I’ve decided to suspend this blog until the “crize” is over, or until I actually return to Timor. Here’s to hoping that both happen before the end of 2007.


Mak ne’e deit

Whose crize?

The Timorese political elite continues to measure its words in the public sphere. With the exception of a couple of statements, the two sides have refrained from severe ad-hominem attacks.

Instead I was surprised to see that the crize is to blame for the lack of government in East Timor. (Quoting Lasama: “Our country is still in a crisis that has not yet ended, so to all political leaders: let us settle everything through mutual dialogue, through the law and the constitution.”)

And yet it is not the constitution that is the concern of most of the decision makers. Instead it is the threat or fear of some unbridled power of the streets or civil conflict. The letter of the law, in this atmosphere, is entirely manipulable. And in the end, the law seems to leave the key decision up to one person, the President. I would argue it’s not merely the inadequacy of the Timorese political system, or the backdrop civil instability, that is extenuating the stalemate.

I believe the crize is the Timorese word for Agamben’s definition of the “state of exception” — a pretext for elected officials to disrespect citizens’ most basic rights and begin to wipe away the rule of law. In the US it’s the “War on Terror.” In Timor, it’s the crize.

I can appreciate that the conflict between police and armed forces of 2006 constituted a national security crisis. And that the fugitive Alfredo made the situation more dire. But these two elements have been calmed. (True, law and order in Dili is still a big problem. But does that alone signify a continuation of last year’s national security crisis?)

In fact, if there is any crisis for the people of Timor, it’s that key politicians do not have the vision to compromise and instead blame some undefined, extended “crisis” for the nation’s problems. Any commitment decision-makers had formed over the past 5 years to laws, structures and institutions seems to be in the balance.

Without getting too post-structuralist here, I think it’s fair to say that the word “crisis” has taken on a life of its own in Timor. I noticed this during my visit in 2006.

I’m not going to take sides here because I do not find that at all helpful or called for.

But what I do think is clear, even from far away, is that there are two groups of leaders (Fretilin old-guard/Maputo crew vs. Xanana and Mário Carrascalão) who are trying to hold on. Both sides have maintained in public that there is little room for face-saving.

It’s either us or total boycott.

Fretilin has said it openly, repeatedly. The only thing stopping AMP from saying this more openly is that they actually do fear reprisals from Fretilin supporters and from the international community.

It’s either us or total boycott.

It sent chills when I was recently reminded of what happened in Ethiopia in 2005 when the opposition began a similar boycott…

Sandalwood, ai-manas and goat cheese

USAID’s latest press release caught my attention. It is about funding for three Timorese hortaculturalists to visit Bali to learn about supply-storage and distribution issues with “high value” vegetable production.

Among other things, it states that Timor imports over 35 tons of foreign fruit and vegetables a month. I imagine 34 tons of this is consumed by the expat community. Perhaps part of the project could be seeing how to increase the Timorese middle class’ own consumption of these exotic vegetables.

The rationale behind the project is good — corner that internal market for fruit and veg. But how ‘sustainable’ is this idea? When UNMIT inevitably shrinks down again, and the NGO presence with it… Recalling that the decline in Timor’s GDP after UNTAET/UNMISET was directly correlated to the shrinkage of the international presence. According to the ABD: “The latest official projections are for a decline in GDP over FY2004 (12 months ended 30 June 2004) and again in FY2005, on the basis of the continued winding-down of the operations of the UN and the peacekeeping forces …”

When the dust settles from these crisis months/years, Timor will be back to the basic questions. Beyond the Timor Gap, there is the even longer-term issue: how to manage its economy so that people have sustainable rural livelihoods and so that there are some jobs in services and light industry?

While living there, value-added products Timor could export kept coming to mind. Timor has to create niches for export based on cultural appeal for the “conscious consumer.” Let the market research in Australia begin. (If this has started I would love to hear about it!)

Beer — I know it’s been tried, but not with the right model. A high-end, export-only beer for Australian and European market.

Goat cheese — I was told the bibis cannot produce enough milk. Then there are cold storage issues. But people said this about the cows at Fuiloro, and after sustained investment and technical input the cows provide milk for tens of thousands of school kids. Would Australians be interested in Timorese goat cheese?

Ai-manas hot sauce — Has gained fame the world over with informal ‘export’ by expats living in Timor. My mouth waters just thinking about the ai-manas I bought last year in Maubisse. Portuguese piri-piri chicken has been branded, why not ai-manas?

Rattan furniture/home decorations — I know Timor’s neighbors make this stuff. But Timor could seek out a particular niche. According to Wallpaper magazine, rattan furniture is back. Japanese vendors are hyping higher-end accessories.

Sandalwood rosaries — Sounds silly, huh? But I wonder where the majority of the world’s rosaries come from. A cursory Google search indicates: China, where Catholicism is in a bad way! The Vatican could give Timor a little edge in the competition. Cash in on the Catholic connection!

Hi-end outdoor gear with clever branding — Import basically everything from mainland you-know-where, stitch some pieces together and brand it in a really cool way, maybe with an allusion to Falintil or Timorese hard-as-nails mountain people. Build the brand in the Australian market.

I can just see myself sitting on a lovely Timorese rattan chair, wearing a Falintil-approved windbreaker, eating Timorese goat-cheese with a touch of ai-manas, packing up my made-in-Baucau sandalwood rosary to send to a pious relative and sipping on a high-end Timorese beer.

Oh, and I will be reading a brochure about visiting Konis Santana National Park.