Standing destroyed in the heart of the scorching capitol city of East Timor, the rounded art-deco letters “Centro de Saude” and red cross confirm the intended purpose of this former Portguese clinic. Inside snarled remains of long-rusted operating tables and medical equipment rest like gigantic insects on the floor. Goats feed on the weeds and garbage strewn around the entrance. Young men change rupiah and American dollars on the curbside. Welcome to Dili, a Latin colonial city at the end of the world with a thick layer of Indonesian influence and a temporary international sheen.
A shot was never fired between the two colonial occupiers of East Timor – Portugal and Indonesia never even directly competed for the territory. Yet in the weed-covered ruins in the capitol of the small island country remains the evidence of a silent aesthetic battle between the Portuguese yearning for a permanent past and Indonesian hyper-nationalism is played out.
Portugal, it is commonly held, left a total of 20 km of paved roads in East Timor in 1975. What enthusiasm the Portuguese had lacked for asphalt they compensated for in their zealous construction of permanent monuments and public buildings. The most notable Portuguese buildings in Dili easily survived the Indonesian scorched-earth exit in 1999, their robust foundations intact, and many with rooves and walls still standing.
Pro-Indonesia militias expelled over half of the population from their homes, kidnapped nearly a third across the island to Indonesia, killed over 1,000 and helped Indonesian military incinerate 70% of structures in the territory. And the structures that are most likely to have survived the mayhem were clearly those built by the Portuguese.
The governor’s palace built after World World II was meant to be the greatest monument in East Timor, offering frustrated, homesick bureaucrats with some measure of luxury all the while the architectural embodiment of European cultural superiority.
Now emblazoned with the UN blue and white, bureaucrats from every continent mingle under its archways, enjoying their last days of administration of the territory. The building is still popularly known as the palace, and it does not take much imagination to envision the October 1999 arrival of UN chiefs of staff from New York, sipping gin and tonics on the balcony idly discussing the future timezone of the nation: “Tokyo or Jakarta?”
Aside from incriminating Indonesian documents proving Jakarta helped the civilian administration and military plan and pay for the destruction of the country, when it arrived in late 1999, the UN found files from Portuguese times in the basement. According to Portuguese historian José Mattoso, cabinets full of urban planning documents from the 1930s have been uncovered, never touched by Indonesian bureaucrats.
The most noted Portuguese buildings, beyond the mighty governor’s palace, are market places, schools, jails and hospitals. Dili’s Central Marketplace façade, painted light pink and white, with robust plants growing above the 15 m archways, stands as a neglected, absurd relic. The UN administration’s decision to move the sinister, exponential growth of the Market from the center of the city to various locations on the outskirts rendered the place a mere skeleton for the past year. For independence, as a gift to Timor, Australia has volunteered to rebuild the relic, destroying everything but the distinctive façade, to be surrounded by a new expo-center and park with ampitheater.
Strangely, distant, impoverished Portugal has returned to reinvigorate its colonial trophy, the island that made the sun never set on the Portuguese speaking world. The renovation of the Liceo Dom Machado building, a classic Portuguese style, with grand entrance, wide veranda, archways, and scalloped red-stone roofing, is by far the most impressive. University students in their sandals and Kurt Cobain t-shirts, lean against its archways, defying the heavy imposing context.
Portugal used its resources and displayed its colonial “might” sparingly over four centuries. The first Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, and settled to supervise the harvest and trade of the perfumed sandalwood. At its colonial zenith, Lisbon paid very little notice to the island, including during its fierce competition and conflict with the Dutch ruled side West Timor, leaving its development largely in the hands of Dominican priests. By the 19th century, with the sandalwood all but extinct, the only thing keeping East Timor on the map was coffee and an inconsistent, yet unfading Portuguese nostalgia for world empire. It is said that before Indonesia’s invasion, less than a third of East Timorese practiced Catholicism, in spite of the Church’s best efforts.
