East Timor Marks 20 Years since Independence Vote

08 September, 2019

East Timor is marking the 20th anniversary of a special referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian rule and led to its independence.

Many East Timorese are remembering how the vote fueled violence by pro-Indonesia militias. They blame the militias for 1,500 deaths and pushing another 500,000 people out of their homes.

The country's capital, the city of Dili, has been preparing for the arrival of foreign diplomats for anniversary celebrations that will last until the end of September.

Today visitors to Dili will find freshly painted structures and newly repaired streets. They will also find people who are angry about what happened 20 years ago.

Joao Borras, now 37, was forced to flee as militia members shot and killed his two best friends and set fire to his home.

Borras says the killings were supported by government operatives who watched every move.

"It's a horrible life actually...There's a lot of people killed, but you didn't see because they took you in the night time. They said ‘let's go for interviews' – and you will not come back the next morning."

The struggle since independence

United Nations peacekeeping troops arrived in East Timor three weeks after the August 30, 1999 vote and ended the unrest. Independence followed on May 20, 2002. Voters elected resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as the country's first president.

Since then, East Timor has struggled to develop its democracy and build an economy. Conflict and ongoing internal fighting have limited its ability to interest foreign investors.

In 2006, the UN sent security forces to restore order after 155,000 people fled their homes to escape fighting between competing groups. Then, in early 2008, President Jose Ramos-Horta was critically wounded in an assassination attempt.

The presence of peacekeeping forces briefly helped East Timor's economy. But since their deployment ended in 2012, the gross domestic product has fallen to less than $3 billion. Other measures of the economy are sketchy. Even the country's leadership questions the official unemployment rate of 3.5%.

"Unemployment is a constant concern," President Francisco Guterres said during a speech to mark the independence vote. "Our economy has been in recession since 2017, which has had an impact on the job market."

Guterres noted that 60 percent of East Timorese are of working age, but only 19 percent of them are in the job market.

The flags of East Timor, left, and Australia are displayed during a ceremony at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Australia and East Timor signed a treaty that draws the first-ever maritime border between the neighbors.
The flags of East Timor, left, and Australia are displayed during a ceremony at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Australia and East Timor signed a treaty that draws the first-ever maritime border between the neighbors.

The bright side

Another issue is East Timor's foreign relations with much larger countries like Australia, China and Indonesia. Foreign aid, earnings from the sale of oil and gas and infrastructure projects have fallen far short of expectations.

However, East Timor is pushing for membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And the country's dispute with Australia over sea borders and earnings from nearby oil and gas claims appears to be ending.

Under a settlement with Australia, East Timor will get a bigger share of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields. Australia will also repair a naval base and improve high-speed Internet traffic. Many observers see these moves as an Australian effort to strengthen its influence in the area.

Filmmaker Lyndal Barry has followed developments in East Timor since the early 1990s. He says the government should be praised for creating an effective police force and military.

He added, "There needs to be more done maybe in tourism, there needs to be more done in the countryside and to help people to rebuild there and be able to stand on their own two feet."

Michael Maley worked for the Australian Electoral Commission as part of an international team that prepared for the 1999 referendum. He says two big changes were taking place in East Timor.

"One is the effect of independence and they're being a self-governing country, meeting their long term aspirations. But the other thing that has happened at the same time is they've been hit by globalization," he said. "Everyone has a mobile phone, everybody is using Facebook and social media to communicate."

Joao Borras told VOA that life in East Timor 20 years after the violence had improved, especially in the countryside.

He said, "Right now is clearly safe and secure, economic things are up and down but our life is great, better and I feel free and I'm enjoying my life, and my family and my friends."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Luke Hunt reported this story for VOANews. George Grow adapted his report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

interviewn. a meeting of two or more people face-to-face

assassination – n. the act of killing someone, usually for political purposes

Gross Domestic Product – n. the total value of goods and service provided in a country during a single year

sketchy n. lacking in detail; dishonest

infrastructure – n. the buildings, power supplies, roads and other structures needed for a country or business to operate effectively

tourismn. the operation of vacations and visits to places of interest

stand on their own two feet expression. being to support oneself without help from other people

aspirationn. hope or desire

globalization – n. the process by which businesses start operating in other countries

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