistance …
Billy took us to Pantai Pasir Putih for sunset and dinner. It was a beautiful evening and a perfect spot to unwind not too far from town. We were all quite knackered by then so we didn’t attempt hiking 500 steps up to the 27-metre Christo-Rei nearby. But the grand statue of Christ was there in clear view as reminder of the special position of Christianity and the Roman Catholic church.
I tried to figure out the direction of the statue. Christ looks out to Selat Ombai, but is he facing Jerusalem or Vatican City? According to my colleague some people believe Christo-Rei (‘Christ is King’ in Portuguese) is in fact facing Jakarta. Well, seems legit.
Designed by Mochamad Syailillah, the statue was commissioned by Indonesia’s Suharto as a ‘gift’ to the people of Timor-Leste in 1996 commemorating 20 years of Indonesian occupation. It was ultimately a project by Indonesians and even built in Indonesia. But while some funding came from Indonesia, Timorese civil servants were asked to foot the bill. It seems the Catholic church preferred to play it cool5.
I chatted with an Indonesian activist at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum the next day about Indonesia’s current relationship with Timor-Leste. According to him many, if not most, Indonesians aren’t aware that Timor-Leste was a military occupation. School children are taught that the Timorese wanted to be part of Indonesia. These days he makes it a point to explicitly use the word “jajah” or “occupy” when talking to friends about Indonesia’s history in east Timor. That’s the least he can do, he said. Set the record straight.
Indeed language matters in how we shape history and how we perceive others as well as ourselves. It forms our identity. That morning at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum I heard the Timor-Leste national anthem sang for the first time:
We vanquish colonialism, we cry:
down with imperialism!
Free land, free people, no, no no to exploitation.
Let us go forward, united, firm and determined
In the struggle against imperialism,
the enemy of people, until final victory,
onward to revolution.
It’s a song of a people who’ve had enough. ‘Patria’ (Fatherland), is entirely in Portuguese. A quick online search reveals the song to be the only national anthem in Southeast Asia not in a language native to the region.
It’s ironic to say the least that ‘Patria’ is in the language of a former colonial master. Portuguese is Timor-Leste’s second national language after Tetum. Both languages were banned during the Indonesian occupation but reinstated soon after. Bahasa Indonesia is widely spoken but only recognised as a “working language”, perhaps because politically it’s associated with the Indonesian occupation.
I appreciate the sentiment behind the status of Bahasa Indonesia but I’m curious as to why Portuguese was not viewed similarly when the country decided on its national language. Why not just make Tetum the sole official lingua franca? Perhaps young Timorese are already asking this question. Ah, political identity and the contentious question of language …
English was the common language at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum. That was how most of us connected with each other, although those of us from Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste did often communicate in a mix of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu. At least that was how it went down in our booth where we conducted interviews to identify issues surrounding Internet rights and freedoms in the region.
It’s a pretty depressing state of affairs in Southeast Asia when it comes to Internet rights, especially in the context of access and freedom of expression. But in Timor-Leste, a young country where Resistência is still recent memory, freedom of expression is genuinely upheld. A simple example, no one has been censored or detained for anti-government comments online.
When I shared examples of censorship in other Southeast Asian countries my references were received with grimaces and some level of amusement. In my heart I wondered, “Are you guys sure you want your government to join the Association of Despotic Governments?!”6
A view of Selat Ombai and children playing on Pantai Pasir Putih. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
But what about access? Infrastructure development is just emerging and Timorese may be facing a problem: net neutrality. There are only a few Internet service providers in the country with a fierce push by foreign owned telecommunications companies.
Online, social media (namely Facebook) dominates the Timorese Internet experience. As one Timorese activist said, “It’s much faster to do things on Facebook than to login and upload an update on my organisation’s website”.
Many who came to our booth said young people spend too much time on social media and consider this trend solely as a behavioural issue. “It’s a terrible distraction and is creating lazy minds. They’re not accessing critical information and analyses on the Internet”. But when asked why young people aren’t browsing on other content platforms they say websites and search engines take too long to load and therefore cost much more to access.
