Dili Unrest #17

A friend emailed me and wondered why I had gone quiet. I know I may have appeared to go quiet but on the one hand, not a lot is happening out on the streets, but on the other, a lot more now “seems” to be happening at a number of discussion tables (or trees).

It has now firmly crossed over into a socio-political issue and I am loathe to add too much when I really don’t know much about all this.

I read one more in-depth analysis at :

The article concentrates on the head of the “petitioners” (or sacked soldiers) but the issues appear to have broadened and while he is a player, I am not sure Mr.Salsinha is the major player anymore. The people worry about the military losing control (of themselves), divisions in the police, unemployed youth trashing their house and general instability in the corridors of power at the Palacio do Governo.

There is talk of further protests initiated from the east following the death of an eastern (ie lorosae) policeman at Gleno. But these protest never eventuated here in Dili. I believe the potential protestors were warned that similar trouble may attach itself to their protest and effectively negate the real intentions.

The “refugees” (more correctly called “internally displaced persons” or ITDs) still occupy the Don Bosco Seminary (more than 5,000) and the Balide Convent. As the days pass by, these people are adding more of their worldly possessions to their patch, suggesting that they go home during the day and collect more of their stuff in preparation for the long haul. I have heard a number say that they will not move until the Prime Minister resigns.

A Fretilin leader was interviewed on the ABC “Connect Asia” program and thinks this will happen but not for a couple of weeks. A lot will depend on the success and eventual outcomes from the scheduled Fretilin national congress which was due to start on 17 May.

Dili Unrest #16

It appeared that things were improving on Monday. Taxis were running, some mini-buses (microlets) were running and more people were showing up for work.

The ANZ bank was open and operating normally. However, street vendors were still pretty much absent. This has made supply of fresh fruit and vegetables difficult. I went to a local restaurant last night and pickings were slim in the salad and vegetable area.

However, events in the afternoon have led to a deterioration. Firstly, a government minister has resigned. Secondly, a senior government official was ambushed near the village of Ermera (the centre of the coffee growing area) and one of his 6-strong police escort was killed and a couple injured.

I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be.

Dili Unrest #15

Went for a bit of a drive before a beach BBQ lunch and boy, she is quiet out there. There are people around and they seem calm as can be. Most who intend to leave town look as if they have done just that.

I guess we will know tomorrow just how quiet the normal working week will be. One noticeable feature while driving around is the number of vehicles without registration plates. It turns out that most of these vehicles are probably government-owned and “acquired” for private purposes. So we just remove the government plates. Chances of being picked up for driving without plates is pretty low at the moment.

A few more details of the current situation came out this morning on the TV. A lot of this I have known about for a couple of days, but only as one of the possible rumours. There have been so many rumours, it is hard to know what to believe. Anyway, the commander (presumably now ex-commander) of the military police appeared in a long TV interview this morning. His group of about 20 military police have broken away and headed for the hills. I think this confirmed a series of events that (roughly) goes like this :

  • Protesting soldiers headed for the hills when the demonstration turned into a riot and the army was called in to deal with them.
  • There has been constant speculation that this protesting group was going to attack Dili – firstly Thursday, then Friday then Sunday. This seemed to be the main reason for the mass exodus. It still has not happened yet.
  • This original group is believed to be poorly armed, so unlikely to be a major threat unless it resorts to guerilla-type tactics.
  • There have been defections from the army and the police, supporting the protesting soldiers in the hills. These groups are small but armed. They are in the hills but have not physically joined the protesting soldiers.
  • The military police group has gone into the hills against orders and a major aim (for them) was to convince the protesting soldiers not to attempt any attack on Dili, but wait for the outcome of the special commission setup to look into their grievances.
  • The government has been extraordinarily quiet throughout and if they have done anything to allay fears in Dili, it has not worked. President Xanana Gusmao appears to have taken an increasingly important role in presenting a calm demeanour to the public and I believe in negotiating with the protesters. He appears to be the key man. In general, he is trusted and I think he is a good man.

    Meanwhile, the situation at the “refuges” seems to be deteriorating from a public health stand-point. The Don Bosco seminary still has around 9 to 10,000 people camped out there. Although water, food and toilets have been provided, the strain on the system is such that health issues are now becoming evident. The Balide convent has around 5,000 and conditions there are apparently much worse. But the people do not want to leave.

    Dili Unrest #14

    The exodus from Dili continued right through Friday. I made an attempt to go to the bank after lunch but was foiled as a sign on the door said the bank was closed due to current circumstances in Dili. It expected to re-open on Monday.

