Security snippets

February could turn out to be the most interesting month for a while. The general security situation has been stable for months and your typical expat has been able to go about their normal business and security chatter has been minimal.

As it stands right now, the UN is technically finishing up on 28 February although everyone expects their mission to be extended another 12 months.

The Timorese police (PNTL) are starting to take up key policing duties again on Monday 4 February even though I have already seen them doing traffic duty during the week. It will take a bit of getting used to again as they have been out of the action since May 2006. I admit I do struggle a bit with the boys wearing dark sunglasses and being very active (and noisy) in their policing role. None of the smiling community copper stuff from these lads but we’ll see if that persona alters slightly after their quality mentoring from the UN Police.

The IDP camps remain a problem and are making a bit of a political statement by flying Fretilin flags and of late, it seems like they are getting bigger. The government has decided to reduce food hand-outs to the camps to encourage people to leave and go back home and get on with things. The government found that one of the problems was that free food tended to attract people to the camps and that 50% of food went to people who did not need it.

A Timorese I know who had her house burnt down has been renting a small room out in the community and made the comment that “here I am trying to get on with things, doing it hard and all I have to do is go and live in a camp and I will get free food – why wouldn’t I?”. Well, I wouldn’t as the camps look particularly unattractive and it has rained most days over the last week or so. But if my alternative was a leaky grass hut that floods anyway, maybe I would.

It is a difficult one. I think the reality will turn out like this : some people will suffer with the food reduction; some will elect to move on; others will take advantage of the situation to cause trouble; politicians may well be hurling excrement at each other over it; and the NGOs running the camps could be stuck in the middle again.

Meanwhile, the F-FDTL are having some sort of anniversary ceremony today and the OZ Army Band are doing a youth concert tomorrow at 5pm at the Stadium (or maybe it is in front of the Palacio). Monty Python here we come.

Addendum : Yep, I got an SMS which confirmed that the boys did the Monty Python theme.  And perhaps the OZ Army Band will be at the university gymnasium.  I once tried to play a trombone and doing it in the rain does’nt seem too flash so the gym seems a safe bet.

Greasing the wheels of business

Within the last 24 hours, I heard 3 separate things related to doing business in TL.  Firstly, the Minister of Economy and Development mentioned an intention to drop the company tax rate from 30% to 10%.  That is but one of the costs to business that the government could stick their oar into.

Two guys from completely different companies and quite independently mentioned one of the other main impediments to business efficiency – the cost of communications.  In any dealings with overseas suppliers or customers, the associated communication costs are horrific.  I have waxed lyrical before on the cost of internet connectivity but general phone costs are high as well.

For communicating detail, the internet is probably the preferred media these days but both of these guys lamented the huge cost.  However, their main current beef is that it is currently (for them) highly unreliable.  Down for days due to line faults and dropping out every 5 minutes.  Imagine trying to collect your email at 9am and finally establishing a successful connection at noon.  And paying through the nose for the “service”.  There was a certain desperation in their voices over all this.

Another one is the extra costs associated with importing.  “Storage fees” to pay while goods wait on the docks to be cleared by customs.  “Agents fees” to expedite movement through the customs system.  Everyone knows it is a crock.

Dili CPI

The December CPI figures have been released. They show Dili having 8.6% growth in the CPI index in 2007.

Timor-Leste CPI 12 months to end of December 2007 TL Dili
Food 11.0% 9.5%
Alcohol and tobacco 5.4% 4.3%
Clothing and footwear 6.3% 15.9%
Housing 2.7% 6.5%
Household furnishings, supplies and services -0.3% 0.8%
Health 3.7% 11.5%
Recreation and education -2.9% 0.1%
Transport and communication 3.8% 6.2%
All groups 7.6% 8.6%
All groups excluding Housing 8.2% 8.8%

It is hard to come up with sufficient anecdotal evidence to comment on much of it but food seems to be more expensive.  I would have thought the expat housing growth rate to be much higher than 6.5%.  This is based on what I have heard recently on rent increases.  I wonder how many people have been covered by 8.6% rises in income ?

Shorts – to read not wear

(1) I noticed another raid on known girlie bars around town has netted another 87 foreign Asian nationals. I understand that people involved in the trafficking of women and associated prostitution regard countries going through internal conflict as good bases for their operations. I suspect the presence of the UN is also a good indicator.

The raids have included Mona Lisa, Moon, Great Wall and Mayflower Bars and (although I am not sure on this one) the Non-Drunking Bar. I have never been to any of these – honest !

(2) A couple of days ago, I read that the Timorese government had asked Australia to allow Timorese workers in to mitigate labour shortages in the fruit picking industry. I was speaking to a Timorese who runs his family’s coffee plantation way up in the highlands and he laughed. He struggles to get Timorese to work for him to pick coffee. He might get a couple of days work then they have had enough. His worker retention rate was less than 10% and he aint giving up those 10%. He knew why OZ had ignored the request.

