Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest and poorest nations; a small tropical island bordering Indonesia and just north of Australia. Previously a Portuguese colony, Timor-Leste was occupied by Indonesia from 1974 until an independence referendum, supervised by the United Nations, was conducted in 1999. After the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence, violence erupted, people were killed and most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. The UN came in and administered the country until 2002 when the country was finally handed back to its people. While the security situation has vastly improved, there is still a large UN and NGO [non-governmental organisation] presence within Timor-Leste.
You may wonder why a commercial lawyer is working in a post-conflict nation. Well, I’m on a pro-bono secondment from DLA Piper Middle East to the Government of Timor-Leste to advise on key infrastructure and finance projects. The fact that almost all infrastructure was destroyed in 1999 highlights the enormity of the task facing the government. That said, the government has an impressive strategic vision for the development of the country. Every day brings a new challenge, whether it’s the cutting of power or the internet going down, but being involved in the progression of Timor-Leste from a post-conflict state to a development state is very rewarding.
As for daily life around Dili; it’s pretty relaxed. I live in a little apartment that is part of Dili Beach Hotel with a colleague from DLA Piper who is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some things are difficult, such as telecommunications – as you would expect in one of the poorest countries in the world – but there are many upsides. The coffee here is amazing, I have breakfast each day looking over the ocean and the seafood is delectable.
Weekends are always fun – whether it’s heading to the beach, paddling around with the fishermen in dugout canoes, heading into the mountains for some hiking, snorkelling straight off the beach, playing soccer with the locals, learning Timorese dance or playing frisbee on the beach until the last of the sunlight disappears beneath the ocean.
There’s something enchanting about Timor-Leste and it’s the friendliness of the Timorese -it makes any difficulties fade away. When I walk down the street, I’m greeted with cries of “Bom dia!” and the children are very sweet and wave and smile with great enthusiasm, particularly in the afternoons when I go jogging along the beach. The friendliness is even more touching when you consider the history of the country. When you see the kids here, running around on the beach, full of happiness, I can’t help but be amazed by their complete appreciation of their lives and their freedom.
The Timorese have a saying – if you come to Timor and drink a coconut, you will always return. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the beach for a sunset swim and that coconut…
Catherine McDougall is a senior legal consultant at DLA Piper Middle East, on secondment with the Government of Timor-Leste