Huzoor, Dili dur ast

“Embassy Row” in Dili, capital of Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor), occupies much of the capital’s sparkling seafront. All the embassies have majestic views of the Indian Ocean. The imposing US embassy is set far back from the street in fear of possible truck-bombers; the Chinese one practically hugs the pavement; the Japanese and Koreans appear to jostle with the Portuguese and the Australians for the most desirable oceanfront space. Now Pakistan has announced it is opening an embassy in Dili. Of India, there is no sign: the newest member country of the United Nations is covered from Jakarta by our ambassador to Indonesia, whose brutal 25-year occupation, ending in 2000, has not yet been forgotten in Timor-Leste. The fact that the only Indian flag flying in Dili was one placed in the foyer of my hotel, in honour of this visiting member of Parliament, reflects our country’s inexcusable failure to engage with the great potential of South-East Asia’s youngest nation.
I was in Dili last week at the invitation of my good friend President Jose Ramos-Horta, whom I had first met a decade-and-a-half ago as a Gandhian-minded human rights activist, whose advocacy of his people’s freedom won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. Mr Ramos-Horta has held every position of international heft in his country — foreign minister, Prime Minister and now President — but retains a disarming modesty. My wife and I were astonished to be picked up by him personally at the airport and driven (by him, not a chauffeur) to our hotel in his quaint six-wheel Mini Moke. His message was clear: an Indian visitor, even one far removed from the corridors of power, was a welcome indication of interest, to a nation uncomfortably being wooed by both China and Pakistan.
That Timor-Leste should be the object of so much international courtship is hardly surprising. This small country of just over a million people sits on an enormous quantity of oil and natural gas, whose revenues have already helped build a reserve fund of $6 billion, growing every year. The half-island nation (its other half is Indonesian West Timor) is also home to significant quantities of gold and manganese, and its shores teem with fish. But it’s not just Timor-Leste’s natural resources that attract outsiders. Its needs are significant as well. The country, once dirt-poor, was devastated by a vengeful Indonesian withdrawal that left much of the capital in ruins. The task of building infrastructure — including to support the country’s exploitation of its own offshore oil and gas — is enormous, and calls for enterprising investors. Given its own increasing prosperity, Dili is not looking for handouts, but for help.
Timor-Leste is the kind of place in which one would imagine India being far more active than Pakistan, and yet it’s Islamabad that has leapt at the prospect, not New Delhi. Our woefully understaffed foreign service has been noticeably reluctant to open new missions without the qualified and experienced personnel available to run them. Despite a Cabinet authorisation two years ago to double the strength of our diplomatic corps, little progress has been made to increase available numbers, given the unwillingness of the establishment to open itself up to mid-career recruitment from outside the foreign service. This means that a number of pending recommendations for new missions are still languishing, and new recommendations simply aren’t being made.
But if Delhi won’t stir itself, Dili will. President Ramos-Horta has already won Cabinet approval to open an embassy in India and is about to embark on the necessary procedures to implement it. He is grateful for China’s huge contributions to his nation — Beijing has already built the foreign ministry building and the presidential palace in Dili, as well as a headquarters building and staff quarters for the military — but remains wary of being enveloped solely in the dragon’s embrace. Timor-Leste hopes to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, and would like nothing better than for China’s blandishments to be balanced by an attentive India. Non-alignment between two big powers is still, after all, the wisest option for a small and newly-independent nation.
The Indian private sector has been quick to wake up to the possibilities. Reliance Petroleum is spending a million dollars a day drilling in an exploratory block off the country’s southern coast, and if it strikes oil, the proceeds could be astronomical. Builders, road developers and exporters are also beginning to take interest. Timor-Leste imports almost everything: its trade imbalance is startling, featuring imports of $828 million and exports of just $8 million (consisting entirely of what President Ramos-Horta insists is the world’s best coffee). Opportunities abound, and it won’t be the first time Indian entrepreneurs take initiatives before our government does.
Not that South Block has been asleep at the switch: there are uniformed Indians, both military and police, in the United Nations mission in Timor-Leste, and our government has offered Timorians a number of scholarships for study in India. For the most part, though, the scholarships have gone abegging, since Timorese students don’t have the grounding, or the English, to take them up. The President would love to have Indian help in building up his country’s human resource capacities. An Indian IT training centre in Dili, he says, would be a wonderful start.
India has started putting diplomatic and financial energy into its traditional talk of South-South cooperation; we are offering foreign aid, grants and loans, to a number of African countries. Timor-Leste is a more self-reliant nation than most, so we will not need to be out of pocket much to help it. But if we send a few experts over to train young Timorese to take advantage of all that the 21st century offers them, we can make an impact out of all proportion to its cost. When the Prime Minister, the heroic Xanana Gusmao, developed cervical pain, he had to fly to Singapore to be treated: a good Indian hospital would be welcomed by every Timorese. Agriculture, mining and the development of small and medium enterprises are also things we are good at, that the Timorese sorely need. It’s time for New Delhi to plant an Indian flag in new Dili.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

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