Home » Uncategorized » Observations from Timor-Leste, one of the world’s newest and poorest nations [part 2]

Observations from Timor-Leste, one of the world’s newest and poorest nations [part 2]

I’ve been living in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste since February. It is one of the world’s smallest and newest nations. Just over one million people live on half an island shared with Indonesia, independent since 2002. For a more complete background of this fascinating place see my previous post: Timor-Leste: a teenage nation as well as the first part of this two-part post.


Tetum is the common indigenous language among the nations 1.3 million citizens, but most also speak a local language. Until 1974 the area was a Portuguese colony so Portuguese was important and widely spoken as well.

During the Indonesian occupation, Portuguese was banned and replaced with Bahasa, the most popular Indonesian language and what was spoken on the other half of the island.

All of this leads to a complex linguistic environment today, best illustrated by the experience of a local friend. She was in elementary school during Indonesian times so she was taught in Bahasa. She started middle school after independence when there was a dedicated effort to erase Bahasa influence and replace it with Portuguese as the language of government and schools. Tetum was seen as too informal for these purposes. The problem was that few people spoke Portuguese, including most teachers who were now tasked with teaching their students in that language. Her high school decided that the best language to use would be the one people used on the street which was Tetum. She was then able to get a scholarship to study in New Zealand and completed her university degree in English.

Today, on the street people mostly speak Tetum. Most media—television programs and movies—comes from Indonesia though and is in Bahasa. Portuguese and English are working languages but usually only spoken by the highest educated and ex-pats. Government ministries use Portuguese for official documents but the various NGOs tend to use English. Plus, many Timorese also speak a local language from their district.

Infrastructure & Transportation

Infrastructure is severely lacking in Timor-Leste. The most pertinent example is the road from Dili and Bacau. These are the nation’s two largest cities and separated by less than 125 kilometers (75 miles). There are no mountains between them as both lie on the northern coast. The trip should take an hour and half. Though, because of the extremely poor condition of the road it generally takes four hours by car and up to seven hours by bus. The road is currently under construction, but oddly, rather than do it in sections the entire distance has been completely ripped up leaving only rocks and dirt, and there has been little or no progress on rebuilding the road in part because of recent political uncertainty. Generally, roads west of Dili are better than roads east of the capital—Bacau is east.

Within Dili the roads are okay. Electricity is on more than one may expect for such an underdeveloped place but it isn’t used very much. Within half an hour of sunset there is little activity in the street and few lights on the roads. During Indonesian occupation and the first years post-independence it was dangerous to be out at night and while the security situation has drastically improved and Dili is generally a safe place, that habit has continued. Most locals also do not have much disposable income so any nightlife that does exist tends to be populated mostly by the ex-pat crowd.

Dili has good public transportation. During daylight vans (called ‘Microlets’) of various colors run around a dozen different routes throughout the city for a fare of 25 cents. You can hop on anywhere along the route and tap a coin against one of the metal poles that hang along the interior roof to signal the driver to let you off anywhere along the route. All Microlets stop service around sundown and resume around sunrise.


After nearly a year of political impasse the nation voted on 12 May and gave a clear victory to the AMP party led by independence hero Xanana Gusmão. The new government should be able to easily pass its budget and continue its plans for development. The political stability should give a much-needed boast to the economy which has lagged. A major concern though is the nation’s current dependence on revenue from oil reserves which are predicted to be depleted within a decade.

Sixteen years after independence the nation is still trying to find itself. It lags far behind its neighbors and is considered the poorest nation is South East Asia, has almost no tourism and poor infrastructure. Yet, it can also be described as a tropical paradise and is a nation whose people are optimistically looking toward a brighter future after surviving a difficult past.

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