Twenty years on, East Timor reaps dividends of peace and freedom

On August 30 East Timor will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1999 UN-managed referendum when our people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people out of a population of 700,000 died during the 24-year Indonesian reign. A visitor returning to East Timor today would be surprised at the impressive changes that have occurred since, but also disappointed by some disheartening failures.

Here I will try to lay out the many layers of East Timor’s challenges, achievements and pros­pects. From ground zero in 1999, government, private sector, civil society and development partners have joined hands to deliver to a traumatised, impoverished but hopeful people the independence dividends of peace and freedom.
First, we tried to soften the harsh social conditions we inherited that deprived our people of dignity. Everywhere we turned there was destitution and trauma, and pressing priorities demanding action. In 1999, we had 19 doctors and life expectancy at birth was under 60 years, a consequence of poverty and malnutri­tion. Today we have 1000 doctors thanks to a program offered by the Cuban government, and life expectancy stands at 69.2 for men and 70 for women. In 2002 malaria was rampant. Last year there was not one case of this centuries-old affliction in East Timor. Leprosy has been eliminated.
We tended to the wounds of the body and soul. We resisted pressure to pursue that centuries-old form of justice of the victors over the vanquished: revenge. Instead we opted for healing the wounds of the soul, reconciling our divided communities while extending a hand of friendship to Indonesia. We charted a new relationship as friends and neighbours. If I am to cite some salient examples of achievements in our journey since independence, I would not hesitate to name reconciliation and forgiveness, the main enablers of peace and development. Led by Xanana Gusmao, our society knew that only the courage of the truly brave to forgive and embrace the other side would spare us endless conflict and instability.
Second, we began to build the institutions of the state where none existed. This is a process that continues today. But how to build institutions without highly educated and experienced people? Ten years ago, walking into a ministry or department, one saw dozens of highly paid foreign advisers.
In 2009 the government launched the Human Capital Development Fund with an annual budget of $30 million and offering scholarships for advanced studies in science and technology, economics and public administration in select universities in Southeast Asia, Australia, Portugal and so on. Today one sees only young polyglot Timorese with advanced degrees in ministries or departments.
Historically, the unemployment rate averaged 5.39 per cent from 2001 until 2017, after reaching a high of 9.9 per cent in 2001 during the UN administration of East Timor. It reached a record low of 3.2 per cent in 2012 and in 2016 and 2017 remained steady at 3.4 per cent. Youth unemployment stands at 11.6 per cent. We are not afflicted by organised crime, drug cartels, armed bank robberies, radical religious or political extremist groups. The homicide rate is very low at 3.9 per 100,000 people last year with a total of 49 fatalities resulting from sporadic fighting between rival youth groups and domestic violence. The US travel alert for East Timor is the lowest at level one.
With Australia we resolved our differences over the maritime boundary last year under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Our two countries enjoy a special relationship rooted in history and the values of democracy. Settlement of the dispute paves the way for the development of the Greater Sunrise gas field and other oil and gas potential in the Timor Sea.
I strongly believe East Timor and Australia should immediately begin talks on enhancing defense and security co-operation and further significant Australia economic and financial support.
On the external front, East Timor has been active and visible. I have served with the UN in different functions, most recently as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation and as chairman of the UN’s Independent High-Level Panel on Peace Operations. Gusmao was chairman of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific. East Timor chaired and hosted the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (2012-14).
We have an active voice among the Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, the ACP-EU (African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the EU). East Timor is co-founder of the G7-plus Group of Fragile States sharing our experiences on moving to sustainable development. We acceded to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in 2005 and are active members of the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as observers in the Pacific Islands Forum. ASEAN membership has gathered unanimous endorsement among all 10 member states. About 60 ASEAN officials will carry out a crucial fact-finding mission in the first week of September to evaluate East Timor’s preparedness.
East Timor defence and police forces have served in UN peace operations in Lebanon, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau. Our defence forces have benefited from relationships with the defence forces of Indonesia, Australia, Portugal and the US. A US Army engineer group provides training for our army engineer group and contributes generously in rehabilitation of schools, health clinics and rural roads. We have embassies in all ASEAN capitals, as well as in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Canberra, Wellington and soon in Delhi. We also have embassies in Lisbon, Brussels, London, Rome, Washington, Havana and Brazil.
We have two decades of partnership with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and have only words of appreciation for their continuing support.
The East Timor Strategic Development Plan 2011-30, adopted in 2010 following months of nationwide consultations led by Gusmao, is in its eighth year of implementation. With a sovereign fund of $17 billion last year, our per capita gross national income was $US6841 and we stood at 132 out of 190 countries in the UN Human Development Index.
In 2009 $US1bn was allocated towards building a modern electricity grid, which now benefits almost 80 per cent of the country. In 2010 the government invested heavily in the improvement and expansion of the road network, port and airport facilities. The new deep-water port at Tibar Bay is in full-swing construction, budgeted at more than $400 million on the basis of an innovative public-private partnership model involving our sovereign fund, the World Bank, giant French group Bollore and China Harbour Engineering.
I am pleased and proud of our achievements. From the ashes of 1999 we built a new country, free of revenge and violence, a vibrant democracy with the freest media in the region. We have many failings; extreme poverty and child malnutrition are unacceptably high, too many of our people do not have access to clean water and too many children are destitute. We could have done more, we should have done better for them.
*Jose Ramos Horta was prime minister of East Timor from 2006 to 2007 and president from 2007 to 2012. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. In The Australian, AUGUST , 2019