East Timor and me


East Timor

Called "Timor Loro'sae", Timor of the Rising Sun, or Timor-Leste in local languages, East Timor is a half-island state on the island of Timor, located at the easternmost end of the Indonesian Archipelago and northwest of Australia. 

Like so many other places, East Timor's history is a complex mixture of local and global politics.  A Portuguese colony for 450 years, East Timor declared its independence in 1974 amidst civil conflict that erupted after the collapse of the Portuguese state, only be militarily invaded by Indonesia 3 weeks later.

The military occupation by Indonesia was met with armed resistance, and the resulting conflict was a brutal one. Human rights abuses were committed by both sides, but on a far larger scale by the occupying army: unlawful killings, forced disappearances, sexual crimes, forced displacement, starvation. For 25 years the international community, in particular Portugal, Australia and the United States, turned a blind eye to the situation in East Timor and supported the Indonesian authorities through diplomatic and military channels. 

Finally in 1999, the Timorese prevailed to the United Nations, which brokered a referendum that allowed East Timorese to vote on their independence, which they did, overwhelmingly - but at a price.  When the positive result was announced, Indonesian troops and anti-Independence militia groups went on the rampage, killing hundreds, displacing thousands, and literally burning the country to the ground - destroying homes, villages and infrastructure.  After 2 weeks of unchecked violence, an international peacekeeping force restored order in the country, and the United Nations launched a mission to set up a transitional administration.  In 2002, full governing power was transferred to the first East Timorese government, marking the birth of the East Timorese sovereign state.

It hasn't all been roses since then.  After 4 years of relative stability, in 2006 the capital city of the country lapsed into riot and civil conflict, bringing down the government, displacing 1/10th of the population, and launching another 3 years of humanitarian aid.

Now, the future looks bright again...  But the challenges remain.

Despite having revenue from oil and gas in the Timor sea, East Timor is still among the poorest countries in the world in terms of human development and inequality.  Poor nutrition, high infant and maternal mortality rates, low levels of education and high unemployment, high rates of domestic and sexual violence and agricultural import dependency are only a few of the challenges that the country faces looking into its second decade of independence.  Although great progress has been made in the 10 years since independence, the majority of the population still has not enjoyed the benefits of the gains made.

East Timor is a place of contradictions.  It is a place where incredible beauty hovers over the hardships of daily life.  A place where the Old Magic lives on underneath a Catholic umbrella.  A place where crocodiles are sacred but women are a commodity, where family is everything but violence in the home is the norm, a place where tribal elders try to help mp3-player-wearing youth gang members reconcile their differences.

And, for now, it is home.