Independence was a vision shared by hundreds of millions of people culminating in decolonization and independence for most after the Second World War. Being involved in the Timorese cause for self-determination I got a taste for what that must have been like. But in the years following, I also got a taste of the “after.”
I remember one of the lines of conversation most repeated in East Timor. I have had this conversation multiple times over the past ten years. To paraphrase
Inquisitive Timorese person: You are from the US? The US must be developed, like paradise on earth.
Me: Well, yes, we are a rich country. And life is easier there. But there are poor people in my country. Many. Some have no houses, no place to go.
Inquisitive: WHAT??! But the US has been independent for so long! I mean, in Jakarta, I have seen these people, poor miserable people with no place to go who live under bridges. But that is because Indonesia is so young as a country.
Me: There are lots of countries that have been independent, some for a long time, like Brazil, that suffer with poverty.
Inquisitive, with look of distrust: Hmmmmm…
The dream of independence in Timor was linked to a dream of material prosperity and economic development. It is no wonder people fleeing brutal military occupation, on the run in the jungle, were able to feed their resistance with visions of uma mutin (literally “white houses” – houses with concrete foundations, white tile floors and whitewashed walls).
Polls showed, however, in the first years after independence, that the average Timorese person still very much valued education and health above all other forms of government spending. That is to say, the uma mutin could wait – a while. The first government spent what it could in these areas, but perhaps did not do enough to make this vision of white houses materialize. The current government is taking entirely the opposite approach: concentrate on the here and the now. After subsidizing imported rice and renovating government buildings across the country, there is talk of an ambitious housing policy which could entail building in each village.
The needs are great. Yet sometimes, no matter how urgent it is to spend money, it is simply impossible to do so responsibly.
Timor’s national riches – its precious oil and gas resources – must last it for decades, until it generates some non-oil income. And precious little has been done to kickstart the non-oil economy.
But I am just a foreigner. I would love to hear from Timorese bloggers. What would those who voted in Timor’s 1999 referendum for independence tell those voting in south Sudan?