Celebrating Democracy and Peace in Timor-Leste

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Celebrating Democracy and Peace in Timor-Leste

20 years after its independence referendum, Timor-Leste’s success story has lessons for the region and beyond.

Celebrating Democracy and Peace in Timor-Leste

Timorese men in traditional dress carry the Timor-Leste national flag during a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the referendum that led to the country’s independence from Indonesia in the capital of Dili, Aug. 30, 2009.

Credit: AP Photo/Jordao Henrique

On August 30, 2019, Timor-Leste celebrates the 20th anniversary of its independence referendum. The young country deserves more credit than it often receives. There is no denying the insurmountable amount of work that remains to be done, and one is undoubtedly right to believe that the country could have achieved still more progress than it has managed thus far. However, given the long and harrowing history of colonization — which ended in the mid-1970s only to be replaced by an even more ruthless Indonesian dictatorship for nearly a quarter of a century — Timor-Leste has unequivocally made more than modest progress in some key areas. As a young witness to, first, the fierce destruction that literally leveled the country to the ground in the wake of the 1999 referendum, and later, its rebirth in 2002 as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century, the country’s marked successes in democracy and peacebuilding, despite the persistent challenges, merit a celebration this year.

Let us look closely at the milestone achievements on these two fronts, and why they could set an example for others in the region and beyond. Timor-Leste dreamed of a democratic system of governance — a complete turnaround from its brutal experience under Suharto’s authoritarian regime marked by oppression, widespread violence, and systemic rights violations that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Democracy, however, cannot take root when a country suffers from frequent relapses into conflict; neither can economic growth and development can take place under such circumstances. As result, peacebuilding inevitably became an instant priority for Timor-Leste immediately after the independence. So how has the country performed on these two fronts?


Democracy encompasses important elements such as, but not limited to, free and fair elections, with universal suffrage, held periodically to allow citizen participation, as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms — the very principles that underpinned the country’s struggle for independence. When it comes to electoral democracy, Timor-Leste has a strong reason to celebrate, having successfully administered several rounds of elections in the past years. In July 2012, for example, the Timorese electoral bodies took the lead in administering and supervising presidential and parliamentary elections as the United Nations Integrated Mission (UNMIT) was preparing to fully withdraw its personnel by the end of that year. Despite minor irregularities noted, international electoral observers – including those from the European Union (EU), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the United Nations — all agreed that the elections, which took place under conditions of overall stability, were free and fair.

More recently in 2017 and 2018, Timor-Leste, for the first time completely on its own, administered another round of periodic elections. These too were confirmed by international observer groups as transparent, credible, and well-managed despite the unprecedentedly tense campaign environment. The Australian election observer team,  ATLEOM, unambiguously concluded that the elections were free and fair according to internationally recognized standards. Other observers from the IRI and the EU made similar conclusions.

This in no way implies that the Timorese electoral processes are perfect. Further improvements will involve, among other things, the development of legislative and policy frameworks to prevent illegal campaign fundraising, investigate alleged illegal campaigning, promote inclusive participation of those at the margins, and encourage parties to clearly define their programmatic policies.

Beyond electoral democracy, major strides have also been made to achieve substantial civic participation. In 2016, the Timorese government passed a decree law that facilitated both administrative and fiscal decentralization to municipal administrations and authorities. The same year, the government passed another decree law on community-led local elections at the village (suco) level legally requiring women and youth participation. These two laws, among others, encouraged greater participation by women in community leadership roles, and hence their contribution to shaping and implementing policy decisions.

As result, during the 2016 community leadership elections, the country saw  21 women elected by their communities as village chiefs, close to double the number of women elected previously. Although women are still heavy minorities among the country’s 442 village chiefs, Timor-Leste has undoubtedly set itself on the right path toward more inclusive participation, particularly in roles that have historically been reserved almost exclusively for men. Moreover, the country’s law also requires that political parties nominate at least one woman per three candidates on their electoral list, making Timor-Leste one of the highest-ranking countries in the Asia Pacific with regards to women in politics. These are commendable steps toward a more substantive democracy beyond periodic participation in elections and should, therefore, be strengthened in years to come.

In addition to free and fair elections, democracy also requires respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In fact, Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence in all its dimensions was a struggle for human rights. Thus, the new country’s commitment to protecting rights and fundamental freedoms was expressed, first and foremost, in its very choice of constitutional design . The 2002 Timorese Constitution is dotted with the commitment to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens. The constitution goes even further to provide, categorically, that the protected rights shall be interpreted according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and that all rules that are contrary to the provisions of international conventions, treaties, and agreements applied in the internal legal system of Timor-Leste shall be invalid. Such constitutional design was no accident. Timor-Leste’s rights-based constitution was designed so as to avoid repeating the sort of systemic and widespread rights violations previously endured for decades.

Moreover, immediately after the restoration of independence, Timor-Leste also ratified several core human rights instruments and their protocols, showing its firm commitment to rights protection despite the complexity and magnitude of challenges it had to face in rebuilding itself from scratch. At its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in late 2011, 42 members of the Human Rights Council who attended the sessions commended the country’s ongoing commitment to human rights. The country’s establishment of the Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice, the Anti-Corruption Commission, and the passing of the 2010 Law Against Domestic Violence were acknowledged by the delegates. Still, over 40 recommendations were made for Timor-Leste to continue to improve the state of human rights. In November 2016, Timor-Leste underwent another universal periodic review, during which statements highlighting the need for a policy and legal framework for the inclusion and protection of persons with disabilities and expressing concern over rights violations perpetrated by the security forces and gender and sex-based violence and discrimination were made by members of the Human Rights Council. A the end of the review, 154 recommendations were made for Timor-Leste to follow up and report on in the next review.

