Dili: When invading Indonesian troops parachuted into Dili in 1975 Filomena Gomes fled into East Timor’s cloud-shrouded mountains and for four years scrounged food and cooked for guerrilla fighters.
She remembers a tall, handsome fighter by the name of Xanana.
“He liked to eat a soup made from corn, pumpkin and papaya leaves,” she says of the man who became the hero of East Timor’s independence, and remains the most powerful figure in Asia’s youngest democracy.
But like many other Timorese survivors of 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation and a violent withdrawal of Jakarta’s troops after an independence vote in 1999, 57-year-old Gomes says her family’s life has barely improved.
“We have got little. Life is very hard for us,” Gomes says, as her husband chops wood on a hillside beside a road snaking into Dili, where she has lived since Indonesian troops arrested her four decades ago, and brought her down from the mountains.
Two of her sons and a daughter have died.
Like scores of others living in deplorable slums encircling Dili, Gomes’ family has no running water or sanitation and no money to buy medicines for her two daughters in their 20s and early 30s, or their children, when they become sick.
Gomes and her husband collect and sell wood and try to grow corn but the rains did not come and the latest crop failed.
“We have written a letter and tried to see Xanana [Gusmao], to tell him about us, but we have not heard anything,” she says.
From Gomes’ shack perched on the hill she can gaze to Dili, the town where she was born during an era of largely neglected Portuguese rule, which has been transformed since 1999 when pro-Indonesian militia and Indonesian security forces burnt, looted and rampaged, turning it into a wasteland.
In 1999, I was in East Timor covering the tumultuous events. “We drive in silence through mass destruction, past street after street of smouldering ruin,” I wrote with tears in my eyes on September 10, 1999, after I had scrambled onto a RAAF Hercules aircraft, the last evacuation flight from Dili.
Pot-holed tracks have become sealed roads. Instead of frequent blackouts there is power 24-hours a day.
Health officials have reduced malaria, which they aim to eliminate by 2020.
There is a shopping mall with an elevator, cinema, casino and even a Burger King’s and Gloria Jean’s, selling Timorese coffee.
The rustic waterfront Hotel Turismo, where journalists, diplomats and spies once huddled in the beer garden, speaking in whispers about Indonesia’s occupation, has been rebuilt into a posh hotel with waiters wearing vests.
There are cavernous Chinese-built government offices and statues of heroes of East Timor’s struggle.
A Timorese-Chinese consortium is planning two 17-storey office towers that include a restaurant that can sit 400 people.
Outside Dili, former president Xanana and other leaders – mostly former resistance fighters – are pushing ahead with multibillion-dollar projects, including a $US1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) down payment on an industrial complex on the southern remote coast designed to process gas from the $40 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea.
There are also plans for development of a special economic and free trade zone in the tiny former Portuguese enclave of Oecusse that includes highways, an international standard airport, marina, hospital, hotels, a water park and golf course.
Critics say the projects involve significant economic and political risks at a critical point in the resource-rich nation’s history.
Fifteen years after gaining independence, some observers and opposition politicians say it is time for East Timor to take stock and re-access how to empower ordinary Timorese to participate in nation building and tackle high unemployment, widespread preventable diseases and malnutrition, land rights issues, illiteracy, corruption and cronyism.
They argue optimism that utopian projects will in the short term reduce poverty and improve the lives of ordinary Timorese is unfounded.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has since 2008 ranked East Timor as the most democratic nation in south-east Asia.
But opposition politicians say Xanana and his ruling executive from a coalition comprising his National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT) and Fretilin, the party that led East Timor’s independence struggle, now have unfettered powers.
Sweeping authority and generous funding have been given to Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri to turn Oecusse, which is surrounded by Indonesia, into a business and tourist hub,
This elite group appears likely to hold on to power at general elections in July, after their candidate Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, a former resistance commander, decisively won presidential elections last Monday, intensifying concerns East Timor has become a dominant one-party state without a viable opposition.
Around 78 per cent of the $US1.38 billion state budget for 2017 will come from oil and gas revenues and the country has failed to diversify to sustainable manufacturing and agriculture.
The country’s only producing gas field, which has provided about $US20 billion in revenue over the past 10 years, is drying up and output is expected to stop between 2020 and 2022.
Greater Sunrise has been shelved amid a bitter stand-off with Australia over sea borders, although there is renewed hope among East Timor’s leaders that the project will be resurrected this year by a consortium led by Woodside.
Seventy-year-old Xanana is insisting that gas from Greater Sunrise be piped to the southern coast, a gamble that could bring in $US25 billion over 25 years or send the country broke.
To be sure, without revenues from Greater Sunrise the country’s multibillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund will dwindle – or even be depleted within a decade – if spending patterns and plans progress, analysts say.
Woodside and its partners want the gas extracted from a floating platform.
Soon a floating platform that is the world’s biggest vessel and six times the weight of the largest aircraft carrier will sail past East Timor on its maiden voyage from South Korea to Shell’s Prelude field off the Western Australia coast.
