I’m sitting in a limousine parked outside an expatriate bar in Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili. I’m told by its proud owner, Fred, that the car was formerly owned by David Bowie. The air outside is ripe with humidity and the smoke of fires frying street food. Further along the road, market vendors are selling fruit to men on scooters. Babies with dirty feet are huddled into the riders’ laps. A stripped-out van (microlet) carrying dusty passengers in a haze of pounding Timorese rap music, narrowly avoids colliding with a U-turning taxi as it passes. Where I sit feels impossibly clean and cool.
Fred tells me his new investment is the first of a fleet to be shipped into the country in preparation for celebrations of Timor’s sovereignty. It’s been 20 years since the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. He excitedly tells me that I’m sitting where Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will be in a month’s time.
When I flew into Dili at the end of June, I had only a vague understanding of Timor’s history. I was there as part of an internship working with Timorese journalist, Jose Belo.
As I met and interviewed the people of Timor, I became aware of the fundamental strength and resilience that formed the foundations of the democracy. As a nation conceived in bloodshed, the feel is of politicians and civilians alike striving to move forward to peace in spite of evident pressures from developed countries with vested interests.
On the 30st of August 1999- 24 years after being invaded by Indonesia in 1975, Timor-Leste held an historic referendum. A staggering 78.5% of people vote in favour of independence. Civil unrest erupted between pro-Indonesia paramilitary groups and pro-independence civilians, by 2002 more than 1400 people had been killed.
Over 5000 Australian personnel were deployed into Timor between 1999 and 2002 as part of the peacemaking mission, International Force East Timor (INTERFET). Ex-Australian soldier, Jason, tells me at a dinner for INTERFET veterans that while the turn of the century evokes memories of fear, violence and chaos for many, for him it was one of his most gratifying experiences as a soldier.
“I went to Afghanistan four times and that wasn’t nice. In Timor, people wanted us to be here and they appreciated the help. You could integrate with them easily and be part of their culture. They were accepting and a beautiful people.”
“[There was] a sense of liberating a country, or helping to liberate a country who had fought for their own independence for 20 odd years and helping to enable that and provide them with the security to take over their own country and be their own government and people.”
As the world’s newest nation, Timor-Leste is still considered ‘third-world’. It held its first election to appoint members of a constitutional assembly to approve the East Timorese constitution in 2001. In 2002 it elected its first president of the republic. Since then, the nation has borne the brunt of a young government system trying to gain its feet. In 2006, conflict between components of the Timorese military over discrimination saw violence and chaos take control once more. The crisis prompted military intervention from several other countries, including Australia.
The effects of the violent confrontations can still be seen today. Burnt out buildings lend an eerie quality to rural towns while mountainous backdrops and smiling people in bright shirts counteract the effect. Dili has the appearance of a hastily put together shanty town. Women bathe their children in small iron tubs outside. Their dirt floored kitchens are swept immaculately clean. Non-government organisations drive initiatives for change while the elected governments strive to implement policies to allow reform.
Pressure from external forces give a sense of Timor’s need to maintain a high-functioning democracy. Talking with Timorese politicians though, I am constantly reminded that many of these men are adjusting into a role they had not seen themselves in before. Many of them were soldiers at the change of millennium and again in 2006. What were once guerrilla fighters, are now the presidents and prime ministers of a democracy.
Jose Ramos Horta former president, prime minister and foreign minister tells me that while he did not personally take up arms, he led the resistance by taking on the role of foreign minister under the liberation movement and first elected party, FRETILIN (revolutionary front for an independent East Timor), and pleaded his country’s cause across the world.
I meet Mr Ramos Horta in a beautiful, airy old-style home. Portraits hang on every wall. He says that even now he continues to help the governing party in passing new policies.
“Even if they are the opposition, I try to help. Whether I agree or not with their policies, they are the government elected. That’s my philosophy in life. In the circumstance of Timor-Leste, it is still a fragile society, a fragile country. I cannot play democracy opposition like you can afford to in Australia”.
Catching a microlet in the direction of my hotel after leaving Mr Ramos Horta I am suddenly aware of the sound of chanting. Up ahead a street has been completely blocked by the bodies of thousands of people shouting and cheering. It is the third LGBTQI + pride parade held in Timor-Leste. An estimated three thousand people are in attendance, six times that of the country’s first ever march held in 2017.
President, Francisco Guterres offers his support for the ‘Marsa Diversidade’ (Diversity March) saying in a statement “I am a president for all people”.
“I respect everyone! Respect and love tie us as a family, as community, as a people. I ask everyone to see diversity as our nation’s wealth”.
A 2018 report by the National Women’s Network (Rede Feto) and the ASEAN OGIE caucus into the treatment of women in Timor-Leste found that while many women feel increasingly accepted as lesbian, bisexual and transgender, they still experience a disturbing level of perverse discrimination and violence.
While this trend is alarming, it is positive to see the young nation striving to move forward by addressing modern issues in a progressive and inclusive manner.
The relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia has a tumultuous history. Our military involvement between 1999 and 2002 is considered to have been paramount to Timor’s independence, politically however our involvement has created deep upset.
In commemoration of Timor’s milestone, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has promised to publicly ratify the maritime boundary treaty between the two nations.
The struggle for sovereignty over the maritime territory has been an ongoing battle for Timor-Leste with the Australian government only entertaining discussions following an International Court of Justice ordered ‘compulsory conciliation’ in 2016.
Under the latest maritime boundary agreement, all contracts for petroleum activities in the Timor Sea will belong to Timor-Leste.
Rifts between Timor-Leste and Australia hadn’t been fully resolved when the Maritime Boundary Treaty was signed in March 2018 and the countries remain unwilling to agree on where the gas will be processed, with each nation vying for it to be piped to their own domestic facilities.
Private operators and energy experts support the viable option of piping the gas to Darwin in an arrangement that would see Timor-Leste receive up to $8 billion AUD in revenue, but the Timor-Leste government is adamant that jobs in their already-constructed domestic Tasi Mane facility would create financial security for the country.
In a small yellow painted room, I speak with members of Dili-based NGO, La’o Hamutuk. A fan lazily paddles through the damp air above our heads as they tell me that they’ve estimated the cost of building the required pipeline to the Tasi Mane facilities and the cost of buying out ConocoPhillips and Shell’s stakes in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field will total more than what is left in the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
In an email exchange, La’o Hamutuk researcher, Charlie Scheiner, tells me how important it is that the Timorese government understand the heavy environmental and social costs of the petroleum industry. He worries that the industry’s reliability on a volatile, evolving global energy market could prove costly to the nation. “We should not put all our eggs in such a costly and uncertain basket, especially when other paths for economic development are more certain, more sustainable, and more beneficial to most of our people”.
Tourism and agriculture are being pushed forward in the public’s conscience. The development of both industries appears at the outset to be a sustainable opportunity for improvement to economic and job growth.
While Timor-Leste continues to face devastating economic conditions as reserves of their current resource projects, which provide up to 80% of their total revenue, are projected to run out within a few years, their insistence on maintaining firsthand control of these seemingly doomed projects feels like a protective act.
Timor-Leste is resting on a knife-edge. While stability and growth sit well within the democracy’s grasp, outside pressures threaten to undo the fledgling nation’s future prosperity and hard work. Reflecting on the history of the nation on its twentieth anniversary, the world would do well to remember how significantly the new democracy has built itself up out of the rubble.