    I retired to the Cafe Brasil for caffeinated sustenance and found myself being asked if I had a safe place for the cafe staff (& presumably owner) to stay. Most Timorese would consider white-skinned expats as having the ways and means to remain safe throughout.

    I continued on through central Dili and noted the number of shops closed which I estimated at 80%, up from my 30% of 2 days before. A few vendors were loading trucks clearly preparing to leave. A few more shipping containers had appeared outside shops in preparation for more storage of goods. Some shops were doing the reverse and loading up from trucks. My understanding is that Chinese traders who don’t have the family links outside of Dili pretty much bunker down.

    The odd truck with 10 to 20 people in the back went past. The CoolStore was still open and I bought up a few more supplies. There was not a single street vendor to be found. Even the phone card boys were not out there.

    I have not seen any patrolling military person since last Saturday and only the odd policeman. There is no sign of aggression, feverish panic and certainly no sign of looting or the like (in central Dili).

    It’s probably at this point that I considered food supplies should be elevated up the priority list. I expect the expat oriented supermarkets to remain open but it is possible that fresh fruit and vegetable supplies will be more difficult to find.

    As luck would have it, one of our mango trees is fruiting prolifically right now and providing a huge supply of the fresh article.

    Dili Unrest #13

    I read in this morning’s on-line Australian newspaper : “20,000 Flee Dili Fearing Civil War”. Yes, there is a degree of anxiety, but it has been a slow and steady exodus and I am not sure where the civil war bit is coming from.

    I have seen and listened to a Timorese family go through the mental processes associated with leaving town. Family groups appear much stronger and tighter than a typical western family. Often only 1 or 2 people in an entire extended family bring home income and it is not uncommon for one breadwinner to be feeding 10 or more people. Homes may also contain extended family.

    Some of these family groups can be quite large and in the case I am relating here, around 30 people including 5 or so babies. Initially, they were going to seek refuge but after hearing that refuges were no luxury resort, thought again. Then they considered moving to the family base way out in the east. But the logistics were going to be difficult. Not enough cars in a fit enough state or the likelihood of having to spread the group over a number of buses for a long trip on pot-holed roads.

    In the end, the family leader (not the oldest, but one of the breadwinners with an education) was asked to make the call. After many tears, she did. Basically, they agreed that “we have had enough of all this … we live together … we die together”. That’s how emotional and edgy this is to many Timorese.

    Dili Unrest #12

    Despite a high level of general uneasiness yesterday, I slept well.

    The dead quiet continues. The exodus out of Dili continues. There are police around town but obviously public confidence has evaporated despite no hint of any organised violence in recent days.

    President Xanana Gusmao made an appearance on TV today and appealed for calm and asked people to return to their homes. After an unexplainably long absence from public view, Prime Minister Alkatiri also appeared next to him. It will need someone more proficient than me to analyse just what was said and what it all meant.

    The Dili town water supply stopped this morning and one suspects that due to staff leaving town, there is a shortage of people left to maintain equipment. Government offices were closed during the morning.

    The mobile phone network is pretty much unusable due to overload but SMS messages seem to eventually get through.

    It appears that the number of “refugees” at the catholic retreats has increased again, but there are clear indications these places have become transit stations for travel to other parts of the country. The foreign diplomatic and aid communities have pretty much taken up the task of looking after Timorese in these refuges.

    I have seen the terror that seems to overcome some people. With images still clearly etched in memories from 6 years ago, I have heard locals talk about “we stay together, we die together”. Yet, from where I stand/sit, I can’t see who or what is going to cause this sort of a problem. Sure, public confidence has hit rock-bottom, but I don’t see anyone with the muscle or need to indulge in more violence. Well, I hope so.

    This morning, there were warnings of likely trouble today but from where, no-one seems to know. And nothing happened.

    Dili Unrest #11

    As the day wore on, it was clear the streets were steadily thinning of people. I know of a Timorese guy who went home from work yesterday and found his village on the outskirts of town virtually deserted. His family called him from Liquica, about 30kms to the west. The village had freaked – he still doesn’t know exactly why.

    There appears to be fewer taxis and a number are driving around with cracked windscreens. Street vendors have all but disappeared. Large scale absenteeism from work continues.

    I know this sounds wacko, but the feeling in my water is that 20 to 30% of Dili’s population has left town, or at least left home.

    Word has it that a number of senior people in the civil and military administration have moved their families out of Dili. This is not sending a tremendously encouraging signal.

    On the brighter side, I have been enormously impressed by the work of the catholic church through the seminaries etc. There are a number of highly intelligent, well organised and disciplined priests who are real doers and have got stuck into reparation work for those who have lost houses or a place to stay.