Early this year, Timor-Leste received praise from the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples for its use of customary practices to provide justice and preserve the environment while noting that some customary justice practices will need to be amended to comply with human rights standards. It is expected that the newly established Ministry of Legislative Reform and Parliamentary Affairs will continue to build on the progress made thus far by, among others, addressing gaps and inconsistencies in the current legal framework — a task jumpstarted in 2015 by the Legislative and Justice Sector Reform Commission. These small yet steady steps are undoubtedly worthy of applause as the country looks back on 20 years of its journey toward a peaceful and democratic country.

The country also enjoys a great level of freedom since independence, despite several setbacks along the way and ongoing improvements needed. With just over 1 million inhabitants, Timor-Leste has a sizable number of activists and vibrant civil society groups neither afraid of contesting government approaches to nation-building nor reluctant to contribute to the reconstruction process where common ground is reached. Since the substantial drop in international assistance, a Support Unit for Civil Society was established within the Office of Prime Minister providing grants to civil society groups from various areas.

Timor-Leste also has a fairly lively media sphere that has grown since the referendum. While elsewhere in the region — including in Australia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam — whistle-blowers and journalists have been prosecuted and thrown in jail for critically reporting on government conduct, journalists and reporters in Timor-Leste continue to enjoy a decent level of freedom, although fear of threats, physical violence, and legal prosecution does exist. Impressively, no journalist has been jailed in connection with their work since independence.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which noted the country’s positive progress on media development, reported Timor-Leste as one of the more encouraging media spots in Southeast Asia. That said, fear of violence and legal prosecution remains high, embodied by the infamous 2017 defamation case filed by the prime minister against a local journalist (the ultimate ruling, though, found the journalist not guilty). Press freedom in Timor-Leste also gained international recognition from Reporters Without Borders, which releases its World Press Freedom Index annually. This year, Timor-Leste ranks at 84th out of 180 countries assessed, moving up 11 places from last year’s rank at 95. Within Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste has consistently remained in the top for regional press freedom over the years. Functioning democracies need a vibrant and free press that can hold those in power accountable for their actions (or inactions) and help citizens in making informed decisions. Timor-Leste’s successes in this area are exemplary for those in the region and beyond to follow.


But perhaps the biggest achievement to celebrate today, in my opinion, is the relative peace the country has steadily enjoyed over the past decade. While it is very unlikely that Timor-Leste will compete with Iceland or the Scandinavian countries in terms of peace, the ongoing commitment among the Timorese people and their leaders is nothing less than admirable. Even amid the unprecedentedly tense electoral campaigns of 2017 and 2018, one thing that all the Timorese leaders and the people agree on is the importance of peace and stability.

This is backed by the Global Peace Index (GPI), issued annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). In 2013, when the IEP began to include Timor-Leste in its annual global peace measurement, the country ranked 51st among 162 countries measured, placing it among countries in the “high” peace tier. The following two years, in 2014 and 2015, Timor-Leste’s state of peace was ranked at 69th and 58th, respectively, bringing it down to the lower end of the high peace tier — a result likely stemming from the 2015 confrontation between Timorese security forces and a rebel leader and his followers. Since then, though, Timor-Leste has been climbing the ranks again, coming in at 56th in 2016, at 53th in 2017, and 48th in the most recent IEP ranking, overcoming a dip to 59th in 2018.

For context, among its Southeast Asian neighbors, only four of 10 ASEAN members ranked higher than Timor-Leste (Singapore at 7th in “very high” peace tier, and Malaysia at 16th, Indonesia at 41st, and Laos at 45th in the same tier as Timor-Leste). This results from many years of solid commitment toward peace and is, perhaps, Timor-Leste’s greatest achievement of the past decade.

Moving ahead, concerted and coordinated efforts should be made to bringing the country forward economically while continuing to build on and solidify the current successes. Timor-Leste’s human development index (HDI) has increased markedly to 0.625 in 2017 from 0.507 in 2000. This, however, remains below the regional average for East Asia and the Pacific. In fact, Timor-Leste’s HDI falls substantially to 0.452, a loss of 27.7 percent, when discounted for inequality (IHDI) indicating that many have been left out of the country’s growth and development. This may pose a serious threat to the relative peace the country has enjoyed over the past decade.

The key priority for the Timor-Leste in the coming years, therefore, is to ensure that everyone benefits from growth and development. This may involve the development of different policies and approaches to strategically use the country’s oil revenues for improving social progress for all; a re-direction of the oil-dominant economy to a broad-based economy that induces growth in other economic sectors and hence a greater economic participation; a change in the top-down approach to development, which focuses heavily on large-scale projects, to a more bottom-up approach encouraging and stimulating the emergence small businesses and economies across sectors; a diversion from the linear to a more circular economy where negative externalities of economic growth and development are minimized; as well as strong justice, rule of law, and human rights institutions provided with adequate resources and capacities necessary to keep those in power accountable.

Fausto Belo Ximenes is a Dili-based independent Timorese researcher. The author alone is responsible for the content of the article. Follow him on Twitter: @Ninofbx