Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:26 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:26 | SYDNEY

Timor-Leste: New Asia or old Europe?

1 December 2008 13:29

Guest blogger: Jim Della-Giacoma is an Associate Director at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council in New York City.

Having lunch in Singapore recently, an Asian acquaintance who had just visited Dili for the first time said he came home feeling the capital of Timor-Leste was more like a Portuguese town than an Asian one. Having been back and forth to Dili over the last 14 years in many of its dramatic seasons, I readily disagreed.

Timor-Leste today is courting new friends in Asia rather than flattering old ones in Europe. A week driving the dusty and bustling streets left me feeling that the former Portuguese colony was increasingly integrating itself into Asia as it acquired all the sights, sounds, and smells of the region’s great cities.

In what could have been an apt description for a series of UN missions or its ubiquitous white vehicles with black logos, Alfred Russel Wallace observed in 1861 that, in Dili, 'officials in black and white European costume, and officers in gorgeous uniforms abound in a degree quite disproportionate to the size or appearance of the place'. However, with talk of downsizing the UN mission, the day could soon come when Chinese construction workers outnumber international civil servants.

1. Portugese embassy, Dili

The site for the future Portuguese embassy (photo 1, above) has been growing weeds for years, while the new Chinese embassy (photo 2) rises on the sea front framed by bamboo scaffolding. Within a kilometre, the new Chinese-built foreign ministry (photo 3) and soon to be completed Presidential Palace (photo 4) is testimony to Beijing’s growing influence. As are the two Type 62 Shanghai Class patrol boats and heavy fuel oil plant also coming Timor’s way from Chinese factories.

2. Chinese embassy, Dili

3. Timor-Leste Foreign Ministry building, Dili

4. Presidential palace, Dili

But there are many other examples of this integration, such as the Indonesian chefs who prepare fish caught in Bali served by Timorese waitresses in a Japanese restaurant run by a Singaporean. Take you’re pick, there’s much more modest Padang, Javanese, Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Filipino restaurants aiming at the local market.

It is this sort of pan-Asian commercial display that that even makes it acceptable to see the Merah Putih (red and white) national flag of Indonesia around town. Look no further than the mural for the Timor-Leste chapter of the fan club for the Indonesian rock band Slank. (photo 5).

5. Sign for Timor-Leste fan club of Indonesian rock band Slank.

Alternatively, you’ll see it in the banner encouraging Indonesians to vote abroad in next year’s national elections (photo 6) or the teenagers with no formal Indonesian-era education who speak it fluently by watching television every night off the Indovision satellite. If I hadn’t gone scuba diving with a Portuguese aid worker, I might have never heard the language.


6. Banner seen in Dili encouraging Indonesians to vote in upcoming election.

All photos by the author.