Are Internet service providers deliberately slowing down connection outside of the social media sphere? Has the government allowed preferential access to certain online platforms as a trade-off for some kind of infrastructure development? These aren’t yet questions being asked by the Timorese. Then again, do we ask these questions elsewhere in Southeast Asia? We should.
As Billy—the taxi driver—said, Timor-Leste doesn’t have capital for large scale infrastructure or industry so big foreign corporations come in and fill the gap. Corporations then determine rates and collect the profits. Often there’s a monopoly.
Fortunately, Billy said, electricity and water are still state owned. He however complained the government has imposed hefty fines for people who illegally wire their homes to the electricity grid. On the one hand electricity infrastructure isn’t developed enough to reach all homes. On the other, families may not afford to hire a utility company to legally connect them to existing grids.
We passed by a petrol station and I asked him about petroleum. Timor-Leste is heavily dependent on oil where 95 percent of the country’s income is from oil and gas revenue. Billy talked about the fight with Australia over maritime border disputes which affects rights to oil. Timor-Leste is taking Australia to the Hague but the latter has declared it will do a China and disregard international arbitration over the issue.
This reminded me of a conversation with an activist from the Philippines about their own territorial dispute with China. “We call it the West Philippines Sea,” she said. Brilliant. When the Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in July this year social media was abuzz with reaction. Pro-China commenters on Twitter defended China’s claims saying the area is after all called the “South China Sea”. Imagine if Timor-Leste could simply make territorial claims in the Timor Sea just going by name. And since we’re on this joke, how about India and the Indian Ocean?
Billy took a detour before dropping me off at the airport. First, the Tais Market where I couldn’t afford anything but a friendship band. The market itself is small with only a few small stalls, each selling similar local items made for tourists. A nearby shopping district was mainly electronic shops, retail shops selling imported apparel (likely from China) and street side DVD vendors selling 21-in-1 Amitabh Bachchan films.
“They’re mostly foreign owned shops here,” he said. I requested to make a stop at a food market where locals buy their supplies. Billy drove us to Taibesi by the foothill at the edge of Dili town. As we drove he noted that the area is mostly inhabited by the kaum pribumi (indigenous people). “You can tell between the pribumi homes and outsiders’”. He pointed them out, the class divide.
The visit to Taibesi market was awesome. It’s basically a typical wet market you’d find in Southeast Asia but with different types of produce. Although we didn’t spend much time at the market we did see some interesting things, most notably the wide selection of chilies and peppers on sale. Some of them I’d only seen in cooking shows featuring cuisines from faraway places. I didn’t know they could grow in our part of the world. Well, this particular Portuguese legacy looked very pretty in the market and I’m sure they make meals more delicious too.
I parted with Billy with a heavy heart. He’d been very kind to us during our visit. I wished him the best, and prayed my check-in luggage would arrive back with me in Kuala Lumpur.
1. The most efficient route from Kuala Lumpur is via Bali. We flew to Denpasar on AirAsia and then took a connecting flight to Dili on Sriwijaya Air. ↩
2. The place is called Hotel Audian, a no-frills but clean and comfortable motel. With divine help Internet may be accessible in the rooms via WiFi. ↩
3. The metered air conditioned blue taxi would have cost much more. So would a yellow taxi if hailed from the roadside. ↩
4. Listen to recordings of radio transmissions from Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation on the Clearing House for Archival Records on Timor Inc website. ↩
5. An excellent interview with Mochamad Syailillah is published in Bahasa Indonesia on The Ahmad Institute website, putting into perspective the politics behind Dili’s Christo-Rei. ↩
6. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is for the most part an economic bloc comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Timor-Leste has been lobbying to be part of ASEAN, which is currently negotiating the clandestine Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with China. Like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) with the United States, the impending RCEP is raising alarm bells among human rights activists in the region. ↩