Pacific Scoop

Timor-Leste reviews 10-year legacy of independence

Fretilin has dominated Timorese politics since independence, but lost office in the last elections. Photo: PMC/Robie

Fretilin has dominated Timorese politics since independence, but lost office in the last elections while remaining the single largest party. Photo: PMC/David Robie

By Matt Crook in Dili

Ravaged by 24 years of military occupation and threatened with reprisals by vengeful militias, the people of East Timor went to the polls 10 years ago to vote for independence from Indonesia.

Now a festive mood is taking hold as the half-island Pacific nation of about 1.1 million people prepares to celebrate the referendum’s anniversary today. Sports and cultural events are being held in the lead-up to an official ceremony in Dili.

While hope is in the air, it is mixed with uncertainty about the future of a country that remains one of the world’s poorest and which still suffers from violent factional rivalries.

“The security is still very weak — we haven’t professionalised our defence or taught police to respect human rights,” National Union Party leader Fernanda Borges said, adding that the country was at a “critical stage” in its development.

The United Nations arrived in 1999 to help organise the referendum, though security remained under the control of the Indonesian Armed Forces. It was as bad as expected. Pro-Jakarta militias were armed, funded and let loose, clashing with pro-independence groups and civilians in the months leading up to the polls.

The level of intimidation and fear meted out by the pro-integration side, however, ultimately failed to persuade the Timorese people to remain one of Indonesia’s abused and neglected provinces. They voted 78.5 percent to 21.5 percent to reject an Indonesian proposal of autonomy and instead begin a transition to independence. Hours after the hotly-awaited result was finally announced on September 4, all hell broke loose across the country.

Indonesian soldiers and their pro-Jakarta militia proxies ran riot, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. More than 200,000 were force-marched into neighboring Indonesian West Timor.

President BJ Habibie’s government and the Armed Forces initially rebutted claims of anarchy, but around-the-clock media reports of deaths, violence and destruction quickly caused international outrage. By mid-September, Indonesia was forced to invite in senior Western diplomats from the UN for an inspection of the Timorese capital Dili, or face international isolation.

What they saw confirmed their fears: much of the city was either on fire or had suffered at the hands of arsonists. Militiamen roamed the streets, as Indonesian Army and police units did nothing, and tens of thousands of people huddled exposed in the hills south of Dili.

An Australian-led UN peacekeeping force arrived in late September and quickly ended the violence, but not before an estimated 1400 people had been killed, the last of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 East Timorese who died as a result of Indonesian abuse and misrule.

In the days after Australian troops entered Dili, the Indonesian military cut off ties with the Australian military, and the government in Jakarta went into a period of deep denial about the whole affair after such a heavy loss of face for the country.

It lasted for years, with former members of the Indonesian military and government saying the independence vote was rigged by the UN, only a few dozen people died and the reports of slaughter were fabricated by the Western media.

Under a joint Truth and Friendship Commission report released last year, Indonesia accepted for the first time that its military was responsible for gross human rights abuses in the former Portuguese colony.

But to this day, no Indonesian military commander or national civilian leader has ever been convicted, and the report named no perpetrators and made no recommendation for prosecutions.

East Timorese President and Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos-Horta has defended the report and called demands for an international tribunal “stupid” — but victims of the violence feel freedom has come without justice.

A bumpy road to today
Independence has also fueled tense factional rivalries. UN peacekeepers returned to the country in 2006 after a burst of violence between rival gangs and factions of the security forces drove 100,000 people from their homes.

By March 2007, the UN police force had reached a critical mass of 1500 people and security had been stabilised, with peaceful national elections in June of that year hailed as a turning point for the country.

But less than a year later, Ramos-Horta and his prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, were targeted by rebel soldiers in coordinated attacks. The president was shot and badly wounded— he survived after emergency surgery in Australia — while Gusmão was unscathed. The rebel leader was killed in the attack and his followers subsequently surrendered.

Today, the streets are quiet, children play in the new park in front of Hotel Timor, commercial properties are being spruced up and new hotels and a mall are being built.

Law enforcement responsibilities are being handed over to local police, and a gradual drawdown of all UN forces is expected to begin early next year.

Currently, about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and life expectancy hovers around 60.

There is an average wait of five years for a criminal case to go to trial and suspended or non-custodial sentences are routinely handed out because the prisons are full, according to aid workers who monitor the judicial system.

Most of East Timor’s income flows from huge oil and gas reserves but unemployment in 2004 was estimated at 23 percent and youth unemployment at 40 percent, according to the World Bank.

Matt Crook has reported East Timor for the past decade. This article has been republished from The Jakarta Globe.