Timorese and the UN celebrate and commemorate, a decade after a momentous vote

30 August 2009

Timor-Leste is in festive mode this week. Hundreds of cyclists have criss-crossed the country's rugged and beautiful scenery in the inaugural Tour de Timor. Peace festivals and concerts have been staged in towns and villages. Feasts have been organized. But behind all the celebrations across the tiny nation are darker memories as well.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the United Nations-conducted popular consultation, when Timorese turned out in huge numbers to vote on their future – and overwhelmingly chose independence over autonomy within Indonesia. The eventual result was the birth of a State but the immediate aftermath brought fury and violence and death for 1,500 to 2,000 people.

The magnitude of those events in 1999, when the Timorese people paid a heavy price for their courage, was reflected by the number of international dignitaries who gathered today in Dili, the capital, for the anniversary celebrations.

Ian Martin, who served as the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative at the time of the popular consultation, represented the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at today's events.

Speaking with the UN News Centre, he recalls the heady period in 1999 when the people of Timor-Leste – invaded and occupied by Indonesia since 1975 after the departure of the former colonial power, Portugal – realized they finally had the chance to create their own independent nation.

“This was an historic opportunity for self-determination,” he says. “The Timorese had been denied that right for more than two decades and so naturally when they saw the window of opportunity, they wanted to take it.”

In January 1999, Indonesia's then president B.J. Habibie announced that the Timorese could choose their future, and an agreement between the UN, Indonesia and Portugal was struck to set out the steps for a vote, including the UN's role as the organizer of the ballot.

Despite violence and intimidation in the lead-up, huge numbers of Timorese came out to vote. But in the days that followed, pro-Indonesian militia – supported by members of the Indonesian military – began to attack and kill civilians. The world watched as almost the entire population fled to the hills or were displaced to West Timor, while in Dili hundreds of civilians made their way to the UN compound, seeking protection, as the militia rampaged across the city.

In retrospect, some observers said the UN and the wider international community should have foreseen the violent response to the pro-independence vote and should not have proceeded with the ballot. But Mr. Martin says this analysis ignores the real constraints of the time.

“There were moments when I questioned whether the vote ought to go ahead, given the security risks. But the UN did everything it could to insist that Indonesia did fulfil its security responsibilities. Many people were concerned at the time, and many said the international community should have had that responsibility. But that was never a remotely feasible option with the Indonesians.”

He notes that “you'll find that very few Timorese regret the fact that the ballot took place. They look at it as not just about the number of people killed in ྟ, but against the background of the tens of thousands who had died since the Indonesian invasion.”

As the situation in Dili deteriorated rapidly, plans were drawn up to evacuate the remaining UN staff, and Mr. Martin recommended their departure. But a core of about 80 staff volunteered to stay and support both their national colleagues and civilian arrivals that had turned the compound into an unofficial camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Amid intense diplomatic manoeuvring, Indonesia agreed to allow international forces to step in, and Australian troops arrived days later with a Security Council mandate – “astonishingly quickly by the standards of international operations,” Mr. Martin notes – and the widespread violence immediately dissipated.

UN administrators soon moved in as well, and helped shepherd Timor-Leste to its eventual independence as a State in 2002.

In a video message broadcast to the nation on the eve of today's ceremonies in Dili, Mr. Ban praised the popular consultation, which he said “shows yet again the power of peaceful means in changing the course of history.” The Security Council this week also issued a press statement congratulating the Timorese and paying tribute to those killed during the violence of 1999, including UN staff.

For Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in Asia, the past decade has not been easy. In 2006, tensions within the security sector led to deadly riots and much later to an assassination attempt against the Timorese President.

“State-building is an extremely difficult business. One thing we've learned from a lot of post-conflict situations is that the success with which the security sector is brought under the framework of democratic control is really crucial to future stability,” Mr. Martin says.

Atul Khare, the Secretary-General's current Special Representative in Timor-Leste and the head of the UN mission (UNMIT), noted today that “in the last 10 years, Timor-Leste has achieved significant progress in the areas of consolidation of the institutions of democracy, respect for human rights and a certain degree of socio-economic development, and of course development of the police and the local military.” He added, though, that “the road ahead is still long.”


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News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

With pedal power, UN staff take part in race to change perceptions about Timor-Leste

It may lack the glamour or the pedigree of the Tour de France, but the inaugural Tour de Timor – which starts today in the capital, Dili – can probably claim to be a more gruelling race than its storied peer, with potholes, dirt roads, slippery river crossings and uneven off-road routes to unnerve even the most experienced cyclists.