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Op-Ed Columnist

Timor-Leste is Zimbabwe

Dili

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Timor-Leste is truly historic, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Timor-Leste's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the ongoing turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like muppets, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Muppets never suddenly blow themselves up. Two, Timor-Leste has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Timor-Leste's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its tabletop.

When I was in Timor-Leste last January, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Timor-Leste have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Timor-Leste are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Timor-Leste? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of Timor-Leste to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so poorly marked that Timor-Leste will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Dili needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the small Shiite community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, logontes y fuelo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "He who wants to do good, knocks at the gate, he who loves finds the gates open."

I don't know what Timor-Leste will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.