Timor-Leste marks 20 years since historic independence vote

Locals watch as a bridge named after former Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is inaugurated in Dili, Timor-Leste, on Aug 29, 2019.
Locals watch as a bridge named after former Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is inaugurated in Dili, Timor-Leste, on Aug 29, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DILI (AFP) - Timor-Leste on Friday (Aug 30) marks 20 years since a United Nations-backed vote ended a bloody, decades-long occupation by Indonesian forces and paved the way for it to become an independent nation.

On Aug 30, 1999, nearly 80 per cent of Timor-Leste people voted to split from neighbouring Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, starting a brutal 24-year military occupation.

But joy over independence quickly turned to terror as Indonesian security forces and proxy militias went on a scorched-earth rampage, destroying infrastructure and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to other parts of Indonesia. Around 1,400 people were killed.

On Friday, formal events and 20th anniversary celebrations are scheduled with foreign dignitaries including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is to mark a maritime border treaty that could unlock billions in offshore oil and gas revenue seen as key to the impoverished, half-island nation's future.

The treaty was ratified by Australia's Parliament last month.

Timor-Leste - a mainly Catholic country of 1.3 million people - was recognised internationally as an independent state in 2002.

Two decades on, there has been little justice for the families of those who died in post-vote violence, which was eventually quelled by Australian-led UN peacekeepers.

The occupation of Timor-Leste is estimated to have claimed as many as 250,000 lives through fighting, disease and starvation.

In 2008, a joint Indonesia-Timor-Leste truth and reconciliation commission found gross rights violations during the occupation and 1999 referendum. But the leaders of both nations ruled out prosecuting military and militia leaders responsible for the bloodshed.

Little came of a UN effort to prosecute army commanders - including Indonesia's current chief security minister Wiranto - for crimes against humanity.

Declassified documents made public this week revealed the United States government had known for months that the Indonesian military was arming and supporting paramilitaries in Timor-Leste before the 1999 vote.

Mr Vital Bere Saldanha, 48, saw four of his brothers killed in the post-referendum violence.

"The Indonesian military and militias murdered people who chose to make this an independent nation," he told AFP.

"The fight for freedom wasn't easy. But even though we've only been an independent nation for 20 years, the changes and progress we've made show things are moving in a good direction."