You are here: Timor-Leste celebrates 20th anniversary of independence

This summer Timor-Leste celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the “Popular Consultation” – the referendum that led to Timorese independence.

Resident Coordinator, Roy Trivedy, held a remembrance event in the town of Ermera for the 15 Timorese staff who died while assisting The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), and they were remembered again at UN House (the sprawling compound that used to be known as Obrigado Barracks, home to several UN peacekeeping missions over the years) where Xanana Gusmão and I unveiled a memorial. The UN have kept in touch with the bereaved families over the years through the human rights adviser and her team, and many of them were at one or both of the events.

Very many former UNAMET local staff came to UN House and there were emotional reunions there and elsewhere (and much taking of photos). When I spoke, I was able to ask Pedro Unamet Rodrigues to join me at the rostrum, just short of his twentieth birthday. I remember the dramatic circumstances of his birth in the UNAMET compound, besieged in the violence after the ballot, as recalled here by Peter Hosking, who baptised him.

That compound is back in action as a Teacher Training Institute, and the Minister of Education - a valuable informant for our team in the town of Maliana in 1999 and later a UNICEF staff member - asked me to unveil a plaque there designating it as a historical site.

One more special UNAMET occasion was a re-enactment of the announcement of the result on the morning of 4 September 1999 at the then Hotel Makhota, now renamed the Hotel Timor. I read again the announcement, flanked by ex-President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak where Chief Electoral Officer Jeff Fischer and Electoral Commission Chair Johann Kriegler had respectively sat in 1999. There too there was a plaque to unveil which will permanently recall the occasion.

I had tried to give myself enough time to get out of Dili, as I had done very little on visits between my first and last returns in 2000 and 2010. I was particularly pleased to join key members of the Maliana team in Maliana and Bobonaro - as made very clear in the book by the Australian UN police officer Dave Savage, Dancing with the Devil, this was one of the toughest districts for our teams to work in. I also visited Oé-cusse via its new international airport.

Secretary-General António Guterres was unable to be at the celebrations - very regrettably, in view of the role he played as Prime Minister of Portugal in 1999. I represented him at the official events, speaking on his behalf at the Parliament. A video message from him was played at the main public gathering at the historic site of Tasi Tolu (where Timorese independence was declared in 2002) and on Timorese TV.

I was delighted to be at the main events with former UN officials Francesc Vendrell and Tamrat Samuel, who played the key roles inside the Secretariat in keeping the UN committed to genuine self-determination in East Timor. In 1999 Tamrat headed UNAMET's office in Jakarta, maintaining contact with Gusmão in his prison house - having been an observer at his trial in Dili in 1993. Vendrell meanwhile was Deputy Personal Representative of the Secretary-General and visited UNAMET, including with the mission from the UN Security-Council which visited the compound while it was under siege.

Both had been awarded the Order of Timor-Leste by then President Ramos-Horta on the occasion of the tenth anniversary in 2009, but had not been there to receive it, so received it from President Lu Olo in front of the crowd at Tasi Tolu.

This was a wonderfully emotional occasion for international and Timorese staff of UNAMET, and many stories were exchanged of experiences in 1999 - none of us know all of them. The warmth of the Timorese towards UNAMET was extraordinary. And the celebrations were of national importance: Gusmão told us he wanted to have a commemoration now because many of the veterans are dying, and to educate a young population about the struggle for self-determination. There are fine permanent exhibitions at the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum, and at the Centro Nacional Chega!, which occupies the buildings and cells of the Portuguese-era prison where members of the resistance were detained and tortured by the Indonesian military, and became the offices of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR).

All members of UNAMET and UN staff working on Timor-Leste should be aware how warmly our collective efforts are remembered.

Photo: Ian Martin and Kayrala Xanana Gosmao unveil the commemorative plaque honouring all who have died in UN service in Timor-Leste. Credit: UN in Timor-Leste