07 October 2013

Fears of foreign domination in East Timor economy and land by Chinese and Indonesian investors

ETLJB 7 September 2013 - A newspaper in East Timor has reported comments by a local citizen expressing fears of foreign domination in the economy and land particularly by Chinese and Indonesian investors. According to a report in the leading Suara Timor Lorosae publication, "[i]n the next five years, foreigners will dominate each village of Timor-Leste and Timorese people themselves will lose their right to live in a piece of land.

The newspaper reported a comment by a Mr Jose dos Santos who said that he "as a Timorese he is sad because after independence, Timor-Leste is full of foreigners who do business in many places in Dili and other districts and these people are mostly Chinese and Indonesian.

“I am sad when seeing there are many foreigners who do small business in Timor-Leste, therefore, I am calling on the Government to control these foreigners because if the leaders cannot control these people, then, in the next five years Timorese people will lose their right to live in a piece of land,” Jose told STL in Caicoli of Dili on Monday 26.

Xenophobic sentiments tantamount to racism were recently attributed to Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. On 11 May 2013, ETLJB published a post about an article in another media outlet, Jornal Nacional Diario, that reported public statements by the Prime Minister that  the country's be "capable people...contribute to the thinking of the people, so that the Chinese cannot dominate Timorese in the capital, Dili."

“Organize yourselves, meet together, speak with one another, otherwise the "Shing-Zhang" will rise above you, otherwise we talk about commerce to do what, industry to do what, because the biggest danger to us is that we have money, but if we did not have money then we will feel ashamed when our kids go asking for money, our kids go asking for US$20 but they only give US$10, we thank them and we are happy, but we have money so we don’t worry anymore,” Xanana explained.

At the same time, however, the Government has done nothing to limit the number of Chinese migrant workers in East Timor. When I was living in East Timor (2000-2004), I observed significant numbers of Chinese workers working on building projects doing jobs that were apparently unskilled and that could have been done by local workers. Of course, migrant workers are cheap and easily exploited by those who employ them so the project grantees can make more profit while local youth remain idle.

In East Timor, Chinese migrants were granted land and business concessions by the Portuguese colonial government and the evidence of that can be seen on the streets of Dili. The Chinese-descent East Timorese were targeted by the Indonesians when the invasion began and most fled. Some returned after East Timor broke away from Indonesia and reclaimed their land that they had been forced to abandon.

As one commentator noted at the time, the reported comments by the Prime Minister "provide a glimpse into the xenophobic undercurrent simmering beneath the facade of democratic and tolerant Timorese elites."

But they also carry the danger of incitement to racial hatred and violence against East Timor's Chinese-descent citizens.

The Chinese government has been a significant donor to East Timor which made the Prime Minister's observations even more bewildering.

Under Article 54 of the Constitution of East Timor, only citizens may own land but land is leased for business purposes to foreigners.

Sources: Suara Timor Lorosae 27/08/2013 English translation of article by TLMDC; ETLJB, Diak ka Lae Edited by Warren L. Wright

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