Reflections on the twentieth anniversary of Timor-Leste’s independence referendum

By Jake Lasi Early on the morning of 30 August 1999, with the roosters crowing and the dew still on the leaves, Timor woke early to choose their destiny with a pen or a nail. Eight months earlier the then President of Indonesia, BJ Habibie, had granted us a referendum on self-determination, and the time had finally arrived.

I was only eight years old and living by the sea in Oecussi, but I remember how excited we were five days later when we gathered to hear the result. About 78.5% of the vote had been for independence compared to just 21.5% for autonomy within Indonesia.

The violence that ensued after that is well known. On 20 September the soldiers and ships of INTERFET had arrived in Dili and put a stop to the worst of it, but in my home district, Oecussi, the militia continued burning houses and schools. Terrified and traumatised, my family and I fled over the border to a refugee camp near the Indonesian port of Wini.

We had to wait a month more until INTERFET got to Oecussi and it was safe to return. Some people say the Australians weren’t planning to come at all until some members of the community sent a boy by the name of Lafu all the way to Bobonaro (a dangerous trip of more than 100km) carrying a note begging for their help. Whatever happened, by the end of October the militia had finally been chased away and it was safe for us to return.

Most of my hometown, a village called Mahata, had been burned down and we lived in a tent city set up in what had been the local primary school. Many were nearly starving, living off what cassava, sweet potato and banana they could forage. Others had managed to stash a stack of rice …read more

From:: Development Policy Centre – DEVPOLICY Blog

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