BAUCAU — Eleven years after achieving independence from Indonesia, Timor-Leste is still one of the youngest countries in the world. And while economic growth rates are good, thanks in part to recent revenue from oil and gas, most people here still live in poverty.
But now, the government is hoping to diversify the fledgling country’s economy by focusing on the tourism industry, banking on the the country’s natural beauty as a perfect draw for holiday and adventure seekers.
Ricardo Ximenes Marques wakes up to paradise every morning at one of the beaches in Baucau, where the 26-year-old works as a waiter at the bar here.
The water nearby is so clear that you don’t even need to dive to see some of the coral and marine life. But only about 27 people visit this untouched paradise every week. And this isn’t helping Marques’ aim for higher education for both him and his siblings.
“My mother and my father, they don’t have much facility to help us, to put us in university,” he says. “That’s why we decided to go another way, how to help each other. I’m the oldest one, so I try as hard and as fast as I can to get what’s needed.”
Marques is part of a community program that employs about 15 people. Started two years ago, the program aims to create sustainable marine industries here, including fisheries, agriculture and marine tourism. The founder of the project is 42-year-old Kevin Austin, a former United Nations security advisor in Timor-Leste. He stayed in the country after the UN forces left at the end of last year.
But it wasn’t exactly an easy start, Austin admits. “There’s was a lot of mistrust here initially, especially with a community that, I guess, was at the heart of the former independence struggle.”
Austin teaches skills to those in the program — everything from cooking to organizing boat tours and other hospitality ventures. He started with $4,500, just enough for a small bar and a barbecue grill.
Crystal blue waters (Kate Dixon)
Unfortunately, the grill doesn’t get lit as often as it used to. Before leaving the country last year, UN officials and other expats used to drive up from other areas in Timor-Leste to visit the beach. That source of tourism is now gone.
But despite the dismal number of visitors at the moment, Austin sees a silver lining. “People who were here before — the expats — didn’t necessarily spend a lot of money in the country. A lot of it went offshore,” he says. “Whereas tourists, when they come, they do want to actually have an experience and stay within the community, and that’s where they’re spending the money.”
What it will take
Infrastructure is a big challenge here. Driving to the beach areas in Baucau can take hours on long winding roads with potholes, making it a slow and difficult task. The government promises to turn things around by making a priority of infrastructure improvements and marketing the country as a tourist destination. Some 120,000 tourists visited Timor-Leste last year, and the plan is to double that number soon.
Maria Isabel, Timor-Leste’s secretary of state for arts and culture, says the government hopes to position the country as a popular adventure travel spot. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want four- or five-star hotels, but we really want to showcase the nature of the country,” she says. “Otherwise, people can just go to Bali. They have almost everything. They have seven-star hotels, I believe. What you really want to do here is adventure tourism in which people who come can go and talk to the community. And we want people from outside to see our way of living.”
Despite all the obstacles, with high growth rates in recent years and revenues from oil and gas, many believe the government may be able to achieve its goals.
World Bank senior economist Hans Beck says Timor-Leste should be evaluated within the proper context. “The country is just over 10 years old,” he says. “It started from scratch, and research shows that countries take about 15 to 30 years to actually emerge post-conflict and to develop their institutions and their economy. So what Timor has done is quite remarkable.”
But like many Timorese, Marques is hoping the pace of development will pick up. “The government is doing what it has to do,” he says. “Tourism is very special. They must make this the most important point. But honestly, as we know, Timor-Leste is a young country, so we must learn more and more experience from other countries like our neighbors Indonesia and Australia, especially.”
Many people around the world still think that the country is a war zone. Even the U.S. government, for example, warns its citizens to maintain security awareness while in Timor-Leste. So perhaps the biggest challenge for the government here is just to change mindsets.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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