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  • Timor-LesteThe Two Sides of Success
  • Rui Graça Feijo (bio)

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In just a year from 2013 to 2014 Dili has undergone major changes. Just outside the airport, which is to undergo a significant expansion, stands a gigantic statue of Nicolau Lobato, the guerrilla leader and sometime President of the self-proclaimed Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, who was gunned down by the Indonesian occupiers in 1978. The statue evokes the outstanding role played by the Resistance in the struggle for national liberation, and symbolizes the contribution of deep-rooted national values (as opposed to foreign-born ideas) that have come to dominate the political discourse in the country. These ideas contributed to the victory of Taur Matan Ruak in the presidential elections two years ago and subsequent defeat of the more cosmopolitan former President, Jose Ramos-Horta. Towards the city centre there is a brand new double bridge over the Comoro River. A few yards away there are signs of new investment as exemplified by Timor Plaza, a bustling shopping mall with fancy establishments like cafés, restaurants, fashion stores, bookshops, a cinema and even an Apple Macintosh outpost. Groups of youth, using the Internet Wi-Fi facilities provided by some mobile phone operators, cram its corridors. In addition there are upmarket office facilities occupied by many international enterprises that have established themselves in the country.

On the newly paved seafront, a new building reveals a little of the motivation behind this recent surge in public works: the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) which had its regular summit in Dili in late July, bringing several heads of state and government from Africa, Europe [End Page 371] and South America to the country, and promoting Timor-Leste to the chair of the organization for the next two years — a most significant achievement for its young diplomatic corps. A few blocks inland, and dominating the cityscape, another imposing building, the ten-storey iron and glass air-conditioned Ministry of Finance which cost over an estimated US$50 million, was inaugurated by the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the occasion of his farewell visit. Indonesian building companies had taken the largest share in the construction, an example of the thriving commercial relations that bind the two countries. Several other ministries have completed building their new headquarters (Ministry of Solidarity) or are in the process of building them (Ministry of Justice). The same holds true for important official institutions, such as the National Electoral Commission, which has moved into a grandiose new building. Towards the ocean, one cannot fail to notice the presence of more than half a dozen ships waiting their turn to unload their cargo in a harbour filled with containers suggesting a growth in external trade as official figures confirm. Continuing to the east, in the pleasant seafront garden of Lecidere, which was recently expanded, youths gather by night, creating a lively atmosphere. Nearby, the Hotel Turismo completely refurbished to international standards and much changed from its original structure that was cherished by locals and generations of visitors, is another example of the sort of investment being made in order to bring Dili in line with the requirements of modern business. Major investments are not limited to the capital city, as exemplified by the inauguration of the second power station in the south coast, reinforcing the national network of electricity supply to all districts.

The scenario had changed much since 2002. Back then, the smell of smoke was still detectable, an effect of the devastation caused by the scorched earth campaign of 1999. In 2002, the Palace of the Ashes was a building in ruins, without a proper roof and makeshift windows but was the seat of the presidency of the Republic — a symbolic gesture by the then President Xanana Gusmão to call the attention of well-wishers to the dire needs of the country. Today, the very same building has been completely renovated and houses the Ministry of Health, the one governmental department that has witnessed a 100 per cent increase in its budget between 2010 and 2014. Although some figures for...