Timor-Leste’s ticking time bomb

Economy grows yet unemployment is worsening rapidly

Christovao Freitas Almeida finally managed to find work at the Education Ministry. (Photo by Siktus Harson)

When Christovao Freitas Almeida graduated from high school in 2007, work was thin on the ground. Too poor to go to university, the 26-year-old found himself stuck in his village in Timor-Leste’s northwestern district of Aileu, close to the capital Dili. Young and jobless, the future looked bleak.

For six years Christovao was among a worryingly large proportion of Timorese without a job. The country, which for 24 of the past 40 years was engulfed in war, has Southeast Asia’s highest unemployment rates, at 11 percent according to the country’s Labor Ministry. The youth has taken the brunt of the crisis, and even a university degree no longer provides anything close to a guarantee of work.

By dint of his geographical location, however, Christovao became one of the lucky ones. Staff from the NGO Plan International arrived at his village one day in 2013, offering free skills training for unemployed villagers. He spent six months honing his computer and communication skills, and this year landed a job at the Education Ministry in Dili. He now earns a monthly salary of $160, above the $115 minimum wage set by the government, but he remembers well the hard years.

“Most of my time was spent playing, drinking, and sometimes getting drunk. That’s what jobless people often do, drinking and get drunk, and can easily get provoked [to fight],” he told

This came to the fore in 2006 when, triggered by upheaval within the Timorese military, the country became embroiled in a major crisis, with soldiers and police taking over the streets of Dili, forcing 150,000 people to flee. In the aftermath of the crisis, the UN warned that underlying problems that had contributed to the spread of violence among civilians were not being addressed, one of them being mass unemployment.

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On paper, things don’t look bad for the Timorese economy. The country’s GDP grew by eight percent last year, according to the Asian Development Bank, and this is set to continue into 2015. But, warns Paulo Alves, director of employment at the Secretary of State for Vocational Training and Employment, that doesn’t always translate into job creation in Timor, the region’s poorest country.

The proof is in the figures. Timor has accumulated more than $10 billion since independence in 2002 from offshore oil and gas reserves, yet it remains a low-income country, with extreme levels of poverty and complex social problems.

“The problem here is that the labor force grows rapidly, while employment opportunities are growing at slow phase,” Paulo told

Every year, he said, about 15,000 to 20,000 people graduate from high school. Only about 2,000 to 3,000 of them can afford to continue to university, while those from poor families seek immediate work to improve their families’ financial wellbeing. According to a World Bank report last year, by 2030, 470,000 individuals will have attempted to enter employment, a consequence of the fact that Timor-Leste has one of the world’s highest birth rates, with more than 40 percent of Timor Leste people below 15.

At present, the country does not have labor-intensive sectors such as a garment industry, which in many other countries – such as Bangladesh or Indonesia – draws a huge amount of even unskilled labor. Agriculture, which employs more than 60 percent of Timorese, is only seasonal, and therefore not considered a fix. “When crop seasons [rice, corn, and coffee] end, people will again be jobless,” said Paulo.

One government response to the problem has been to create a “three dollar program” in which it pays people $3 a day to work in government-sponsored projects such as road construction.

“One of most important things is to encourage more private companies to invest in sectors that can recruit many local people, such as in tourism and commercial sectors,” said Alves. He cited Dili’s first and only shopping mall, Timor Plaza, as an example. The business center inaugurated last year has employed hundreds of local Timorese.

While the energy sector is presently not a solution to the problem, the government’s ambitious $1.3 billion Tasi Mane oil and gas project will focus on recruiting locals, and become the backbone of the country’s petroleum industry.

“We estimate that the project will cut unemployment by 95 percent, as it will need more than 100,000 local people,” said Paulo, adding that the Labor Ministry has established a subdivision that will be in charge of training oil and gas workers.

Another strategy to curb domestic unemployment has been a deal struck in 2008 with Korea and Australia, in which young Timorese are sent to work in both countries, focusing mainly on the fisheries, agricultural, and industrial sectors. More than 1,400 people have been sent to both countries, with total remittances of $2.9 million.

Etha Mota, head of Plan International’s youth empowerment for sustainable development program, said in the last two years the group has been involved in training more than a hundred young people like Christovao aged 15 to 24 with different skills depending on their needs.

Yet this training will only be more effective when employment opportunities are made available nationwide.

“On the one hand the huge labor force is an opportunity for the country,” Etha said. “On the other it is a threat because not everybody has the chance to work, even though they want to.”

