DILI (AFP) – Timor Leste on Friday celebrated 20 years since a UN-backed vote ended a bloody, decades-long occupation by Indonesian forces and paved the way for it to become an independent nation.
Dotted with banners and flags, the capital Dili was in a festive mood as people took part in traditional dances and parades — two decades after the tiny nation saw a rocky transition to stable democracy.
“We’re proud of how this country has developed,” said 40-year-old Carlos Barreto. “It’s been slow but change is happening.”
However, there has been little justice for the families of those killed in a wave of bloodshed unleashed by the Indonesian army after the 1999 independence vote, which was eventually quelled by Australian-led United Nations peacekeepers.
“The Indonesian military and militias murdered people who chose to make this an independent nation,” said Vital Bere Saldanha, 48, who saw four of his brothers die in the chaos.
“The fight for freedom wasn’t easy.”
On August 30, 1999, nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 — starting a brutal 24-year military occupation estimated to have claimed as many as 250,000 lives through fighting, disease and starvation.
Joy quickly turned to terror, however, as Indonesian security forces and proxy militias went on a scorched-earth rampage.
They destroyed infrastructure and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to other parts of Indonesia. Around 1,400 people were killed.
Timor Leste — a mainly Catholic country of 1.3 million people — was recognised as an independent state in 2002.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, among the foreign dignitaries in Dili Friday, signed off on a maritime border treaty that could unlock billions in offshore oil and gas revenue seen as key to the impoverished, half-island nation’s future.
Canberra would also pay for a revamped military base and an underwater internet cable connecting the two neighbours, he said.
Timor Leste’s once-chaotic political scene — former leader and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in 2008 — has calmed down.
But it is facing a serious cash crunch with oil revenues in steep decline and few other productive economic sectors to boost growth. Some 40 percent of its people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Analysts say it is unlikely that the country could develop massive offshore oil and gas fields on its own, and may look for help from China amid concerns in some quarters about Beijing’s growing economic and military influence in the region.
“If the government goes it alone, it is likely to be a major white elephant and quickly run down the country’s limited financial reserves,” said Damien Kingsbury, a professor of international politics at Australia’s Deakin University.
“It may also require a loan, probably from China, which will make the country beholden to a regional superpower whose intentions are not always benign.”
Meanwhile, Timor Leste and its former ruler Indonesia have largely brushed the past aside.
In 2008, a joint Indonesia-Timor Leste truth and reconciliation commission found gross rights violations during the occupation and 1999 referendum.
But the leaders of both nations ruled out prosecuting military and militia leaders responsible for the bloodshed.
Little came of a UN effort to prosecute army commanders — including Indonesia’s current chief security minister Wiranto — for crimes against humanity.
Declassified documents made public this week revealed the US government knew for months that the Indonesian military was arming and supporting paramilitaries in Timor Leste before the 1999 vote.
Friday’s celebrations are bittersweet for Cancio Dos Santos, whose brother was killed 20 years ago. His body has never been found.
“I was beaten and my brother was murdered,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
“But today we’re an independent nation and I’m happy because I can live free.”