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Behind the ministerial trip to a troubled land

AAP’s Northern Territory correspondent Greg Roberts recently completed the 70-minute flight from Darwin to Dili to cover Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's visit to East Timor, the first by a minister in five years.

The only time I remember ever protesting in the streets was in 1999, against the violence being inflicted by the Indonesian army and army-backed militias on the East Timorese people who had voted for independence.

I recently visited the country for the first time with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was also visiting for the first visit, as A minister.

The Australian embassy contacted me before I left.

I was invited to be part of the minister's motorcade, provided a sim and internet dongle, organised a lift to the hotel and was told to bring $US35 in cash for a visa so I would be allowed in.

The only way to fly to East Timor from Australia is on a 70-minute Airnorth flight from Darwin.

I shared a plane with Ms Bishop and while she was given a ceremonial welcoming and the rest of us waited to be let off, an Australian passenger told me about the myriad of business connections between Darwin and Dili.

The Jape family for instance, who migrated from China to East Timor and then Darwin, own multi-million dollar shopping centres in both countries.

I was the only Australian journalist there.

I felt a bit self-conscious when local journalists became annoyed upon being told minutes before Ms Bishop's press conference with East Timor foreign minister Dionisio Babo Soares started that it would be in English.

The East Timorese media asked Ms Bishop about whether Australia would help their economy and encourage petroleum companies including Australia's Woodside to send gas from the country's large fields to East Timor to be processed.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop meets with East Timor's Foreign Affairs Minister Dionisio Soares and holds a press conference in Dili, on Monday, July 30, 2018. Ms Bishop was the first Australian government minister to visited East Timor in five years. (AAP Image/Greg Roberts) 

As well as being a young and new democratic country, it has a fledgling free press that is still learning.

But it is thriving, going by the high number of journalists and cameras following Ms Bishop around and the number of daily newspapers carrying her image on the front page in a city of less than one million people.¶

One local journalist, Oki Raymundos, was acquitted last year along with his former editor Lourenco Vicente Martins. Both faced jail on charges of criminal defamation for an error in a story about former Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo.

East Timor is where the Balibo Five killings took place. The journalists working for Australian media were believed to have been killed by the Indonesia army in the lead-up up to the 1975 invasion of East Timor.

This visit was about repairing a relationship that had deteriorated over disputes about sea boundaries, gas and a spying scandal in the 20 years since the apparent height of the friendship when Australia led peacekeeping forces in East Timor.

But the connection dates back to World War II and Ms Bishop visited the Dare war memorial near Dili where children from a school funded by returned soldiers and the Australian government sung to her.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop (centre) poses for a photograph with school children at the Dare WWII Memorial in Dili, East Timor, Tuesday, July 31, 2018. (AAP Image/Gregory Roberts) 

The challenge of the motorcade was jumping out quick enough to get photos of Ms Bishop shaking hands with East Timor's president and prime minister outside opulent palaces, and then making sure it didn't leave without you and your gear while you interviewed someone.

The low point came when I asked to get out of the motorcade because I wanted to go back and write my stories rather than wave Ms Bishop off at the airport.

Back at the hotel, after emptying out my bags, I couldn’t find my dictaphone holding a day's worth of interviews. A sick feeling grew in my stomach.

I frantically messaged Vrinda and Eka from the embassy and it was found on the floor of a mini-bus.

I sprinted to the embassy to meet the convoy when, seeing me sweating at the front gates, a concerned Australian Ambassador to East Timor Peter Roberts asked half-jokingly if I had been arrested or was in some other trouble.

East Timor, with its extreme poverty and an average income of less than $2 a day for its 1.2 million population, is dependent on its biggest donor and more powerful neighbour Australia.

Ms Bishop saw where some of that money was going, such as the Tibar Training Centre that runs courses to prepare young people for work.

Some participate in Australia's seasonal workers program, earning far higher wages than at home enabling them to send thousands of dollars back to East Timor.

There seemed to be genuine affection between the two peoples, despite the scandal over Australian spies bugging the Dili cabinet room.

Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop (centre), Australian Ambassador to East Timor Peter Roberts (second left) and East Timor's Ambassador to Australia Abel Guterres are seen at the National Hospital in Dili, East Timor, Tuesday, July 31, 2018. (AAP Image/Gregory Roberts) 

Ms Bishop is Australia's highest-ranked female politician and she seemed to embrace that role in East Timor, noting at a lunch that 40 per cent of the country’s parliament were women which was higher than in Australia.¶

No country could reach its potential without gender equality and the involvement of 50 per cent of the population, she said.

She spoke at Dili's National Hospital, where the Australian-funded Health and Gender Equality Program tackles issues such as domestic violence or educating people around health, including the need for mothers to go to hospitals to have babies.¶

She said committing abuse against women was "never acceptable". The Australian-funded Nabilan program reported a terribly high 59 per cent of women experience violence from an intimate partner, compared to one-in-six in Australia.

There is still a long way to go for East Timor to be a successful democracy, but its Oxford-educated ambassador to Australia, Abel Guterres, assured me it will take off economically as long as it gets the development of the Greater Sunrise gas fields right and shows it is a good place to invest.

Australians could do worse than holiday in East Timor, with its world class diving and hiking and beaches with whales and dolphins.

Click here to view images from this historic event on AAP Photos. 
 

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