    All in all, everything has gone exceptionally quiet. After dark, it is as quiet as I have ever heard. Its like everyone is just waiting for something to happen, but no-one can think of exactly what it might be.

    Dili Unrest #10

    Firstly, the foreign media appear to have caught up with things now.

    Tuesday was the first normal workday since the major trouble started at noon Friday. Most things seemed normal except people numbers were down and about 1 in 3 of all shops were still closed.

    I re-commenced my evening bicycle ride down to the Cristo Rei statue and back. It seems half the expat community had done the same and I stopped about 4 times to chew the fat with friends and acquaintances. Everyone has their own little take on things that are happening around them.

    For instance, there has been a bit of a run on stocking up fuel used by cars and power generators. Many expats live in accommodation that either runs off generators or at least, has them as backup when the Dili grid fails (which is frequent). Wholesale prices rose 10 to 20% on diesel. Some had run out over the weekend and could not get supplies.

    Most told me that a lot of local staff from wherever they happened to live or work had not showed up for work.

    The foreign press have caught up with things at the Don Bosco Seminary where Father Adriano has estimated 10,000 were there on Sunday night. Numbers have reduced but many are not returning to their Dili homes but are heading for other provincial towns.

    Australia’s ABC has confirmed 6 dead but the local talk is that this figure will rise. I can confirm that the number of houses destroyed at Tasi Tolu is between 20 and 25, not 100 as has appeared in the press.


    It appears that the destruction at Tasi Tolu village occured a bit like this. :

  • petitioners/protestors march to the government buildings
  • things go pear-shaped and 2 “loromonu” (ie westerners) are killed
  • other westerners SMS their mates at Tasi Tolu and tell them the “lorosae” (easterners) are heavying the westerners back in town
  • the westerners torch easterners houses in Tasi Tolu and “some” people are killed
  • the military (mostly easterners) head out to Tasi Tolu to sort it out
  • conflict takes place with an unknown number of casualties
  • westerners are chased up into the hills
  • military chase them up into the hills
  • easterners who lost their houses are holed up in a military camp with few possessions
  • The point is that initially this conflict did not seem to involve the petitioners/protestors.


    Dili is the only real urban centre in Timor-Leste and attracts a huge number of people from around the country who are seeking fame and fortune. So, in a Timorese sense, it is a melting pot of many different racial groups from around the country. Many people are either from somewhere else or at least, the family roots are somewhere else.

    So at the first sign of trouble, the usual reaction is to seek refuge at one’s family base. For many, this is outside of Dili.

    This morning (Wednesday) it seemed clear that there was a slow and steady movement out of Dili. Local people are very nervous. The rumour mill is extraordinary. No-one knows what is going to happen next. The government don’t seem to be doing much except try to encourage people to go back home and stay calm. At this stage, no-one is believing this.

    This would explain the lower number of people around the place and the closed shops.

    The military withdrew from Dili on Sunday afternoon and there has been no sign of any trouble since. People say there has been the odd scuffle. Having seen the destroyed Taibesi market (and regretting not having been there before), trouble was always expected at the Comorro market. I have been told that the Comorro traders banded together and have successfully resisted attempts to burn them down as well.

    I believe that one senior military commander appeared on local TV and said that the military response to violence would be violence. Apparently, this has gone over like a ton of bricks. I can’t understand why !

    Dili Unrest #9

    Yesterday, when I saw Tasi Tolu, I saw destroyed houses but no people. My reaction was a bit of a blank.

    This afternoon, we went to the Taibesi market and something went “klunk”. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Taibesi market is an area of about 200 metres by 200 metres – full of small market stalls. The vast majority of stalls are made of galvanised iron sheeting held up by wooden poles. The whole lot was a pile of burnt-out iron sheets.

    I was astounded. There were about 5 or so vendors (of 205) selling what was left of their stock. One bottle of drink, 2 packs of cigarettes and 5 packets of 5-minute noodles … 10 sachets of home-made crushed chili (10 cents a bag) … a pile of woven grass baskets (50 cents and $1 depending on size) … and a guy sitting down staring out into space obviously completely shell-shocked.

    I was warned prior to arriving in TL that there were still a number of people completely traumatised by events of 5 or so years ago. To have to go through it all again is probably going to push a few people over the edge. I stood at the edge today and it is not good.

    I also heard just why Tasi Tolu was so vacant yesterday. Most of the residents had headed for the hills – literally. Purely and simply scared of being wasted. If what I have heard today is true, things may be worse than I imagined.

    A phone call tonight re. tonight’s dinner engagement also revealed that more trouble is expected tonight. This follows trouble today at the Comorro market and in the Stadium area. We will just have to wait and see if the promised guerilla action will take place.