Timor is home to some truly spectacular things, not the least of which is a rumour mill that would put a high school lunch break to shame.
Among the expat community, the rumours can usually be separated into two categories: gossip (which often leads to whispered discussions about other people in public places, in case someone who knows someone is sitting at the next table), and security messages. In a country with little media coverage that isn’t in Tetun, incidents that might affect personal safety are passed on from foreigner to foreigner, as a matter of courtesy.
To the best of my knowledge, things aren’t all that different among the Timorese people themselves. Or, at least it is on the street I live on. Neighbours swap stories about each other, about what’s going on in the community, and about what’s happening in Timor in general. When they deem it necessary, one of the neighbours will share the more important information with us – like when everyone thought one of the women had paid far too much for her ugly shoes, or when there was a string of violent incidents in Dili and the Police Commissioner had requested that people stay indoors at night.
For those of us who aren’t here with a volunteer agency, such as the Red Cross or Austraining, the little pieces of information we get from others can be crucial. When the Police Commissioner requested that all persons in Dili refrain from going out after dark, I heard about it from an Australian volunteer and a Timorese neighbour. When twenty four inmates, including anti-independence militants, and persons convicted of rape and murder, escaped from a Dili prison last week, I first heard the news from an Australian friend. I later got more details and a security briefing from a Timorese neighbour, and her ten year old daughter. Luckily for me, I have my own Timor family to look out for me and share important safety-related information – especially since there has been no word from the Australian Embassy in Timor (now, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations “the functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in representing the sending State in the receiving State; protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law”… But I think that’s a whole different blog post all together).
There have been whisperings of a call for a revolution in Timor over the last couple of months and today there was to be a televised debate between the leader of those calling for it, Mauk Morak, and the current Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao. I received a heads-up about possible unrest from a friend who lives just outside of Dili, and also from a taxi driver. As I’ve been writing this post, word has come through that Gusmao has announced his intention to resign in 2015. What this means for stability in Timor is anyone’s guess.
To me, what all of the swirling rumours confirm is the need for a free and open media that is accessible to everyone. An inability to access information – legitimate and verifiable information – will inevitably lead to rumours. Information can change as it is passed from person to person, and there is no place where that is more evident than Dili. There is often no way to discern fact from fiction here, which in situations of insecurity could have devastating impacts.
Achieving “development” doesn’t just require health, education or infrastructure projects. Perhaps one of the things it needs most is information.