East Timor: Looking Back and Looking Forward

(Photo: Nomad Tales, Flickr)

On 30th August 1999, the population of East Timor voted in a historic referendum: to choose whether they wanted greater autonomy within Indonesia, or independence. After 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule, 78% chose independence and the newly free territory adopted the official name The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. 20 years on, the small island nation is looking to expand its international presence both economically and politically.

First though, we should examine how the nation of Timor-Leste came to be. For over 270 years, East Timor had been a distant colony of the Portuguese Empire. However, when Portuguese forces withdrew in 1975, they left a power vacuum, with rival factions fighting for control. In November, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared East Timor an independent nation with Dili as its capital. Just nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and occupied the territory.

Under President Suharto, Indonesia brutally cracked down on the East Timorese, with resistance groups such as Fretilin’s military wing, Fantinil, waging a guerrilla war against the occupiers. In 1991, the Santa Cruz Massacre, where over 250 pro-independence demonstrators were killed while attending a funeral, brought the world’s attention back to East Timor. Following the massacre and the 1992 capture and imprisonment of prominent Fentinil fighter Xanana Gusmão, support for East Timorese independence grew; and in 1996, the Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and exiled de facto Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to peacefully end the occupation.

However, real change occurred in 1998, when protests in Indonesia led to the resignation of the long-ruling President Suharto. Incoming President JB Habibie sought to end the crisis in East Timor, freeing prisoners such as Gusmão and allowing a referendum for greater autonomy. Under international pressure, the referendum turned into a choice between autonomy and independence. Due to  violence from Indonesian militias, UN peacekeepers entered East Timor; and after the referendum, remained to ensure the new country’s initial years would be peaceful and stable. UN administration lasted until 2002, when Gusmão was elected as the first President of the newly renamed Timor-Leste.

Earlier this year, a moving video emerged of Xanana Gusmão visiting the dying Habibie in hospital, with Habibie embracing Gusmão. For his role in allowing East Timorese independence to happen, Habibie will be fondly remembered by many East Timorese.

Once the driving force for East Timorese independence, Fretilin is now one of the biggest political parties in Timor-Leste (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Even now though, Timor-Leste is struggling to recover from the Indonesian occupation, and remains an underdeveloped and impoverished nation. For example, despite a rapid rise in living standards, the World Bank found that in 2014, 42% of the population remained in poverty; and in 2017, the country’s Human Capital Index stood at just 43%, compared to an average of 61% for the region. Significantly, there have been problems in expanding and diversifying Timor-Leste’s economy. An estimated 70% of the population are still engaged in subsistence farming. Additionally, tourism is only in the early stages of development, and is unlikely to revolutionise the East Timorese economy any time soon. Timor-Leste’s economic growth will likely be fuelled mostly by resources, as it possesses large oil deposits at sea, and has recently sought to develop its mining industry.

A key issue for many of Timor-Leste’s woes is infrastructure: little investment was made during the Indonesian occupation, much of what existed was destroyed by Indonesian militias following the referendum, and the poor nation simply does not have the funds to build the infrastructure it needs. As a result, projects backed by organisations such as the World Bank will be vital in opening up opportunities by better connecting the nation, both internally and to the outside world.

As an independent state, Timor-Leste has also sought to find its place on the world stage. Naturally, this has largely involved solving relations with their closest neighbours. As both the former occupier and only country to share a land border with Timor-Leste, Indonesia is an important neighbour for Timor-Leste. However, trust between the two nations is still strained. In October this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo appointed his former political rival Prabowo Subianto as Minister for Defense in his new cabinet. Prabowo is a divisive figure,  as he has been accused of human rights violations during his time as a military commander overseeing the occupation of East Timor in the 1990s. For the East Timorese, seeing such a man appointed to a major office by their supposed ally is worrying, and shows signs that Indonesia may not have truly repented for the occupation.

President Francisco Guterres recently welcomed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, although relations have long been complicated between the two nations (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Timor-Leste has also suffered continuous bad relations with their southern neighbour, Australia. Poor relations predate East Timorese independence, as in 1978, Australia became the first country to recognise the Indonesian occupation of East Timor as legitimate, despite the United Nations condemning the occupation. Recently declassified documents show that Australia was motivated to do so by a desire to acquire gas and oil rights along the maritime border between Australia and East Timor. This desire has continued to shape Australia’s relations with post-independence Timor-Leste as well. In 2002, Australia controversially pushed for a border that granted Australia a much larger share than Timor-Leste of the oil fields under the border.  It was not until 2018 that an agreement was reached, establishing a fair border between the two nations. The two countries have also pledged to jointly develop the large wealth of oil and gas that lies on the border, although negotiations regarding how to develop the field are still ongoing. However, human rights campaigners have calculated that since 2002, Australia has already unfairly extracted over $5 billion in revenue that would have belonged to Timor-Leste, and the Australian government is under increasing pressure to return the money to its far-poorer neighbour.

Timor-Leste’s biggest international goal right now though is a seat at the table at ASEAN, as it remains the only Southeast Asian nation that is not a member of the Association. Since 2002, Timor-Leste has been an observer of ASEAN, and in 2005 was admitted into the ASEAN Regional Forum, but full membership has continued to elude them. This seems consequential to the East Timorese, as ASEAN has enabled greater coordination within the region and  raised the profile of Southeast Asia on the wider international stage. Membership would also grant Timor-Leste access to additional trade deals, a voice in discussions on regional projects, and funds to aid development.

Timor-Leste appears to have friends in its corner as well, having received backing from other states. Recently Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his support for ASEAN leaders to admit Timor-Leste. Earlier this year, the East Timorese Foreign Minister also claimed to have received assurance from Brunei that it would also support Timor-Leste’s bid to become ASEAN’s 11th member. Timor-Leste claims to have fulfilled all minimum requirements to become an ASEAN member, including opening embassies in all member states; and as such, had been hoping to hear a result during the 2019 ASEAN summit, which ended on 4th November. However, until ASEAN members can come to a firm and unanimous decision on the matter, it is unclear when or if Timor-Leste might join the fold.

20 years on from their historic referendum, the struggle for independence remains vivid in the memories of the East Timorese. However, they are also aware that as citizens of one of the youngest countries in the world, they also face a very different kind of struggle to catch up economically and begin to assert itself on the regional and global stage. Hopefully in another 20 years, things will be looking even brighter.

Perhaps the flag of Timor-Leste will soon be seen flying alongside those of the ASEAN states (Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata, Wikimedia Commons).

Tristan Fleming-Froy

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