Charles Scheiner from the Dili-based think-tank Lao Hamutuk believes the southern coast developments will not make back the money they will cost.
“And it will be a lot more – perhaps as much as $US10-$20 billion if Timor-Leste [East Timor] pays for all the infrastructure, including pipeline, LNG plant and refinery,” he says.
“Timor-Leste needs to invest its finite resources more wisely – in education, health care and local infrastructure which will benefit local citizens rather than foreign construction companies.”
Lao Hamutuk has also questioned whether the Oecusse projects should be funded from public funds and how they will benefit the enclave’s 70,000 population, some of whom face displacement.
Jose Ramos Horta, a former president and prime minister and still an influential figure in Dili, rejects what he calls doomsday predictions that his country is heading towards becoming a failed state or that the sovereign fund will dry up, and backs Xanana’s vision to prioritise the building of infrastructure.
But in an election year, the mega-projects have become a key issue.
More than 40 per cent of Timorese live below the poverty line, 30 per cent of adults cannot read and 70 per cent live in rural areas with limited health services.
American Dan Murphy, the head doctor at Dili’s Bairo Pite Clinic, says there have been improvements to the health of Timorese since he arrived in East Timor in 1998.
“But to be honest, the improvements have been so slow as to be almost not noticeable,” says the 73-year-old doctor, who is regarded as a saint-like figure by his patients.
“Severe malnutrition remains such a huge problem among children that even if many of them survive, they may not even be able to have a normal life,” he says.
“Higher population densities mean that diseases spread pretty much as they want to and women are still dying here in child-birth.”
Murphy says at least once a week his clinic saves a mother’s life.
Mario Carrascalao, a 79-year-old former Indonesian-era governor and former deputy prime minister, believes billions of dollars should not be allocated for mega-projects before Timorese have basic necessities like water, sanitation and improved health care and education.
“For me, the priority should be the small people. Then when you get to a certain level, you can go the bigger projects,” he says.
Out-going president Jose Maria Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak, who is aligned with the recently formed People’s Liberation Party, has repeatedly spoken out against corruption, last year comparing Xanana and Alkatiri to the former Indonesian dictator Suharto, saying there is “widespread discontent” among the public that their families are benefiting from lucrative government contracts.
He said the men, whose families have extensive business interests in the country, had divided power among themselves while crushing any dissent.
The government denies the claims.
Some businesspeople complain they face seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles, while other companies win dubious but lucrative contacts.
Estanislau da Silva, the minister for agriculture, fisheries and co-ordinating minister for economic affairs, has ordered an investigation into how a fleet of 15 Chinese vessels was granted a 12-month lease to fish in sovereign waters for a modest fee of just $US312,450.
The company Pingtan Marine Enterprises had previously boasted its vessels can each generate annual revenue of $US3 million.
Australian businessman Ed Turner says he has left the country after 10 years trying to build its only national airline, Air Timor.
The airline quit the once-lucrative Dili to Bali route in January after East Timor authorities had handed operating licences to Indonesian airline Sriwijaya and its budget subsidiary NAM Airlines.
Fares collapsed on the route and Air Timor could not compete.
The airline has sacked more than 20 Timorese workers and now only flies the Dili to Singapore route twice a week.
“It’s a third world country to do business in,” says Turner who has sold his shares in Air Timor but retains an interest through loans.
“Many people will tell you to get officials on side you have to give them girls and money,” he says.
“If you don’t do that you won’t succeed ??? even people who do that often don’t succeed anyway.”
East Timor’s former finance minister Emilia Pires, who is also an Australian citizen, was allowed to leave the country before a court last year sentenced her to seven years jail on corruption charges, which she is trying to fight through an appeal to a Portuguese court.
In January Xanana criticised the verdict and accused some court officials of corruption.
Former justice minister Lucia Lobato was also sentenced to five years jail in 2012 on corruption charges.
Ramos Horta says while he makes no judgment about the guilt of the two former ministers he believes they should have received suspended sentences.
The Nobel laureate says there is corruption but insists claims it is rampant at the highest levels of government are exaggerated because of the way the system is set up.
Xanana says East Timor is not yet ready for a transition to a younger generation of leaders in the country where almost two thirds of the population is under 30 years old.
But Ramos Horta is helping the government set up an institute to train future leaders.
On September 7, 1999, at the height of violence in Dili, a baby was born on a piece of cardboard next to where I was sleeping in the besieged United Nations compound in Dili.
His mother Joanna Remejio gave him the middle name of Unamet, the acronym for the United Nations mission that made it possible for 439,000 Timorese to vote for their freedom.
I find now 17-year-old Pedro Unamet Remejio painting portraits in his mother’s house in a Dili suburb, his passion.
“I am not worried about the future of my country ??? I plan to study to become an engineer and will find a job when I leave school, so I can help my family,” he says.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.