Every year on August 30, Timor-Leste celebrates Popular Consultation Day 1999. It commemorates an event of historical importance: when the people of Timor-Leste were finally given the chance to vote on their future, with a strong majority — 78.5 percent of voters — choosing independence from Indonesia.
The vote was the culmination of Timor-Leste’s hard-fought struggle for freedom and independence. It represented the realization of resistance leaders’ efforts to embrace and integrate diverse resistance groups under the prominent banner known as “Unidade Nasional” or “National Unity.”
The fundamental purpose of those efforts was to convince the international community, and especially the United Nations, of the resilient unity and unwavering commitment of the people of Timor-Leste for self-determination.
The Birth of National Unity
Timor-Leste declared unilateral independence soon after being abandoned by Portugal, on November 28, 1975. That independence, however, was short-lived. Indonesia wasted no time, invading the half-island country on December 8, 1975 with the endorsement of the U.S. administration under then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Falintil, the military wing of the FRETILIN party, which had pushed for independence, fought a guerrilla war in the jungle against the invasion. Over time Falintil was weakened considerably by widespread hunger and illness, along with the heavy and brutal presence of Indonesia troops, which together claimed thousands of lives. Draconian controls on the population led to division and isolation from the outside world.
After some major setbacks in the early 1980s, including betrayal, disloyalty, and a failed coup attempt within Falintil, there was an urgent need to rethink strategies and reorganize the resistance movement.
Xanana Gusmão was a unifying figure and the architect of the National Unity discourse. He was largely responsible for sustaining the resistance movement and fomenting optimism and hope for freedom and independence.
National Unity was a powerful theme that not only inspired the rebirth of fighting spirit, but also integrated the whole process of social, cultural, and psychological interaction in the quest for the independence. As a consequence, it gave rise to various lasting movements in the country, and international solidarity movements to support the campaigns for independence.
Young people played an active role in this on all fronts: clandestine independence work, guerrilla warfare, and diplomacy. The turning point in history that drew worldwide attention to the fight for independence was the Santa Cruz Massacre of November 12, 1991, when hundreds of young people disappeared or were killed or tortured. It is considered one of the bloodiest days in Timor-Leste’s history.
The Crisis of National Unity
After the 1999 vote, the resistance leaders, often called the “older generation” or “1975 generation,” remained at the center of the political system and exerted strong influence in the decision-making of state institutions. They also showed a tendency at times to disregard the rules of the democratic game that were adopted in the constitution.
The long pathway to independence had been complicated, and often marked by tensions amongst resistance leaders. However, they managed to paper over their differences and avoided any confrontation for the sake of winning independence. But soon after the restoration of independence on May 20, 2002, the longstanding tensions and rivalries among the resistance leaders erupted, leading ultimately to an internal crisis in the country in 2006. It was a major blow to the discourse of the national unity.
The struggle over power and over different visions of political control between then-President Xanana Gusmão and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was the key underlying cause of the 2006 internal crisis.
Each had a sense of his own legitimacy: Gusmão from being a widely acclaimed national leader, elected president with an overwhelming majority of the vote in 2002; and Alkatiri from being leader of a party with an historic role in the struggle, supported by a clear parliamentary majority.
The development of democratic rule of law and state institutions was still in an early stage, and susceptible to political manipulation. The obvious absence of rules and regulations and the lack of clear mandates of the state institutions of the National Police and Army further fuelled the crisis.
The crisis also exposed schisms in society based on historical legacies and loyalties to the resistance leaders, amplifying division, partisanship, and distrust among the citizens. This shattered the discourse of National Unity that had served as the rallying cry during the fight for independence.
However, assistance from the international community, and a renewed commitment of the political elites to contest for power by legitimate means based on democratic rules brought the country through the crisis.
The New Fight for National Unity
The goal of the National Unity discourse during the resistance was to liberate the country from foreign occupation; and that has been achieved. However, the fight to liberate the people from poverty and improve their well-being remains a challenge that require inclusive participation from all layers of society.
Twenty years after the popular consultation, Timor-Leste is now a peaceful and democratic country. It is still impoverished and faces pressing economic and development challenges, although considerable progress has been made to lift the country out of poverty. The youth unemployment rate remains the highest in Asia at 10.48 percent; 42 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line; and the Human Development Index is below the average for countries in the medium human development group, sitting at 132 out of 189 countries (UNDP Human Development Report 2018).
The 2017 Global Hunger Index categorized the country’s hunger levels as “serious,” although over the past decade the hunger level has been reduced from 46.9 percent to 34.3 percent. Levels of malnutrition and stunting remain worryingly high. This problem is accentuated by difficult access to markets, low agricultural productivity, and also the impact of climate change.
Timor-Leste is the second most oil-dependent country in the world. Revenues from oil and gas account for around 90 percent of the state budget annually. The rhetoric of economic diversification to capitalize on the oil and gas revenues remains a challenge and efforts to this end are yet to bear fruit, with priority in spending being accorded to infrastructure, bridges, roads, the south coast highway, and airports in enclave Oecusse and South Coast Suai.
Poverty eradication and improvement of the well-being of the people are the key targets in a new fight for national unity. These pose challenges that, in their own way, burden the younger generation as foreign occupation burdened the older generation. And it is the younger people who must now take up the fight.
The National Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 acknowledges that young people are the future leaders who will be responsible for a social and economic transformation of Timorese society. This plan confirms that the government has the moral and constitutional obligation to support and provide the necessary conditions for young people to acquire knowledge, skills, and moral and ethical values to fight the new fight.
During the 2006 crisis the element of society most actively involved was young people, especially young males who were unemployed, out of school, prone to making irrational decisions, and open to provocation and manipulation.
Therefore, to ensure the continuation of the fighting spirit of National Unity, the priorities for investment should be on the major future resource of the country — young people — through important areas of social development such as health care, education, child nutrition, and job creation. The future sovereignty and success of the country ultimately depends on the well-being and success of the young.
Jonas Guterres is an anti-corruption practitioner. He is former Advisor to Office of Commissioner at Anti-Corruption Commission of Timor-Leste (CAC), and former recipient of United States Timor-Leste (USTL) scholarship funded by the State Department. This article does not represent the views of any institutions that the author is affiliated with.