On-Site Reports from Our Peacekeepers

Timor-Leste, the Youngest Asian Country—A View of a Japanese Liaison Officer and Its Future Dream

August 2011
International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Timor-Leste
Lieutenant Yoshitaka Hashimura

1. What is Timor-Leste like?

Some see Timor-Leste as a dangerous place, especially after the violence that flared in 2005. Others may totally be at a loss where on earth Timor-Leste is located. Actually, at a driver's license center I visited in Japan to renew my license, an officer told me, "Timor-Leste isn't a nation but just a part of Indonesia." He was so confident that I almost believed him.

Where Timor-Leste is(img)

Where Timor-Leste is (cited from the Website of the Ministry of Foreign AffairsOpen New Window)

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is an eastern part of the Lesser Sunda Islands, located to the southeast of Indonesia, 300km away from Darwin, Australia. After experiencing lengthy conflict since the 1970s, it achieved its long-awaited independence on May 20, 2002, becoming the first nation to gain independence in the 21st century. Some one million people live on a piece of land as small as Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, and 200,000 of them are concentrated in Dili, the capital. In response to the widely broadcast violence in 2006, the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste ( UNMIT ) was established and mandated to keep order. Currently safe and secure, and aspiring to become an ASEAN member, Timor-Leste is the youngest Asian nation whose development is eagerly awaited.

2. For the development of the country

During my four-month stay in Dili as the Japanese Liaison Officer, I had some opportunities to visit the countryside. While my stay was short, I saw this "baby country" rushing into development both in Dili and in rural areas. This developing country, however, showed me not just its rosy future but also some obstacles that have to be overcome to stand on its own feet as an independent nation in ASEAN both in name and reality, since it will be losing the UN 's protection with UNMIT 's withdrawal at the end of 2012. In my book, the major difficulties Timor-Leste is facing are education, infrastructure, and "juiciness." Let me introduce some of my observations.

2.1. Education

Timor-Leste's unemployment rate is extremely high, estimated to be whopping 40 to 50%. The younger they are, the higher the rates are. More than 60% of 15 to 34 year-old young generation are said to be jobless, which is one of the most serious social problems in this country. In the daytime on the downtown streets of Dili, you will find young people hanging and sitting around tediously, doing nothing.

Old shack houses and stores, and young people hanging and sitting around, suburb of Dili(img)

Old shack houses and stores, and young people hanging and sitting around, suburb of Dili

Sometimes, they get hopeless enough to throw stones at UN vehicles. Ten years have passed since independence with the steadfast support of the UN , and yet our society and living standards are slow to become richer. We don't even have work! I cannot help thinking that that desperation, having nowhere to go, gushes out in the shape of throwing stones at UN vehicles. Where have all the jobs for young people gone? If we look at the situation from the viewpoint of state-building, there seems to be a vast amount of work to do in this young country, such as rehabilitating infrastructure, constructing communal facilities and housing, and reclaiming land. A number of issues are waiting for young people who are full of dreams and eager to grapple with those issues.

Under the circumstances, how can they just watch from the sidelines? Why don't they come to think of, say, launching a new business to improve infrastructure together with like-minded people? There can be various reasons, but I think one of the main reasons lies in lack of education. Knowledge and skills are insufficient to lay the foundations of setting up a goal and acting on it. It is not that they are lazy; in my view, they lack the skills necessary to work diligently.

Some 70% of the population in this country is under 30 years old. For many of them, the period when they had to learn most seriously in life falls to the 2000s, right after independence. While there were various problems for Timor-Leste to solve to stand on its own feet as an independent nation, peace and order temporarily flew out of the window due to the violence in 2006. Since it was before the government of Timor-Leste established a solid social system including an educational system, the fledgling social system that had just begun to be constructed was simply brought to nothing.

Education is indispensable to those young people, to whom this country owes its development. It should not be "band-aid re-education," but comprehensive education like the Japanese compulsory education system. It is the government's responsibility to spell out the past and the present visions of the country, the path to development in the future, and the necessary abilities and skills young people must acquire. The government should focus its efforts on education. Recently, TV and newspaper reports have been showing the government's approach to educational reform. I sincerely hope for success in policies that aim to enrich education for young people, who shape Timor-Leste's future.

2.2. Infrastructure

As I described in the previous section, infrastructure in this country is minimal, at best. Even in Dili, Timor-Leste's capital, tap water covers no more than a third of the city's water supply, and electricity tends to be cut off as well. In such circumstances, the infrastructural problem that I think is most serious is the poorly paved roads. Only Dili has a complete paved road system extending to all parts of the residential areas, and even here, the rainy season immediately worsens the road conditions, leaving some roads collapsed, bridges fallen down, and holes on the road neglected for too long. Even worse, roads are mostly unpaved in the countryside, and some villages become isolated and inaccessible by land in the rainy season.

Repairing a road blocked by a landslide(img)

Repairing a road blocked by a landslide

Road renovation is the basis of domestic distribution. Smooth distribution will lead to alleviating the economic disparity between the urban and provincial areas, and road renovation projects will create more employment opportunities as well. Judging from recent reports, the government is eager to renovate roads, and to invest a significant sum of money. Further improvements are keenly awaited.

However, as I mentioned, the technical standards in this country have yet to be high enough to develop and maintain roads. Not only does the government have to promote education to get people to acquire skills, but improvement in the road conditions is also considered to be an urgent matter that would directly lead to an upgrade in the living standards of citizens, as well as provide security for life and wealth.

To take one example, last year, extraordinarily heavy and long rains lasted in the dry season, which severely damaged the crop of rice, Timor-Leste's staple food. Since rice prices are still high, children and many others are suffering from malnutrition in local villages. The government is making every effort to control the soaring prices by, for example, importing rice and selling it at low prices—they call it "support rice"—but terrible roads are said to prevent the rice from reaching every small village efficiently.

