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Timor Leste readies for modest 10th anniversary

Jakarta Post - August 30, 2009

Yemris Fointuna – On Saturday, Dili's main streets and spotless government office complexes overlooking the touristy Dili beach were awash with colorful flags and banners. Cars roamed the streets with small fluttering Timor Leste flags.

It was business as usual for most Dili residents as the young democracy prepared for celebrations of its 10th Independence Day anniversary on Sunday. Unlike in previous years, no street demonstrations were seen throughout the day.

Portuguese President Cavaco Silva and Portuguese Parliamentary Speaker Jaime Gama will be the only foreign dignitaries to attend the party, which will feature cultural shows from the country's 13 districts. Among the most anticipated is a concert by Indonesian pop diva Krisdayanti, on Sunday.

Timor Leste President Josi Ramos Horta told a press conference that in fact some heads of state and government would have come if Timor Leste had had world class accomodation.

"Many heads of state and governments attended the 2002 celebrations thanks to a number of floating hotels with adequate facilities providing them with confortable places to stay. Now, the floating hotels have gone, they couldn't make it," he said.

This year, Timor Leste's Independence Day celebrations have been enlivened with interntional conferences on human rights and development.

People in the streets said they saw nothing very special about the 10th anniversary of their country, which used to be Indonesia's 27th province. They expressed hopes that the then President Xanana Gusmao, who ruled the country before Horta, had developed poor areas outside the capital.

Laurindo Fernandes, a resident of Manufahi district, said that in far-flung rural areas, basic commodities, especially foods, were barely affordable for most people.

"Prices fluctuate because the market is fully controlled by traders with practically no government intervention," Fernandes told The Jakarta Post. "A 35-kilogram sack of rice, which has a normal price tag of US$12, can soar to $15 any time."

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Timor-Leste has seen no significant improvement since it became independent from Indonesia and that more than 40 percent of its 1.1 million population live below the official poverty line of 55 US cents a day. In 2008, Timor-Leste's annual percapita income was $440.

Fernandes said development was concentrated mainly in Dili. In most districts, public services were hard to come by, he said. Electricity, for example, is available only three days a week, usually from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m..

"The rest of the time, it's a blackout," he said. "During these times, housewives complain about rotting vegetables and their children not being able to study properly in the evenings."

In Dili, residents enjoy uninterrupted electricity 24-hours-a-day.

Residents also complain of poor infrastructure, especially roads connecting the 13 districts with Dili. Maria Mendez from the western town of Liquisa said citizens like her were yet to enjoy the fruits of independence.

"Prices are way too high for most people, while public services, such as health and education, are still poor. I hope the government pays better attention to the welfare of mothers and children," she said.