Published in UCA News, May 12, 2014


Treading the path from terror to repentance

Ex-terrorist commander now works to deradicalize fellow Muslims

Nasir Abas (photo by siktus harson)

When a bomb ripped a Bali nightclub apart in 2002, killing more than 200 people and sending shockwaves across the globe, Nasir Abas realised he needed an exit plan. Having homed in on the Middle East as the principal spawning ground for extremism, the international community suddenly learned of the growing terrorist threat in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nasir was a key part of this threat.

As a senior member of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist outfit Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), Nasir underwent three years of training in militant camps in Afghanistan and scouted possible sites for JI bases across Asia. In 1990 he became a weapons instructor at the academy in Afghanistan, and was then elevated to the seat of commander of JI’s Mantiqi 3, covering Sabah, Kalimantan, and Central and North Sulawesi in Indonesia, and Mindanao in the Philippines. It was his colleagues who engineered the Bali blast, having become the largest and most feared Islamic militant group in Indonesia.

“All I felt at the time was anger, confusion, and other mixed feelings. I could not believe that JI members used bombs,” he tells, explaining that the attack was an unacceptable move in the group’s fight to carve out an Islamic state in Indonesia.

The shock of the attack and the thoughts that sped through his mind in the following days came as something of an epiphany. It precipitated a sea change in Nasir’s thinking about violence in the name of Islam, and 12 years on, he is now spearheading a programme to deradicalize Indonesian terrorist convicts.

Backing the program is the government’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), working alongside Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, head of police studies at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Abas has weathered threats from other JI members, who consider his work traitorous, and penned the book, Inside Jamaah Islamiyah: A Former Member’s True Story, which details his life in the group.

Around 100 militants have gone through the program since it launched two years ago. One of these, Ahmad Sajuri, knew Abas from his JI days. As a 22-year-old in 1986, Ahmad travelled to Afghanistan and underwent three years of training in a mujahedin camp. Returning to his native Malaysia, he joined the terrorist outfit as a clerk, before being jailed in 2001 for five years on charges related to terrorist threats in Singapore and Malaysia.

“The recruitment of terrorists doesn’t stop,” says the 50-year-old father of seven. “To counter it we need an approach that really explores the life of perpetrators.” He says the approach taken by the program “helps soften the radical mindset of many Jamaah Islamiyah militants”, many of whom have been convicted following bombings and other violent attacks.

The team reaches out to university students, whom they deem to be particularly susceptible to radical teachings, and explains the processes and influences that often lead to someone becoming a militant. Workshops have taken place in various towns and cities across Indonesia – Nasir brings with him terror convicts to share their experiences and explain the psyche of the militant.

There is also a strong propaganda element that Nasir says encourages convicts or would-be terrorists to understand that “Islam is a religion of peace, not violence.” He adds: “We tour around with a police guard to see how non-Muslims care about Muslims.”

Despite the plaudits the program has received, funding is low (the government allocates only five percent of its budget to counterterrorism programs) and its scope remains limited. Ansyaad Mbai, head of the BNPT, said in March that the police had detained about 840 terrorists since the Bali bombing in 2002. Hundreds have yet to join the program, and instead remain confined to their jail cells, their radical mindsets intact.

Adrianus Meliala, an expert on terrorism at the University of Indonesia, said in a seminar recently that the fight against terrorism had become a political issue. “Fighting terrorism in the next few years will depend on who will be elected president in 2014,” he said, adding that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had done well to prioritize the anti-terror drive during his tenure.

Meliala also says that key stumbling blocks in the battle to eliminate terrorism are also found in the fact that the moderate Muslim majority allows extremist Muslim groups to infiltrate public institutions such as religious centers and schools. He also criticized the government for not acting to shut down blogs or sites that broadcast radical teachings, unlike its ongoing all-out war against online pornography.

There is also the matter of complicity of security forces. Sidney Jones, head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said at a seminar in Jakarta last month that since 2005 many sharia bylaws have been passed by local politicians, many of them belonging to the Golkar Party and the ruling Democratic Party.

She added that radical groups continue to grow because elites in national police have not ordered them to be stopped, “and also because sometimes the police use those groups.”

For Abas, the terrain is pockmarked with uncertainties. “I don’t know what lies in their heart,” he says of the people who pass through his program each year. “I do hope through this program the extremists will open their minds and let God choose them to become an instrument of peace once they are freed.”

Published at UCAN, Nov.3 2013