New Presidential Palace

I read yesterday that approval has been given to commence construction on a new Presidential Palace, with work to commence in February.  I admit to confusion on this as the current President works out of very modest premises in Caicoli right next door to the burnt-out “Palace of the Ashes”.

Meanwhile up the hill towards Dare is what I thought was the Presidential Palace – the Portuguese-style “pink building” which was renovated not so long ago but seems rarely used.

So the new plan is to build a Presidential Palace on the heliport facing Comorro Road.  This area is currently being used by Australian military forces, and who have not so long ago, erected a large warehouse in the prime position.

The new palace will be built (and funded ?) by the Chinese government.  This follows the Chinese government funded (and currently under construction) new Timorese Foreign Ministry building and new Chinese Embassy.  This possibly makes the Chinese government the initiator of the 3 biggest building projects in Dili and all (?) with Chinese funding.

Yep, the political environment is a little more complicated than just a forthcoming local election.

Just an aside : one problem that concerns me greatly is the massive effect of environmental problems in China and their impact on China and the rest of the world (northern hemisphere in particular).  It really is a huge problem guys and I can not see things turning around in the near future.  If you worry about leaving a light switch on or not taking your own shopping bag to the supermarket, take a deep breath before reading the following : 

Driving – Dili-style

During the week, UNPol announced that they would be clamping down on cars without licence plates, unregistered cars and unlicenced drivers. They were also going to target riding on the roof of microlets (mini-buses) – a very common sight outside of Dili.

The roof riding practice is a bit dangerous, particularly on some of the mountainous roads around the place. UNPol refer to the high accident rate but I would like to see some statistics on this.

One day, the infamous new traffic lights will actually be switched on and this is likely to cause quite a bit of trouble. People do not bother with give-way rules or stop and give-way signs so it will take some to time to become accustomed to a new road discipline.

My general feel is that speeding is the most dangerous form of driving here. Supposedly, the Dili speed limit is 45km/hr but I would think that apart from taxis, this limit is exceeded by most drivers most of the time. But I am not talking about drivers doing 50 kph but those sprinting down Dili streets at closer to 100 kph. When I am on my bicycle, I don’t like it.

Although I have never had a dangerous moment, I have withdrawn off the road a couple of times in the face of vehicles overtaking and coming straight for me. They had plenty of time to adjust their manouevre but elected to press on. I had plenty of time to move off the road and on the odd occasion, have enough time to make rude hand gestures and curse their mothers. There is just a bit too much overtaking on urban roads for my liking.

That brings us to “Whitey”. I don’t know “Whitey” but apparently, he was a well-known local fixture in the building contractor game. While riding his motorbike on New Years’ Eve, he encountered 2 F-FDTL army trucks seemingly racing down the beach road near the Ocean Harbour View cafe*. He was hit badly and sustained very serious injuries. The army trucks did not stop and I am unaware if there has been any success in finding the trucks or drivers.

I believe “Whitey” has had a number of operations in hospital in Australia and I know a number of people here are thinking about him. It is worth noting that there is no insurance system in TL, so unless his employer has some decent cover, it could be a bit of a problem financially.

* I often make the mistake and call Harbour View the Ocean View which is of course the other end of town.

Dili peacekeepers holiday resort

During the week, the Fretilin party President, Francisco Guterres (more commonly known as Lu-Olo) suggested that foreign military and police were treating their mission here as a holiday by the sea.

Although I can understand that the continued gang violence in the face of the foreign security presence may be frustrating, perhaps a few things need clarification.

The foreign military forces are mainly Australian and New Zealand (and earlier, Malaysian).  These guys are on-duty 24×7 and carry arms at all times according to normal practice.  These guys are not permitted to eat or drink in local establishments, nor do I believe they have any down-time in TL itself.  So these guys are off the hook.

Initially, the police presence was an international contingent of OZ, NZ and Portuguese (perhaps Malaysian) but has now morphed into a UN Police force from numerous countries.  Initially, the police were not allowed out in their down-time but that has been relaxed now.  In the early days when the Portuguese military police were barracked in the Hotel Dili 2000, they were a common sight down at the Cristo Rei beaches.  When most expats had been evacuated, it was pretty obvious but it is a bit harder to detect now that there are a huge number of foreign aid workers here.

But you do get the impression that there are a lot of UN police vehicles moving around not actually doing much.  Someone told me that there are a number of UN police who are not actually police back in their home country.  And for the more professional officers from OZ and NZ, this is known to be a frustration.

The need for information

It appears that this week has seen an increase in gang related violence, particularly in the Bairo Pite area. The official figure for the number of dead is 5 since Thursday last week. I know that a large number of injuries have also been treated. When things are quiet, there is very little helicopter activity. A tell-tale sign of trouble is helicopters circling over trouble spots.

This helicopter activity has been noticeable over the last few days, but I don’t know of any particular incidents. I had heard that about 100 Timorese attempted to get into the OZ military controlled heliport area, seeking a safe place but I don’t know much more than that.