(3) The Comorro River mouth has broken through to the sea about 300 metres east of the most direct route.  The current channel runs parallel to the seashore and runs right past the Ocean View deck which has been running a big risk of being undermined.  Some of the supports have been strengthened.

(4) There is a bar that is new to me called “Amigos Club” which is upstairs from the New Sanan Rai restaurant a couple of hundred metres east of the ANZ bank.  Cozy with a terrace bar feel, it looks promising for a private function of about 20 but no more.

(5) A friend underwent emergency surgery at Dili National Hospital a couple of days ago.  The preferred option of flying to Darwin simply wasn’t on in this case.  The operation was performed by an OZ doctor and a Dutch anaesthetist and reportedly, the experience was a happy one – at least the bit after the emergency reception area.  The operating bit was done in the new section of hospital opened not so long ago.  No red wine was involved.

Maybe holidays are over

I couldn’t help but notice one single truck lapping town on Saturday. It was full of teenagers whooping it up and flying Fretilin flags. It was accompanied by a couple of cars plus a UN police vehicle escort. Back in OZ, I doubt I would be urged to vote for any party who (no matter how they did it), sent out teenagers “yee-hahing” about town.

I suspect the return of Mr. Alkatiri from holidays on the weekend may be related, plus the call today for Mr. Gusmao to resign.

Personally, I don’t know where to look – Alkatiri/Gusmao or Clinton/Obama and the gang.  You’d think at least one of them must be right.

On a lighter note, I received a Christmas present today from my sister. She doesn’t know me at all. A book called “Nosepickers of the World, Unite” which says on the cover “Let’s face it, nosepicking is a hole way of life. It unites continents and binds nations. More popular than football or even fishing, nosepicking is the sport of choice for today’s man-about-town.

My sister’s ability to break through political conflict with a down to earth reference work like this is breathtaking.

The sod break-in and general fluff

I must say I feel quite let-down after hearing about FOS’s Christmas Eve break-in at Chateau Sod.  I had a fairly full and event-free Christmas and was quite emotional at the end of the day.  But the scroats (as FOS calls them) are definitely increasing in number and starting to get smarter.

For those that don’t know, most expats live behind some form of walled property with windows ranging from iron bars to heavyweight mesh grille to lightweight mosquito netting. Many window frames are made from unseasoned wood and a good shoulder would do a job on some of those. But there are other failings which include having the hinges on the outside and some pretty weak closing/locking apparatus. It is not uncommon to see walls with spikes, razor wire or broken glass set in concrete but also not uncommon to see a simple weak point in such setups.

Forget the peaceful scene of palm frond huts and no form of security at all. The only way you could get away with that is to employ a trusted guard, either by employing one from one of the two big security companies (Maubere and APAC) or by co-opting a friendly neighbour. By employing a neighbour, you may be able to gain respect as a decent (and perhaps only) local employer and thus get full neighbourhood protection. You might rent from a landlord who also provides the service and who knows that losing a rich foreigner following a theft is not a good long-term arrangement.

Unfortunately, FOS lives in an area which has many scroats and I am not sure if he is able to co-opt locals. And yes, Doris (the dog) lets you know when you approach the premises.

There have been incidences of supposedly trusted local staff (like guards and cleaners) suspected of participating in inside jobs with their mates, although this is NOT widespread.

Anyway, it is a wake-up call that it is best to do all the right things and lock doors and windows. And it now seems that one ought to install mesh over windows and some form of “climbing over the wall slow-down device” such as razor wire.  And keep cash in used underwear in your sock drawer or something like that.  It is sad really – who wants to live in a Stalag ?

Security blather

In Dili, it seems fine to me but one should remember that stuff is still happening from time to time around the place. Take this snippet from the UN Security report for yesterday for instance :

Fighting erupted yesterday morning between two martial arts groups at
Buikaren market, Viqueque. Approximately 100 members were involved and
had used weapons consisting of machetes, knives and sling shots. One
20 year old gang member, badly injured, passed away at Viqueque’s
Hospital at approximately 14:15 hours. One suspect has been placed
under arrest.

On Monday afternoon, a 12 year old boy, was seriously injured by a
mailman wielding a machete, in Wailili – Waturou de Baixo, Baucau’s
District. The victim was admitted to Baucau Hospital and the suspect
has been arrested. The investigation into the incident is continuing.

Now if this sort of stuff happened in Hawthorn (in Melbourne) or Crows Nest (Sydney) or wherever you would like to insert*, you’d be a bit worried … no ?  These days, barely rates a mention here in Dili.  Thank god Dili has no mailmen !!

* Glenelg in Adelaide (New Year’s Eve excluded) or anywhere on “schoolies week”.

Some pre-Christmas titbits

It is raining right now for about the 10th to 15th time this wet season. By this time last year, it had probably only rained about twice and that was in November from memory.

