East Timor: First decade of independence marks time for celebration, reflection

Updated On: Aug 31, 2009

East Timor celebrated on Sunday the 10th anniversary of historic referendum that birthed Asia’s youngest nation.

The 1999 referendum saw 78.5 percent of East Timorese vote in favour of splitting from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Just 21.5 percent supported autonomy. The UN-backed vote ended a bloody 24-year occupation by Indonesian forces.

The Indonesian Army and its proxy militias went on a rampage after the result of the referendum was announced, destroying infrastructure and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to other parts of Indonesia.

Around 1,400 people were killed by the time Australian-led United Nations peacekeepers restored order, ending an occupation that is estimated to have claimed around 100,000 lives through fighting, disease and starvation.

Amidst the celebratory mood at official ceremonies and in the streets, questions surrounding East Timor’s progress over the last decade persist. Even as East Timor’s president Jose Ramos Horta called for an end to all United Nations led investigations into human rights violations that have marked East Timor’s path to independence, critics have criticized state-building efforts as lacking in accountability and progress.

A culture of impunity is denying justice to victims of violence and rights abuses in East Timor 10 years after its historic independence referendum, said Amnesty International. In a report, Amnesty International said that governments of East Timor and Indonesia have refused to prosecute crimes including "unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, threats and intimidation".

Many of those accused of orchestrating the violence have walked free, including former Indonesian military chief Wiranto, who ran for the vice-presidency in July.

Eurico Guterres, the militia leader blamed for much of the mayhem, had a 10-year conviction for rights violations quashed by Indonesia's Supreme Court last year.

State infrastructure is also greatly lacking. East Timor formally became independent in 2002 but its people remain among the world's poorest, with 40 percent of the population earning less than one dollar a day, despite vast offshore gas wealth.

Unemployment in 2004 was estimated at 23 percent and youth unemployment at 40 percent, according to the World Bank. About 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and life expectancy hovers around 60 years.


AFP, Ten years on, 'impunity' reigns in ETimor: Amnesty, 29 August 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jSHlqrV1vAnqnKxZuzJ2a...

AFP, East Timor marks decade since historic vote, 30 August 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gAQRQPzarY0O6vLqeiEEu...

Guardian, Timor heads for freedom as voters defy gunmen, 31st August 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/aug/31/east-timor-independenc...

Financial Times, East Timor’s first decade of freedom, 30 August 2009, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f83648bc-9588-11de-90e0-00144feabdc0.html

Reuters, CORRECTED: A new political generation rises in East Tim, 30 August 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/newsMaps/idUSTRE57T1CC20090830

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