Gaming draws those 'with nothing to lose'
Behind the Portuguese arches of Dili's Old Market, 300 young men cram around colourful tables and throw their money on numbered squares to try their luck at a game called rolling ball.
'People here gamble because they have no jobs and nothing to lose,' says Ciscus da Silva, who runs one of the more profitable tables.
East Timorese say gambling is in their blood after centuries of cock-fighting under Portuguese colonial times.
Soldiers, civil servants and housewives are swept up in the frenzy of gambling. Tales abound of funeral wakes where people bet their monthly incomes on three-day card games.
Others tell the story of a woman so angry with her husband's gambling habit that she cooked his lottery tickets and served them on a plate for his dinner.
Despite being banned in Indonesia, Dili agents run a successful weekly lottery. In churches and offices, agents approach residents offering to sell them the last two numbers in the lottery winning series for 50 cents apiece.
'Some claim they have dreams about these lucky numbers, others pick them from car number plates,' said Florentino Sarmento of the National Human Rights Commission office in Dili.
Mr Sarmento said the illegal industry of dice, roulette, cards and cock-fighting was worth as much as one billion rupiah (HK$900,000) a month.
The territory nearly had its own casino a decade ago. Macau businessman Stanley Ho Hung-sun built the port-side Hotel Timor - now the Hotel Mahkota - with a vision for it to become a casino.
The powerful local Catholic bishop protested, and the plan was shelved.
Youths now gamble at card tables on every second corner in Dili, while military figures run gambling centres in poor suburbs like Barupite. 'The police and military are behind a lot of the gambling. They use figures from the pro and anti-integration movements to run the businesses,' said Mr Sarmento.
Officials say they do not want to shut down the centres because the thugs who run them might turn to more dangerous scams like drugs and prostitution.
Back at the Old Market, gambler Jose Antonio Equita says soldiers who lose bets there return in uniform to extract commissions from the East Timorese who run the tables.
'They use this place to pick up political information from youths about who is doing what,' said Mr Equita who, having lost 10,000 rupiah in a day, is heading home. Unlike other men at the table, he says, he knows when to quit.