I had heard there was fighting near the tennis courts in Bebonuk yesterday, but again I don’t know any detail. A UN policeman told me there is stuff going on all of the time. He commented about the stupid expats who move around as if nothing is happening. Well, when I look at the UN Security Briefings, I learn next to nothing. How else is one to find out but rely on word of mouth.

On a related matter, while travelling out east, something came to my attention that I had not really ever considered before, but once it got onto my radar screen, I deemed it worthy to note. But outside of Dili, there is no re-broadcasting of Dili radio or television. And no ready access to Dili’s newspapers. Each of the districts appears to have a RTTL (Radio Television Timor Leste) broadcasting antennae (and a Timor Telecom microwave antennae) but the RTTL antennae and associated broadcasting equipment has not been functioning for a couple of years (I recall someone said 3 or 4 years). Many districts have some form of local community radio but I don’t know to what extent it fills up the information vacuum.

What you do see is a smattering of IndoVision satellite dishes. Even in some pretty remote places, you might see this, even if electricity is available for only 3 hours a day. So you can be right up to date with what is happening in the world but be a bit behind on what is really happening here … like a forthcoming election.

Security getting worse again

While I was out of town for a few days, the security situation seemed to get worse. The on-again off-again gang fights seemed to have turned into a full-on conflict. IDP numbers are going up and medical facilities are handling a large number of hand-to-hand combat injuries. I was told at least 5 have died over the last 4 days.

Not being around, I asked many questions regarding where not to go and who is involved etc. A lot of the information is still based on piecing together news from several sources to come up with a personal assessment of things. While looking up the parliamentary pension thing, I came across a site which is the first I am aware of that re-publishes the (now almost daily) UN security briefings reports in historic fullness. The security reports are on the East Timor Legal Information site.

Up until now, I had been looking at the Ministry of Work and Community web site which only gives you the last 2 reports. It also gives a bit of info on other security and humanitarian issues.

The current trouble is an escalation of gang fighting in the Bairo Pite area which has been going on for over a week now. At the end of last week, it seemed to be between the Setia Hati (PSHT) and 77 gangs which have bedded down each side of the road between Ailoklaran and Hudilaran (ie heading south-west from the Vila Verde cathedral). I think it is still the same.

Parliamentary pension bill

I have been out of town for a few days doing a bit of touring around which has been off the agenda for a while. It is a different world out there, and the capital is a long way away.

While away, one of my group casually mentioned that the parliament had passed legislation giving parliamentarians quite extraordinary pension allowances. I had never seen it, so I have since asked a local just when did this happen (3 weeks ago) and how come I had not come across it. Was it on the radio ? No. Was it on the TV ? No. Was it is the Dili papers ? Yes, but on page 5 amongst other government news. It didn’t seem to raise any great concern.

So I look it up on the internet when I got back here. “Lao Hamutuk” seems to be taking up the case and reports that the parliamentarian’s pension bill includes :

A pension for life at 100% of final salary with money for healthcare (both in TL and overseas) and

  • A government house, a government car with fuel, a private secretary, an adviser, two telephones, internet access and a security person.

  • Tax exemption on car imports and building material for private use (for up to two houses)

  • A diplomatic passport and a VIP travel treatment (even when not on an official mission)

  • Two times a year, a paid intercontinental trip with two other people, and more…

Outside of Dili, the generally lower living standards are fairly obvious so it was fairly hard for me to rationalise this smorgasbord of benefits with the living conditions of many Timorese. To be honest, this sort of stuff is why politics turns me off and why I struggle to decide who to talk to – a politician or a car salesman.

The interesting side event to this is that the President has vetoed the bill but if it is handed back a second time, he must either pass it or resign. (This was also new to me.) Then it hits you. The Timorese President has almost no power so comparing the position to George Dubya is misleading. I am no expert in politics or the (or any) constitution but the President’s power seems more like a Queen/Governor-General in the Commonwealth system.

It almost makes me think that this bill was out to test the President’s mettle.

Indian Food and Bimoli

Now I love Indian food and can cook a pretty mean curry.

It all goes back to when I first started living away from the parental home and ended up sharing houses with all sorts of people. Once I shared with a guy and his girlfriend and he introduced me to coming home from work, opening a beer, opening a jar of chilis, slicing some cheese and eating each slice with a chili on top. It was hot but the mission was to test one’s limits. Later on, I ended up having curry cook-offs with another guy (different house) where the aim was to exceed the extremes of the last one and when eating, last the longest before breaking out into a sweat.

So I am pretty critical when it comes to Indian restaurants. I have eaten at both the Sun (southern Indian) and the Piyashi (northern Indian) restaurants. Today, I spoke with an Indian guy who lives in the apartments at the Piyashi and he explained everything. Not only did he explain which one was southern and which one northern, but dissected the menus with withering precision.