With the lack of the technical skills necessary to rehabilitate roads on their own, I think there is no other choice for now but to introduce foreign capital. To attract sufficient investments at a stable pace, Timor-Leste has to have "juiciness" in return for investment.

2.3. What is its "juiciness," then?

To achieve stable and uniform development, it seems essential for this young country to attract foreign investment in various fields. And if it hopes that abundant foreign capital will take root in the country, Timor-Leste has to have something to give in return for the investment, something "juicy" enough to encourage investors to choose Timor-Leste, and not other countries. What in the world, then, is the "juiciness" of this country?

In Timor-Leste, 80% of the working population is engaged in agriculture and other primary industries. Coffee, the only cash crop for export, is the most famous among them. I reckon a number of Japanese associate Timor-Leste with fair-trade coffee. Japan is actively supporting the development of East Timorese coffee production. One of the biggest coffee plantations is located in Ermera Prefecture, a three-hour drive to the southwest of Dili, where a Japanese NGO called Peace Winds Japan teaches the locals how to cultivate coffee. Once coffee production, Timor-Leste's specialty, keeps growing both in quality and quantity and comes to supply a stable amount of excellent coffee, foreign investors may regard it "juicy enough" to invest in and start thinking about exporting it.

Another point is the offshore oilfield that lies in the Timor Sea, south of Timor-Leste. The government is co-developing it with Australia, and 90% of the profit goes to Timor-Leste, while the other 10% to Australia. In fact, the profit accounts for 80% of the annual national revenue of Timor-Leste in 2010, not counting financial aid. This may be a lifeline rather than juiciness, though.

I suppose Timor-Leste has many other juicy things, but here, I would like to focus on one thing that I hope will be the juiciest in the future. The hope of Timor-Leste, or my dream about this country, is its transformation into a tourist destination. In other words, I believe other juiciness lies in tourist resources. Although Timor-Leste is a tiny country—as I mentioned, it is almost as small as Shikoku, the smallest main island of Japan—it is nonetheless rich with untouched nature, including remote islands.

A cottage-like seaside hotel, Atauro Island(img)

A cottage-like seaside hotel, Atauro Island

A harbor with tourist canoes and outboards, Atauro Island(img)

A harbor with tourist canoes and outboards, Atauro Island

The picture shows Atauro Island, located within 1.5 hours by car north of Dili. My photo skills do not allow me to convey the paradisiacal atmosphere very much, but the island can be a wonderful diving spot since the water is crystal clear, and coral reefs and mangrove swamps dot the island. Its traditional lifestyle and individual history, which are slightly different from those of the mainland's, can be another charm to attract tourists. Atauro Island has a potential to become a world-famous resort, if, for example, the government constructs water villas and arranges nearby tourist attractions as has been done in Tahiti in French Polynesia or Phuket Island in Thailand.

Abundant water, Marobo hot springs(img)

Abundant water, Marobo hot springs

Natural milky-white water(img)

Natural milky-white water

Let's take a look at Marobo hot springs, located in Bobonaro Prefecture near the border with Indonesia. As you can see in the picture, it boasts of abundant milky-white water that reminds me of Shirahone (meaning "bones" in Japanese) hot springs in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. In mid-August, a hot-spring development team of JENESYS (Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths) came to examine the quality of the water. I hope for good results. With well-equipped facilities like Japanese deluxe spa resorts called "super sento (public bath)" and towns that feature the spas, Marobo may well draw more foreign tourists.

Crystal-clear seawater, Jaco Island(img)

Crystal-clear seawater, Jaco Island

A horde of tropical fish and extensive coral reefs(img)

A horde of tropical fish and extensive coral reefs

These pictures taken from the website of the Embassy of Japan in Timor-LesteOpen New Window shows the beautiful sea surrounding Jaco Island in the east of Timor-Leste. Jaco Island, as with Atauro Island, is one of the islands that I should attract divers and vacationers, with its amazingly beautiful sea, variety of tropical fish, scattered coral reefs, and so on. I regret never having been there during my stay in Timor-Leste.

Those are a fraction of Timor-Leste's potential as a tourist destination. Of course, I recognize that piles of problems and obstacles will get in the way of this hopeful dream: poor infrastructure, higher prices than those in Indonesia, and raising the needed funds for development. Most flights from Europe or East Asia arrive via Bali or Singapore, two of the world's biggest sightseeing destinations. It is not easy to defeat these rivals and attract tourists. However, I still hope that it is not an impossible dream to transform Timor-Leste into a resort paradise.

3. Concluding remarks

During my four-month stay in Timor-Leste, I saw it develop day by day. And I kept pondering the question of what the country must do to develop into a sustainable and prosperous society. In conclusion, I would like to mention my thoughts on "the past and the present visions of the country, the path to development in the future, and the capacity necessary for young people to acquire," which I referred to above as a mindset East Timorese young people should acquire. I tried applying this formula to not only people but a state. I came to conclude that this point of view may deserve something like a basic policy that not just a young country like Timor-Leste but a matured, major, political and economic power has to keep showing to its citizens for the state to develop in a constant and stable manner.

What kind of person do I want to be in the future? What have I done so far to realize the dream? And what do I have to do from now on, to get closer to what I want to be? Even a junior high school kid can come up with these ideas, to be sure, but a person should always give due consideration to them, no matter how old they are, until their last moments. The same is true with a state, which consists of individuals. You bright readers may have already been aware of that, though.

Finally, I would like to express sincere gratitude to Timor-Leste and all the people living in this young country who reminded me of the importance of the idea above. Thank you very much for reading through my essay.

In Timor-Leste, August 2011