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Timor-Leste: A teenage nation

In February I flew to Dili, capital city of one of the world’s youngest countries. The flight, only an hour’s time from Darwin, Australia, flew right over the small island nation. On the south coast, there was a line of white beaches, the sand made up of crushed coral from the reefs that encircle the island. Then, straight from the fine white sand, lush green mountains rise. Braided rivers flow toward the sea. And all of it seemingly untouched by man. There are no towns, no roads, nothing can be seen from the air except green mountains, white beaches and turquoise waters. As the plane descended the mountains, which cover the entire island from white-sand beach to white sand beach, reveal an exception, a small semi-circle of flat land on the northern coast, hemmed in by the otherwise unyielding peaks. This is Dili, the nation’s only city. It’s been my home since I landed that day in February.

Timor-Leste is a nation few people have heard of, and that’s a shame as it’s a fascinating place as well as a sort of experiment in nation-building that could teach the world valuable lessons.

Timor-Leste (TL), also called East Timor, is the eastern half of the island of Timor. West Timor, as well as the surrounding islands, are part of Indonesia.

TL was a colony of Portugal which is significant as Indonesia was colonized by the Netherlands. Though even as a colony, TL kept much of its own character. The mountains were never conquered and the Portuguese rarely ventured out of Dili which was just a sleepy colonial town of a few thousand people. After a 1974 left-wing coup in Lisbon independence was hastily granted to all the remaining Portuguese colonies the following year, TL included. Nine days after TL declared independence, Indonesia invaded.

The Indonesian occupation was brutal, even by occupation standards. The Timorese fiercely resisted and fled to the mountains. There are few reliable records from that time but estimates range from 100,000 – 200,000 killed, from a population of 600,000 at the time of the invasion, which would make it one of the most violent conflicts per-capita in human history.

Resistance to the occupation persisted over the following decades. Indonesia was trying to integrate the territory and people resisted in all sorts of creative ways. When the Portuguese left, around 20% of the population identified as Catholic. In the years after the invasion that number jumped to 95%, making it one of the densest concentrations of Catholicism on earth. One factor was that Indonesia forced people to declare a religion and did not accept Animism (practiced by many at the time) as a valid option, but another powerful reason was the Timorese desired to differentiate themselves as much as possible from their Indonesian occupiers, a Muslim nation. Today, TL remains a staunchly Catholic nation. The irony is that a Muslim country converted far more people in a couple of decades than the Catholic colonizer could in centuries of missionary work.

TL is a small nation, just half an island, and Indonesia had a tight grip on information flowing out. Countries that could have exerted pressure, such as Australia or the United States, mostly accepted Indonesia’s occupation because they valued their good relations with Indonesia more than sovereignty or human-rights on half an island. This was during the Cold War and Indonesia was fiercely anti-communist.

The world was mostly silent and ignorant of the occupation for the first 16 years. Then, in 1991, the Santa Cruz massacre occurred. Thousands of mourners came out for the funeral of a pro-independence activist who had been killed by the Indonesian military. As the mourners walked with the body to the cemetery some people unfurled banners or shouted pro-independence slogans, effectively making it the largest public demonstration since the occupation began in 1975. After most of the crowd had entered the cemetery, Indonesian troops opened fire on the unarmed mourners. Hundreds were killed, but a single video of the incident was smuggled out of the country and aired on Australian television which was the first glimpse for much of the world of the reality of the occupation.

In 1999, after an economic crisis in Indonesia which brought a moderate to power, there was a referendum on independence. In the months leading up to the vote pro-Indonesian militias—supported by the Army—attacked or killed Timorese who expressed pro-Independence views. Still, almost 80% of the nation voted for independence. Immediately after the vote results were announced the militias went on a rampage, hunting down activists and destroying whatever infrastructure the country had—blowing up power stations, wreaking water treatment plants, burning down buildings and ripping up roads—before fleeing into Indonesia.

The newly independent people inherited a nation of rubble and ashes.

The history is filled with violence; but it’s also filled with hope. I write this from the Timorese Resistance museum in Dili whose walled are adorned with a campaign slogan of the struggle: To resist is to win.

For two and half years the United Nations ran the country while trying to help set up institutions which the Timorese took control of when their nation was officially born in 2002.

TL is a teenage nation—and I’m not referring to the post-independence population boom that fills the capital streets with boys and girls in school uniforms. It’s a nation with plenty of problems, a nation who still doesn’t really know who it is, but also a nation that is just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.

History is important for context, but what’s much more interesting is what is to come.

I’ll be writing on my thoughts and observations from the streets of Timor-Leste in the following few posts.


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