Beyond the pitiful road infrastructure built by the Portuguese, the rest of the territory contains a couple of forts, prisons, and schools now covered with decades of tropical growth. The number of structures is modest enough that those who travel enough in the country carry an informal mental map. Indeed, the new East Timorese administration, which has cultivated close ties with Portugal, is in the process of cataloguing this historical “patrimony” for the future development of cultural tourism. Some structures may become World Heritage Sites.
In its mere 25 years in East Timor, Indonesia constructed many more monuments across the country celebrating the Timorese liberation from Portuguese colonialism — their integration into Indonesia as the prime-numbered 27th province.
Instead of destroying Portugal’s limited handiwork, Indonesia busied itself with constructing its own monuments and public buildings. Untold millions of dollars went to the “development” of East Timor. Much of this money had a military purpose, to seek out and destroy the guerilla resistance. The majority of the 200,000 people were killed by starvation, concentration camps and Indonesian bombing campaigns directed at breaking civilian resistance. By the early 1980s the majority of the genocide was complete, and all but a few hardened guerillas stayed in the hills. The rest descended from the mountains to live with the occupier.
From the now empty, flame-licked exteriors of the Indonesian office complexes all around Dili, it is clear that for every gun and every soldier sent to the territory, Indonesia also sent a bureaucrat and hired a Timorese counterpart.
A great part of the Indonesian plan to win over the hearts and minds of the East Timorese hinged on aggressively occupying and modifying public and work spaces. To the Indonesian leadership, the psychology was fool-proof: pacify the East Timorese with easy, mind-numbing jobs, and show them the enlightened Indonesian order.
Dili is dominated by seventies-ish, faux-indigenous architecture featuring thin concrete walls, curved corrugated metal roofing and a great emphasis on windows and outside doors. There seems to have been an effort to “Timorize” architecture, to show the Timorese how their culture could be updated and brought to modern, Suharto standards. Gates throughout the city feature mini, sleek version of the uma adat, the traditional house which steep thatched roof. Many buildings feature now-leaky foyers or entrance-ways covered with miniature uma adat as well.
The Indonesian type faces are much less interested in smooth form than they are in efficiency, or fitting the right amount of text on a sign. They are thin, and functional fonts. Indonesian signs were quite ambitious, seemingly too long for their own good, squashed and difficult to read.
The Timorese have just left these signs and plaques everywhere, as if they cannot even be bothered to take the relics down, even in buildings that were renovated and that are now occupied again. The two-year home of Australian telecoms giant Telstra, the communication hub of the city, was installed in the former home of the Indonesian Telekom, whose signs still dominate the front yard. There is no local consensus as to whether the permanence of these Indonesian signs is a result of indifference or a vague attitude of conservation and commemoration of the recent past.
Javanese planners obviously sought to appeal to the Timorese people with stirring concrete depictions of the five Indonesian nationalist virtues: the pancasila. A couple of heinous, glaring examples of Indonesian public art celebrating the death of European imperialism and the achievements of the Indonesian liberators dot the main routes in Dili.
Two in particular, one near the port, and one near the airport greet visitors. Yellowed alabaster trumpeters proclaim Indonesian glory at a huge, dry fountain in the middle of the roundabout by the airport. A number of these angels of liberation have had their heads knocked off, and holding the trumpets heavenward as if in some kind of strange rigor mortis. The sides of the fountain are covered with crude spray paint graffiti and mass-printed party posters from last August’s election.
The near the port, placed in the middle of an overgrown park, where goats, horses and pigs feed, has a grotesque Timorese warrior set in ugly cement on an extremely high pedestal. One has to truly crane ones neck to even see that there is a human form on top of the pedestal, and it is difficult to make out the rough details on the statue. But it appears to a warrior in the midst of an escape from Portuguese masters, screaming a last war cry as he is about to be killed. At least this is the popular explanation.
These monuments have become an accepted part of the landscape. And although they are prime locations for new parks and new public art, there has been little done to change them. They will be broken down by neglect, by goat hooves, angry youth, and driving December rains.