I was but mince meat in his company. However, he did explain one weakness which I had inaccurately analysed. I thought Piyashi used too much ghee and he quickly corrected me and said, “no, they use Bimoli … I try to tell them … next time you are there, ask for me and I will guide you on eating what they do best”. He’s my man.

So what is Bimoli ? Bimoli is palm oil and is used everywhere here. I have heard some bad stuff about Bimoli but decided to look into it, so I have put together a table of % of saturated fats in each of the oils listed :

Oil % saturated fat
canola 7
safflower 9
sunflower 10
olive 13
corn 13
margarine 17
peanut 17
palm (Bimoli) 49
butter (ghee ?) 62
coconut 86

To be honest, I use a blend of canola and butter in my curries. At other times, I use olive oil, which may not be the lowest in saturated fat, but it is very high in mono-unsaturated fats which is meant to be good. Got to get on my bike … come to think of it, palm oil is probably safer.

OK, so there might be some politics in this one

It’s hard to blather on about things here without mentioning the forthcoming elections. I am not sure exactly what positions are up for grabs and when things must happen according to the constitution and electoral laws. Mercifully, I have no intention of reading those as bed-time reading.

However, as I understand it, there are presidential (ie President Xanana Gusmao) and parliamentary (ie PM Ramos-Horta) elections which are meant to be conducted before June.

As I had heard it until yesterday, President Xanana does not want to continue as President, but wants to retire to pumpkin growing. A noble pastime, made even nobler if he took up broccoli as well (hint). Then yesterday I read that Xanana may put himself forward as a candidate for the parliament, representing a yet to be announced party. True ? I don’t know.

I have no idea what PM Ramos-Horta intends to do. I think everyone thinks that ex-PM Alkatiri is a shoe-in as the next PM.

Now add some proposed presidential candidates : the head of the Timorese military Taur Matan Ruak (TMR) and the “rebel” Major Alfredo. So the last 3 names I mentioned are people who have possible criminal charges hanging over their heads with respect to last year’s troubles.

That should make for some interesting political (and legal) manoeuvring over the next few months. I hope Xanana has time to publish his favourite pumpkin soup recipe before he is taken up with electoral things. Xanana, happy to do a pumpkin soup cook-off anytime, any place. Winner takes all.

Tidbits from around town

I saw a brand spanking new urban style garbage truck today.

The big brown wooden building near the Pertamina terminal on the corner has finally finished building works. I believe there was a grand opening about one week ago but signs have only appeared since then. It is called the “Thai Pavilion” and comprises a Thai restaurant (another) and accommodation. It looks flash from the outside and my card is marked for further investigation.

I tried a burger at “Route 66” outside Landmark Supermarket. A beef burger with cheese comes in at $3-50. The decor is very utilitarian and perhaps explained why I did my burger as a take-away. You get to see the kitchen and cooking technique and I can fault neither for cleanliness and hygiene. As for the burger, it tasted more like what many burgers taste like throughout Asia (of the non-Macca variety) – different.

Directly opposite, the car wash establishment has modified its setup to include a dedicated bay for fitting blast film on car windows. This reflects the new security environment here, where a number of organisations have mandated (or at least recommended) blast film to be fitted on all employees vehicles.

“Castaways” bar/restaurant is undergoing renovation to make more room for tables and to concentrate all service activities behind a long bar running down the western side.

The old “Coolspot” nightclub renovations look complete to me and it can not be long before its new persona is revealed. It looks nothing like its old persona and now has large floor to ceiling doors at the front and bollards to stop cars parking at the front – presumably to prevent blocking the view to the sea.

Timor Gas in the Hotel Dili has moved into a flash new office-style building in the south-east corner of the property. It suggests things are going well.

The influx of new UN police over the last month (in particular) is now quite noticable.

The ANZ bank are planning to put in around 5 new ATM machines to disseminate cash. I’ll take a punt and say, Landmark Supermarket, Lita Supermarket, airport. After that, I am really guessing. Maybe Audian, the Palacio do Governu or Hotel Timor.

Latest security issues

With the ex-Minister of the Interior, Rogerio Lobato, going to court today to answer charges of conspiracy and arms offences, it has been expected that there may be security issues this week.

A romp around today seemed to indicate that many locals have avoided un-necessary travel.  The queue at the ANZ bank was absent and I take that as my best guide.  (The ATM machine still didn’t work !)  It seemed that 5% of shops were shut for the day and people numbers on the streets were down.
Although it has been referred to as a demonstration, the bits I saw of about 25 trucks full of Lobato supporters suggested more of a rally than a demonstration.  No suggestion of aggro but a hint of a well-organised, stage managed production.  As I didn’t trail around after them, I can say little more than that.

But I did see road closures near the UN military HQ at Camp Phoenix and evidence of a large number of people having consumed water from sealed plastic cups – these were littered in their hundreds on the grass verge outside the Camp.

Some say these rallies will ramp up over the next 3 or 4 days.