Ten years on in Timor Leste
Ten years ago on Sunday, 30 August, East Timor's vote for independence saw the first new nation of this century born. The Timorese took their chance at sovereignty, voting en masse to oust an oppressive Indonesian regime.
The fall out was merciless as Indonesia resisted. Horrific footage from the tiny Asian country flashed across our television screens - machete-wielding militia, families squeezed into trucks fleeing across the border and terrified women and children clambering over barbed wire fences into the country's UN compound. Timor was burning.
The Timorese were to pay a high price for choosing independence. Up to 75% of infrastructure was destroyed, three-quarters of the population had to run for safety and 1,500 people were killed. Nearby Australia intervened, followed by the UN, which administered the state until it was handed to the people in 2002.
Since 1999 East Timor, now called Timor-Leste, has been on a journey to build from the ashes. It has been a distinctly uphill journey, with inevitable downward slides along the way. It takes a lot to build a new nation.
From the very beginning Ireland played a unique role in supporting the fledgling state in its attempts to take flight. As two small nations with long colonial histories and Catholic backgrounds, our similarities led to a distinct bond.
During Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation, Irish organisations like Trócaire, the Irish Catholic Church and the East Timor-Ireland Solidarity Campaign vocally pushed for an end to human rights abuses. The Irish government lobbied the UN and EU to encourage international action. In the aftermath of the referendum for independence, Ireland helped to stabilise the country and the Irish people sent life-saving aid.
New connections between our two countries continue to grow. Hundreds of Timorese have migrated to Northern Ireland to work, and it seems that everybody has a cousin or uncle working in 'Irlandia'. At government level the establishment of a conflict-resolution unit and the appointment of an Irish Special Envoy, Baroness Nuala O'Loan, have sealed our commitment.
The country has come a long way since independence. But it has floundered along the way. So, while there might be fireworks to mark the anniversary, not everyone will be celebrating. Timor-Leste has a huge burden of history and hardship to overcome. The beleaguered country suffered one of the worst genocides this century at the hands of Indonesia's regime. One third of the population died from starvation, war or epidemics. Almost everyone was forced to flee their home, many several times.
Even now almost half the population of 1.2 million does not have enough food and most people live in poor housing. People have missed their education and almost half of the population is illiterate. A recent survey by the World Bank and the Timorese government showed that poverty levels have gone from 36.3% of the population in 2001 to 49.9% in 2007. How can this new democracy develop when so much of the population is struggling to survive day to day?
The Timorese need partners that can work side by side with them over time as they experience the full meaning of independence. Running a government or health organisation is quite different to being a resistance fighter or activist for freedom. Yet, this is the background of many people in the country's key positions.
The government must be aided in providing services for its people and improving living standards. Justice is also a critical issue. Lack of recourse for victims of abuses has created barriers to a peaceful society. The majority of people who had planned, ordered or committed crimes against humanity during the Indonesian occupation have not been brought to account.
Political and ethnic grievances remain unresolved. Disagreements within the military in 2006 led to violent clashes around Dili, the capital. In 2008 President Ramos Horta survived a dramatic shoot-out at his home in which a rebel leader was killed. Certainly there have been more challenges than were imagined when the path to independence was taken ten years ago. But reasons to hope and persevere far exceed the obstacles. Trócaire has worked with the Timorese for almost 20 years and we are more aware than ever that its people need our support long term. It will take generations to overcome the burden of history and trauma and for the Timorese to build the skills and experience needed to manage their newly founded state.
At a time when governments around the world, including the Irish government, are cutting aid it is important that our commitment to Timor-Leste continues. The Timorese have the right to independence and a new beginning. And they have the potential to succeed. The natural beauty of the country with soaring mountains and clear tropical waters offers the opportunity for commerce through tourism. Oil reserves also present a way for the country to lift itself from poverty. But perhaps the greatest resource Timor-Leste has is the tenacity and courage of its people, who, having come so far in their struggle for human rights, should not be forgotten.