Q&A: Lessons from the Timor-Leste fight for independence in today's political climate

Abel Guterres, Timor-Leste ambassador to Australia. Photo by: ACFID

CANBERRA — 20 years have passed since the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia. It followed decades of struggle that is estimated to have resulted in more than 200,000 people killed by fighting, famine or disease. The vote itself was marred by violence with 1,400 people killed, but in 2002 it was officially recognized as an independent state.

Abel Guterres, Timor-Leste ambassador to Australia, was among those who fought hard for independence. And at the 2019 ACFID conference in Sydney on Oct. 23, Guterres took the opportunity to thank Australian NGOs for the work they had done to support the freedom of Timor-Leste — including Oxfam who made its offices available for photocopies, phone calls, and more.

“The fight today for climate change works on the same principles as our fight for independence — commitment and dedication.”

— Abel Guterres, Timor-Leste ambassador to Australia

In a conversation with Devex, Guterres discussed why reflecting on this fight for independence matters today — and how the lessons can be applied to fight for challenges affecting the world today, including climate change.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How important is this story of Timor-Leste’s independence in the political climate today, to show what can be achieved?

Any cause that is worthwhile, like Timor-Leste’s quest for independence and peace, is worth fighting for. Even in today’s environment, there are many issues around the world, and of course one of the most important international issues that affects every person around the globe is the effects of climate change.

Whether you are rich or poor, we breathe the same air and live under the same sun. The effects of climate change is something no one can escape — especially for small islands in the Pacific that will potentially disappear under the sea. These are issues of common interests, so what is important today is to persist with these issues. Even though it sometimes may seem hopeless, if you persist and other people come on board you can build and keep progressing.

The fight today for climate change works on the same principles as our fight for independence — commitment and dedication. It is important to remember to stay the course.

No one believed Timor-Leste would ever be free, because everything was against us. We had two neighbors trying to lock us in — one interested in our oil and one interested in our land. But there were many people who felt this was a just cause and they put in the time and effort and money and resources. With their help what was impossible became possible.

If the referendum for independence had occurred under the political climate we have today, do you think Timor-Leste could have achieved independence?

After the 9/11, when I saw that I said “wow — I’m so glad we had passed that point because if we had not been, independence would have been impossible.” The political dynamics of the terrorism threat would have been a priority over independence for Timor-Leste.

So I felt a sigh of relief that we had gone past that — we were very lucky to have past that as I don’t think it could have been achieved.

As well as climate change, what have been the priority issues for Timor-Leste since achieving independence?

Timor-Leste is a democracy and how our people are understanding democracy is really taking route. That democracy cannot last unless you support it with good economic activities that give prosperity to the people. Having democracy when people are hungry means you also have problems. So how you are going to develop the country in terms of investment, agriculture, food production, and also develop the tourism sector, are priority issues.

For a lot of these though it is a question of horse and cart — which should come first? Investing in major infrastructure is very important because without infrastructure as an enabling factor the other economic activity cannot happen.

These are issues the government is grappling with, but given that we started from zero to establish government and systems, it hasn’t been an easy task. There are things we have done well, and there are things that we still need to do better and things that we need to address. Unemployment for example. But again this is horse and cart and a lot of issues we need to deal with.

With the Pacific receiving a lot of attention from countries and donors — including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, France, and China — what are the opportunities and challenges this poses?

Australia’s Pacific “step up” is very interesting, and the important thing is for countries in the Pacific to take advantage of these opportunities and address the right issues for development. We don’t want to keep making the same mistakes of the past.

So there are opportunities — but there needs to be consistency with it, and not doing is for another reason but to truly develop the region.

Australia is in a good position to take a leadership role in the region. But addressing climate change is really important. We hope that it will continue to be so, and then there are other opportunities for other like-minded countries that want to help, which is most welcome. It’s a matter then of how you take advantage of it and make sure it is about friendship to people, or providing enabling support for sustainable development — including employment.

Each country needs to do its own homework and take advantage of opportunities.

“We still have about 42% of the population living below the poverty line.”

As 20 years have passed since the independence referendum and the next 20 years will be a make or break period for both Timor-Leste and the world. In looking forward 20 years, where do you expect Timor-Leste to be?

Our strategic development plan for the country has set our targets for 2030 — and we have big dreams to accomplish. That is lifting all our people from poverty.

The next ten years will see intense work to achieve that dream. But we are dealing with human beings and there is always a downside and upside of human beings — the fact of life is that when you deal with human beings there are different streams of thinking and there may be individual interests at play that create challenges. It’s also political leadership. Political parties need to play their role, individuals need to play their part in terms of lifting people out of poverty.

But I personally feel that the way we are progressing, even if we don’t fulfill the 2030 objectives, we will at least go halfway or three quarters up. We still have about 42% of the population living below the poverty line — it’s a challenge and I am optimistic we will get there. We have to never give up.

A quarter of a million people perished for us to be independent so the onus is on us to really make the country a success story and prosperous, to honor their sacrifice.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.