DILI, East Timor (AFP) – Ten years after winning formal independence following a brutal occupation by Indonesia, East Timor is struggling to escape extreme poverty, corruption and an over-reliance on energy revenues.
As the half-island nation of 1.1 million prepares to celebrate Sunday’s anniversary, the dusty, potholed streets of its capital Dili are being spruced up to welcome VIP guests including Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Australia’s governor-general and Portugal’s president.
This is a crucial year for the country also known as Timor-Leste. It will choose a new prime minister and government in general elections on July 7, then at year’s end will bid goodbye to UN forces stationed since 1999.
This Saturday, a day before the 10-year anniversary, it also inaugurates a new man in the largely ceremonial post of president with Nobel-laureate Jose Ramos-Horta handing power to his newly elected successor, Taur Matan Ruak.
Ruak is a former armed forces chief and ex-guerrilla fighter who won a run-off election last month that was widely lauded as orderly and fair.
Ameerah Haq, the top UN representative in Dili, said there have been significant improvements for a country that was “building itself from nothing” since the end of Indonesia’s 24-year occupation.
“Now you see a country that is far more mature, and (which) has developed greatly in the institutions it has. But I think also what you sense here is people are relaxed and happy,” she said.
Francisco Tilman, a 40-year-old customs officer, agrees there has been progress, but says the economy remains a wreck.
“Of course there has been progress in 10 years. The first thing is freedom, then there is education, health, agriculture,” he said.
“But the problem is unemployment. There are no factories here, nothing.”
The International Monetary Fund calls East Timor the “most oil-dependent economy in the world” after the discovery of large fields of oil and natural gas at sea.
Petroleum products account for more than 90 percent of total government revenue. A special fund, geared for development spending now and to cushion the next generation, recently swelled to $10 billion.
La’o Hamutuk, a local non-governmental organization, says East Timor has a limited amount of oil and gas, and cannot depend on them indefinitely.
“The next government of Timor-Leste will be the last to live in the luxury of oil money, and we would hope whoever comes into office will think a little more seriously about the future,” he said, in anticipation of the July polls.
The former Portuguese colony voted for independence in a UN-supervised referendum in 1999, after Indonesia’s occupation had left up to 183,000 people dead from fighting, disease and starvation.
The Indonesian military and anti-independence militias went on a savage campaign of retribution after the vote, ravaging the new nation’s infrastructure and killing more than 1,000 people.
The UN administered East Timor until May 20, 2002, when sovereignty was formally handed to its first president.
Since then the nation has suffered bouts of violence — a political crisis in 2006 killed 37 people and displaced thousands, and Ramos-Horta was lucky to survive an assassination attempt in 2008.
There has been no major political unrest since then, and government spending has increased dramatically in line with East Timor’s increased energy income.
But the grinding poverty is still visible everywhere.
In Dili, away from the venues for this weekend celebrations, mud canals flood slum neighborhoods after rains, and barely clothed children play in the streets alongside pigs, chickens and stray dogs.
Infrastructure is limited to a few paved roads, a single port and a tiny airport. There is no local currency — everything runs on US dollars — and opposition politicians say that wealth has been concentrated on a lucky few in Dili.
“If we continue ignoring our rural areas the way we have been doing until today, we’re going to be in big trouble,” Democratic Party vice-president Lurdes Bessa said.
Graft remains another scourge, with campaigners saying that political rhetoric about clamping down on endemic corruption has failed to translate into action.
But Damien Kingsbury, a politics professor at Australia’s Deakin University, says the 10-year anniversary is still an important milestone.
“The majority of the population have gone from living under tarpaulins to living in houses with roofs. Given where they started, they’ve really come a long way, so it’s a time for celebration and reflection,” he said. – Meagan Weymes, Agence France-Presse