Indonesian-owned restaurants, such as the bakso eatery above, are popular in East Timor. (AP Photo)
Previously known as an area of conflict, East Timor is becoming a land of opportunity. Indonesians often go abroad to take menial jobs such as cleaners or laborers. But in East Timor, they are able not only to create happy lives for themselves and their families, but to participate in building that country’s economy.
Meina Sumino from Tulung Agung in East Java owns a Javanese restaurant in Fatuhada, Dili, and said she is better off “earning gold” in East Timor than suffering as a cleaning lady in Malaysia.
“When my husband and I first arrived in Dili, we were very apprehensive about how we would survive in this country,” she said. “But we had heard many good things from people in Indonesia.
“When we got here, we found it is a hard and dry land, and there were many United Nations police on the streets. That frightened us a little, but did not deter us. The presence of the United Nations comforts us, although they remind us that while things are stable now, they were not so in the past.”
East Timor’s president, Jose Ramos-Horta, spoke about the large number of Indonesian migrants in the country last month in an address to the nation on the 10th anniversary its vote for independence from Indonesia.
“Of the foreign workers who are flocking into our country, many have come from Indonesia,” he said. “Some are here on work visas. Others entered on tourist visas. Many are here illegally. When I drive around and see their faces, observe their hard work in trying to earn a modest income, I think of the villages and families they left behind pursuing the dream and what is often the illusion of a better life elsewhere. How they end up here is still a mystery to me. But here they are, many thousands of them. We welcome them and must find ways to legalize their stay.”
“One thing that is quite difficult to handle here is working permits,” said 50-year-old Haji Baharudin, who started a shoe business in Kampung Alor in 2001. He said Indonesians could establish businesses only after obtaining a work permit from the Department of Immigration in the Ministry of Defense and Security, and registering with the Ministry of Tourism, Commerce and Industry.
Baharudin left East Timor in 2004 when business started slowing down and returned to his family in Soe, East Tusa Tenggara. However, he went back to Dili in 2007 because, he said, the opportunities are better there.
“I will say people [in East Timor] don’t know how to spend their money wisely,” he said. “After they get their salary at the end of every month, they appear to spend it very quickly on things that may or may not have much value to them. They are not yet very savvy consumers. That’s very different from most Indonesians.”
The government is the largest employer in East Timor and salaries are high compared to Indonesia. A senior civil servant earns approximately $700 per month, while the same position in Indonesia pays only half that. In Dili, small restaurant owners said they could take in $100 per day, more than twice what they could earn in Indonesia.
Baharudin said he could buy shoes in Indonesia for as little as $4 and sell them in East Timor, where the US dollar is the official currency, for as much as $20.
“But if a customer comes with less, I will bargain and perhaps drop my price to $18 or $15, as I want them to keep coming back. But even at that price, I am still making good money.”
Rudi Hartono also owns a shoe shop in Kampung Alor. He moved to East Timor after one of his friends returned from Dili to their hometown of Atambua, in East Nusa Tenggara. The friend encouraged Rudi to try his own luck in East Timor, saying there were many opportunities there for Indonesians.
“I am happy that I made my way here because now I can see a brighter future for my family even after just six months,” he said. “I admit that building a successful business here in Timor is not easy, but it is not nearly as difficult as it is at home in Indonesia.”
Suparman moved from Semaran in Central Java to Fatuhada, Dili, where he now has a Javanese restaurant, called Amor.
“If I was still in Java, I might just be a construction laborer and only earning a very small salary that wouldn’t even pay for my own food, let alone my family, each month,” he said. “But it is very different here. By opening Amor, I am not only feeding my wife and my daughter, but also the local people who work for me.”
There are many Javanese restaurants in Dili, Suparman said, although most adapt their menus to local tastes.
“If I served authentic Javanese food, I might not have as many customers as I do now. In my experience, authentic Javanese food is not as popular as a more Timorese menu,” he said.
Indonesians are not always instantly accepted by the locals, however.
“The first time I stepped foot in Timor Leste, I felt worried and insecure,” Suparman said. “I was worried the conflict would start again, but then as time passed and as I settled into life here, I realized that people were more afraid of me than I was of them. This was because they thought I might be ABRI [Indonesian military from the New Order era] from my appearance as a bodybuilder, and my short haircut.
“I came here with optimism and not a gun. I came here to build a better future for my family, and to offer friendship and not animosity. However, as time passed, I realized that the past is still very fresh in their minds. I admit, it hurt me to be suspected and avoided. But I wanted to persist, as I was sure that their reception would improve, as indeed it has. They are friendly to me and we are all friends here.”
Fellow restaurant owner Meina initially had some problems also.
“One day, a few Timorese men ate at one of my restaurants and refused to pay the bill,” she said. “They argued that they shouldn’t have to pay in an Indonesian restaurant in East Timor. That didn’t make any sense at all because I came here not as a social worker but as a legitimate businessperson.
“They should realize that we have come to Dili with good intentions. We pay our taxes, our utility bills and fulfil our other obligations, so why discriminate against us?”
Over time such problem have receded, she said, and she now has a good relationship with her customers, suppliers and the East Timorese in general.
“We never know where our luck lies until we seize our opportunities, even though this is a country living in the wake of conflict.”
A Bloody History: East Timor and Indonesia
East Timor, after nearly 400 years as a Portuguese colony, found itself practically abandoned by its colonizers in 1975 and on Nov. 28 of that year, declared its independence.
Nine days later, Indonesia invaded the territory — in an action that was supported by the United States and Australia in the belief that occupation by a pro-Western nation would help stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia — and East Timor became its neighbor’s 27th province the following year.
During the Indonesian occupation from 1974 to 1999, it is estimated that 100,000 lives were lost through fighting, disease and starvation.
When the East Timorese voted for independence in a 1999 referendum, pro-Indonesia militias wreaked havoc in the territory, killing about 1,400 more people.
Three years later, in May 2002, East Timor formally became independent.
Indonesia and East Timor have tried largely to put this bloody past behind them and when East Timor celebrated the 10th anniversary of the referendum earlier this year, President Jose Ramos-Horta again ruled out any possibility of an international tribunal to try the Indonesian generals and militia leaders responsible for the deaths in the aftermath of the historic referendum.
“My stated preference, both as a human being, victim and head of state, is that we, once and for all, close the 1975 to 1999 chapters of our tragic experience and forgive those who did harm to us,” he said in a speech.
The Australian Federal Police recently said it would open a war crimes investigation into the “Balibo Five” incident in 1975, in which five foreign journalists died during the Indonesia invasion. Earlier this month, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said such an investigation would be a backward step.
“This is not in line with our spirit to look to the future between Indonesia and East Timor to end all issues that disrupt the relationship between the two countries,” he said.