DILI (Plan International) - The streets of Dili are filled with more cars than ever. The capital of tiny Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia’s newest and poorest nation, has never been so bustling. New buildings are going up and the city even has its first mall.
But beneath the surface and away from Dili’s newfound traffic jams, there’s a nation still recovering from a 24-year occupation by Indonesia that culminated in 1999 with the destruction of most of the country’s infrastructure as the Timorese voted resoundingly in favour of independence from Indonesia.
Two-and-a-half years of United Nations (UN) administration later and Timor-Leste was formally declared independent on 20 May, 2002. Since then, it’s been a rocky road to recovery and development has had its twists and turns, with internal strife leading to violence along the way.
But today, as the people of Timor-Leste look back on what 10 years of independence has brought them, the country is experiencing its longest period of peace and there is a renewed sense of optimism in the air.
The government has organised a big party for 20 May in Tasi Tolu, a beachside area on the outskirts of Dili that has special significance as the spot where Timor-Leste first proclaimed independence from Indonesia. Looking forward to the celebration is Tarcisio da Concecao, a 21-year-old student who likes to hang out at Tasi Tolu in the afternoons.
“It’s a chance for us to show other countries that we have our independence and we are getting stronger,” he says. “In the past, we had a lot of conflict, especially when elections came. But this time it’s different. Everything has run smoothly and we feel proud.”
For a country with a history of electoral violence, 2012 is a big year for Timor-Leste. Two rounds of peaceful presidential elections were held in March and April, with guerrilla resistance hero and former head of the armed forces Taur Matan Ruak winning the top prize. Parliamentary elections will take place in July.
With more than $10 billion of oil money in reserves and strong economic growth over the last few years, people are hopeful the peace will last.
Aurelia Pereira, 70, has been living behind Tasi Tolu since 1979.
“When I moved here, it was all just forests and fields,” she says. “Then people came and built shops. But in 2006, they were all burnt down.”
She’s referring to the crisis of 2006, when a split in the armed forces turned into a two-month conflict that spilled onto the streets and divided the country. About 150,000 people fled their homes and Tasi Tolu became host to a huge camp for internally displaced persons, with thousands of people living in tents with limited facilities.
"I saw the shops burning. They burnt right in front of my face. Then we ran to the church because it’s a neutral place. In the mornings we'd come back to check our home, but at night always back to the church. They put tarpaulin on the floor and we slept on that," she adds.
Now, as the substantial UN mission in Timor-Leste prepares to withdraw by the end of the year, passing responsibility for security to the hands of the country’s police and army, what’s needed now are long-term solutions.
Child-rights organisation Plan International runs projects in two districts, Aileu and Lautem, covering education, health, youth empowerment, water and sanitation, early childhood care and development, and child protection.
While the hustle and bustle of economic activity continues to ramp up in Dili, out in the districts subsistence farming is still the main means by which people feed and care for their families. Isolated by poor road infrastructure and mountainous geography, families in remote villages have limited access to vital services, markets or employment.
In Soikili village, up in the hills of Lautem, Timor-Leste’s easternmost district, Plan supports a community preschool and has helped mother set up a sewing group so that they can earn an income while their children get an education.
The six young women in the group have been trained and given pedal-powered sewing machines to use because they don’t have a constant electricity supply yet.
The women have set up a small business in the village patching up and repairing clothes for their neighbours, taking on about 40 jobs a month. The extra income is a big help. Some of it is used for maintaining the equipment and buying new materials, while what's left over goes towards everyday household items like soap, vegetables, rice and cooking oil.
Amelia, one of the women, says that being in the group brings other benefits, too.
“Now we don't just stay in the kitchen, cooking and looking after the children.”
Being able to earn an income boosts the confidence of women like Amelia so they have more of a voice in their homes and communities.
Amelia has a daughter in the Plan-supported community preschool, where she is being taught basic maths and reading skills through songs, games and dance. This will make it easier for her to enter primary school, says Amelia, who dropped out of school because she was raised to speak one of Timor-Leste’s 20 or so mother tongue languages and couldn’t follow what was said in class.
Plan supports community preschools in 32 communities across the country and there are also 40 youth groups, but with 1.2 million people here -- most of them poor, many of them traumatised by the past – there’s still a lot of work to do.
Schools and jobs will help, but there will need to be more opportunities created to meet the expectations of the country’s resilient population.
For more information contact:
Plan Timor-Leste Media and Communications Coordinator Maria Nunes
Phone: +670 331 2492