East Timor is marking the 20th anniversary of a referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation and delivered independence, but that also sparked a bloody rampage by pro-Jakarta militias who killed 1,500 people and pushed another half-a-million out of their homes.
The capital has been sprucing up with freshly painted structures, newly paved streets and manicured gardens for the arrival of foreign dignitaries for celebrations that will last until the end of the month.
But beneath the cheery facade is a lingering anger.
Joao Borras, now 37, was forced to flee as militias rampaged through the capital, Dili, shot dead his two best friends, and razed his home.
He said the killings were not just in the open but also behind closed doors by a government apparatus backed by militias that watched every move.
“It’s a horrible life actually,” Borras said. “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 peacekeepers landed three weeks after the August 30, 1999 referendum and restored order. Independence followed on May 20, 2002, with the election of resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as president.
But East Timor has struggled to develop its democracy and rebuild an economy shattered by conflict and ongoing internal fighting, which hampered its ability to attract much needed investment dollars.
In 2006, the United Nations sent in security forces to restore order after 155,000 people fled their homes to escape factional fighting. Then, in early 2008, President Jose Ramos-Horta was critically wounded in an assassination attempt.
The presence of peacekeeping forces helped buoy the economy but since that ended in 2012, East Timor’s Gross Domestic Product has crashed by half to less than $3 billion. Other financial figures are sketchy. An official unemployment rate of 3.5% is scoffed at even by the country’s leaders.
“Unemployment is a constant concern,” President Francisco Guterres said during a speech to commemorate the independence vote. “Our economy has been in recession since 2017, which has had an impact on the job market.”
He said 60% of East Timorese are of working age but only 19% of them are in the job market.
Of that, just 8% work in the private or public sectors while the rest work in the informal market, which Guterres said, “offers workers no security because it’s based on low wages, no contracts, irregular employment and poor working conditions.”
The bright side
Compounding these challenges is East Timor’s fickle foreign relations with much larger regional powers like Australia, China and Indonesia. Anticipated foreign aid, revenues from the sale of oil and gas and the construction of infrastructure projects have fallen far short of expectations.
However, East Timor is pushing for membership to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its long running feud with Australia over sea boundaries and revenue from offshore oil and gas claims appears to be over.
A settlement over its shared maritime border with Australia will entitle East Timor to a bigger share of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, which has reserves estimated at $50 billion.
Australia will also refurbish a naval base and bolster high-speed Internet traffic, widely seen as an effort by Canberra to further its influence in the region.
“This is a new chapter for Australia and Timor-Leste that is based on our shared respect, interests and values,” Morrison said in Dili.
Filmmaker Lyndal Barry, producer of Viva Timor Lorosae, has covered this country since the early 1990s and said Dili deserves recognition for rebuilding its security sector with an effective police force and military.
“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,” Barry said.
China is also investing heavily, financing a deep water port, an electricity grid, and a four lane highway. The China Railway Construction Corporation has signed a $943 million contract with state-owned Timor Gap to help run a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant.
Michael Maley worked for the Australian Electoral Commission as part of an international team that prepared the logistics for the referendum on self-determination. He said 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. “The young people from the time when they were almost totally isolated from the world are now incredibly connected. Everyone has a mobile phone, everybody is using Facebook and social media to communicate.”
His sentiments were backed by Borras who said life in East Timor 20 years after the slaughter had improved dramatically, despite the poverty, particularly in the countryside.
“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 – we are working and it’s nice.”