The horrendous power cuts of November appeared to have been solved on about the 27/28 November. Those cuts which started about 20-25 October were due to a mechanical failure in the big new generator installed in early 2007.

The “Sanan Rai Foun” restaurant (or “New Sanan Rai”  sanan=cooking pot, rai=ground) has opened about 100 metres east of the ANZ Bank on Rua Nicolau Lobato. Also 50 metres east of the Roo Bar (Tropical Hotel). I presume this is an up-market version of the original Sanan Rai down the western end of the same street.

Like last year at this time, there appears to be a slight difficulty getting eggs. A tray is costing $7. I seem to recall paying around $4 about 6 months ago.

Beer at bars seems to have increased from the $2-50 mark to the $3 mark. I am mainly talking OZ beer here which has mainly risen due to the change in OZ/US exchange rates. Tiger and Bintang ought to be cheaper. I also notice an increase in Filipino San Miguel beers including the cheaper end “Red Horse” beer. This reflects the increasing influence of Filipinos in the commercial sector, particularly construction. $2 happy hours may become more popular.

I saw my 1st bookshop in Dili in the Audian shopping street towards the eastern end. There may be a small amount of books and magazines in other shops and the odd books sold on the pavement but this is a whole shop with a sign out the front saying “Loja Livru Galeria”. Will go in one day.

If you want Christmas trees, then the strip of shops across from the stadium is chock-a-block with trees of the tinsel and plastic variety.

Nativity scenes are cropping all over the place and seem to be significantly more numerous than last year. There are some quite flashy ones including some quite advanced ones with flashing lights which at first, could be mistaken for a police vehicle attending a security incident (when seen from a distance).

Recent increase in fighting on Comorro Road

Although this sort of thing has really been going on for quite some time but at a lower level, over the last week or so, the area between the airport roundabout and the Timor Lodge Hotel has come under repeated and increased rock fighting activity and worse (ie bow and arrow, slingshot and rama ambon).

At mid-afternoon today, it didn’t look too good in the distance down the road so I guess it was on again.  I saw 2 ambulances with sirens blaring heading from that general direction towards the centre of town (perhaps the hospital).

Someone told me it is a bit of gang warfare related to paying back for the death of someone in an earlier conflict.  So I guess it may continue for some time if it is going to be a tit-for-tat exchange of rough stuff.  One thing the crisis of last year did was upset some of the balance between rival groups/gangs who have existed long before last year’s problems.

The first of the Christmas nativity scenes are commencing construction but I suspect there will be none to be seen down near the roundabout this year.

The day at the races

Having been last year to a day at the Tasi Tolu horse races, I was all hyped up for a big one. Suitably kitted up with the necessary refreshments for a warm afternoon, I was ready and waiting at the track at the advertised 3pm commencement.

I think the first race got away close to 4:30pm. By then, the deodorant had long given up, the super-absorbent gusset had failed and I felt a shade ragged. There were your typical Dili street vendors selling water, Tiger beer and soft drinks etc. No toilets, no betting ring and no corporate marquees except for the official thing on the inside of the finish line. I noted horses owned by the President, PM and President of the Parliament, although of the three, only Jose Ramos Horta attended.

Perhaps the UN police attendance was a bit of overkill. They provided a fairly heavy-handed presence and as it turned out in the end, they provided the metal barricades to keep the masses from the track. There were no problems but I heard one local was taken away for presumably going onto the track against instructions. But you’ll love this – the metal barricades were borrowed from the airport.

I estimated about 50 expats and maybe one or two thousand Timorese. There were about 5 or 6 races ranging from the small Shetland pony sized Timorese horses to the mammoths imported from Australia. Most jockeys rode bare-back with no helmet or footwear. Only some bothered with a whip – probably because they were holding onto their steeds like grim death. The last race finished at 6:50pm as dusk was settling, and this was the feature race of the day (I think). But to be honest, I didn’t have a clue what was going on as there was no published info anywhere about what was happening – even 5 minutes into the future.

Last year, the racing association spent good money on wooden railings, only to find that within a week, the lot had been snaffled for firewood. I was intrigued to see this year’s solution. This time, they graded the track and pushed dirt up into a very neat 300mm high barrier on the “inside rail”. Very effective. However rather than being nicked, a few heavy rains will return this to the way nature intended.

To be honest, it was a bloody hot day but I guess us foreigners do become accustomed to it after a while – as long as being soaked with perspiration does not cause offence to others. As for the heat, it means no matter how much you drink, you don’t seem to need a toilet – which was nowhere to be seen anyway.

Best hat of the day goes to Kate from East Timor Journal – a fetching number nabbed from a recently departed (to another country, I mean) acquaintance. By the end of the day, Kate had passed it onto RO who wore it no less as enthusiastically. But the dress Kate, where did you get THAT from ?