I recently took a work trip to Dili, Timor-Leste. It’s a small but remarkable country, only independent since 2002.
Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony for centuries. The abrupt departure of the Portuguese, then preoccupied with their own democratic transition, led to an Indonesian invasion and occupation. Unfortunately, the Ford Administration assented to the invasion and the US supplied the Indonesians with weapons during the conflict. One of those great Cold War decisions that make us so many friends. A small guerrilla army fought the Indonesians until a UN-sponsored vote on self-determination led to the violent withdrawal of Indonesian forces. An Australian-led peacekeeping force helped restore order. The UN administered the country until 2002. The minimum combined direct fatalities and “excess deaths” sustained during the decades long conflict is estimated at 102,800. Staggering given that the current population is just over a million.
Interestingly, current relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste are good. During our visit, Timor-Leste officials seemed focused on the future rather than dwelling on the past. However, Australia, former peacekeeper and primary aid donor, is unpopular due to bad-blood over a maritime border/oil revenue dispute and an espionage scandal.
Abruptly shifting gears: the city, the food…
Although our stay was brief, we left with good impression of Dili. The streets were relatively orderly and clean and we felt secure. The are a lot of dogs on the street and I got chased by an angry mutt on a morning jog past the USAID compound.
Local cuisine was hard to come by. Dili is swamped by foreign government officials, aid workers, and NGOs so it was much easier to get pizza, hamburgers, and even schnitzel. Our first meal after arriving was at an expat bar called Castaway. Nice view of the ocean, but I suggest skipping until you absolutely need some run-of-the-mill “Western” food. Good for a night drinking spot, though. Indonesian Bintang beer is popular. We did manage an excellent Portuguese meal at the Hotel Timor. Our hosts recommended feijoada (pork and bean stew). Highly recommended with a little local hot chili sauce on the side.
On our last day in Dili, we saw two of the main attractions: the Chega! exhibit and the Cristo Rei. The Chega! museum is a sobering education on the Indonesian occupation. Housed in an old Portuguese prison, many resistance members were held and tortured there by Indonesian occupying forces. (Shockingly, according to exhibits in the museum, many of the older Dili hotels were also sites of torture, rape, and execution). An eerie electrical hum in one of the dark prison cells gave me chills. Incongruently, on one wall was “Top Gun” style graffiti art tagged by Indonesian soldiers in the 1980s. Another display showed that no foreign power, from Australia, Portugal, and the US to China and of course Indonesia, came out of the conflict with clean hands.
The Cristo Rei is a 27 meter tall Christ statue on the hill east of Dili. A 15-20 minute walk to the top rewards you with a nice view of the bay. The statue itself was gifted to Dili by Indonesia in 1996 when Timor-Leste was still occupied. We heard rumors that the height truly signified the ownership of Timor-Leste by Indonesia. The later declared the former its 27th province in 1976.
The photos below show the two sites:
It took 25 hours to get there from Honolulu and 38 hours to get back. I’m glad to have visited and am grateful to our hosts for a wonderful stay.