Yesterday was a holiday in Timor Leste. A big one. It’s been 17 years since Timor Leste was formally recognized as an independent state.
Time then for a bit of a history lesson and some background for those of you who like me had a fairly blurry idea of the place.
After nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and a brief civil war, East Timor declared independence on the 28 November 1975. 9 days later it was invaded by Indonesian forces and incorporated into Indonesia in 1976 as the province of Timor Timur.
The next 24 years saw a brutal campaign against resistance fighters during which the occupiers killed, starved, sterilised and executed between 104,000 to 183,000 Timorese citizens (from a population of around 800,000).
Until 1988 East Timor remained closed within rigid control of the Indonesian military. When President Suharto resigned in 1998 the ensuing economic and political crisis in Indonesian gave a renewed push for independence. In 1999 talks began at the United Nations to hold a referendum to decide on Indonesia’s offer of an autonomous status within its territory.
98% of registered voters went to the polls in 1999 and they voted by a margin of over 78% to reject the proposed autonomy.
Between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. They killed approximately 2000 Timorese, forced nearly 300 000 into West Timor and displaced over 2/3rds of the population. The rampage destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid were all ruined. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared literally overnight.
September 1999 saw the Australian-led peacekeeping forces deployed…INTERFET (International Force in East Timor). On May 20 2002 after 3 years of United Nations administration East Timor was formally recognised as an independent state.
From 2002 until 2012 various security crisis’s including assignation attempts on the President and Prime Minister, concerns around elections and a variety of other challenges saw the ongoing presence of the UN and various humanitarian groups.
As a young nation Timor Leste faces many challenges; employment generation, poverty reduction and the rebuilding of infrastructure being amongst the most important.
There are issues with gender inequalities with extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates, a demographic explosion with average fertility rates of 7.8, one of the highest in the world, 40 % of the population live below the national poverty line set at 55 cents (usd) per person per day each year. Life expectancy is short and education levels are low. Children attend school for a half day because of lack of resources. Enrolment in primary education in 2015 was 88%, secondary education was 29% in the same year.
The total population of approximately 1.5 million is made up of over 62% under 25 year olds. About 75% live in rural areas and rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. Large numbers of children face malnutrition and stunting. There is a high prevalence of childhood illnesses with under-nutrition contributing to 33% of child mortality.
Dates, stats, facts. Things that you now know. What I would most like to share with you though is the experience of children EVERYWHERE, so many pregnant women, and babies and young people. They swarm out of the schools and work in the markets and hang about on the streets, the Mall in Dili is heaving with them at the mobile phone shops. And in the village this weekend a huddle of 10 very small boys traipsed us through the bush to a waterfall where they promptly stripped naked and swam with us in the pool at its base. One offered to carry a bag, another held my hand over the roughest bits. We asked how old they were…10, 12, 14. Not one of them was as big as our 5-year-old grandson. Genetics yes, malnutrition, definitely.
Today and every day while we are here I’m flying my flag for Independence.
The yellow represents the traces of colonialism, the black, the obscurantism that needs to be overcome, the red, the struggle for liberation, and the star, white to represent peace.