On 20 May, the Democratic Republic of East Timor marked the fifteenth anniversary of its birth. A third period of five years of complete independence had, for the first time, been completed. In January 2013, the tiny State of East Timor entered a new phase without the armed tutelage of the international community. The tutelage was necessary to avoid retaliation by its large and powerful neighbour Indonesia and a potential conflict extending to the UN and regional powers. The departure of the last Australian and New Zealand military units on 22 November 2012, and of the last contingent of UN police on 15 December, represented a further challenge to that small country stricken by poverty and divisions that, for some, ought not have resisted internal conflict and survived economically, without submitting to a high degree of tutelage.
Even today, stability is a long way off, even though the rule of law and administration are being gradually established. The past, however, remains, not only in the memory but in the DNA of the population which, in its history, had never seen real independence, but the past is the basic reason for insecurity and underdevelopment.
This small republic which, both in its customs and its local language, conserves a strong Portuguese character inherited from four centuries of Portuguese domination, saw the hope of liberty in the withdrawal of the European colonisers in 1975 mutate into a nightmare with the Indonesian invasion and a civil war that reaped 250,000 victims.
It was an arduous process even when Jakarta decided to grant self-determination with a referendum in August 1999. While the polling stations were still open and the result seemed to favour independence, the massacres and violence unleashed by the pro-Indonesian loyalists caused 1,400 deaths and senseless destruction. Even the capital city of Dili was almost entirely burned down and it was only the arrival – on 20 September – of the first contingents of the Australia-led international forces that halted the blind violence that spared not even men and women of the Church. It was a Church that, for years, had been at the centre of a search for a compromise with the Indonesian government and of pacification among the factions of the guerrillas and which, since independence, has sustained the commitment to reconciliation, perhaps the greatest of the challenges to be met. Even today, those who have become the guarantors of independence are those personalities who fought for it using different methods and who placed themselves at the head of the country during its first, tormented years of life.
The former Bishop of Dili, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, the soul of the small Catholic nation in the dramatic years of Indonesian domination has, for some time, dedicated himself solely to the Salesian religious life. José Ramos-Horta, the last President in office who failed to unite the country around the ideas of progress and equality that, together with freedom, were at the heart of the struggle for independence, has now withdrawn from public life, even though he is deeply respected and often consulted.
Xanana Gusmão, who is still leading the government and represents the intellectual soul of the movement, in contrast with the militant and ideologised heir of the Marxist guerrilla warfare, come of age during the armed struggle. Many feared a ‘third-world’ change in the country and, also for this reason, the protection of the international community was prolonged for a decade while it observed with interest and concern this small nation, the meeting-point between Asia and Oceania. (S.V.)