Timor-Leste reborn: 25 years after the Dili Massacre

Photo: Kate Dixon/CC BY 2.0

The shocking images of the Santa Cruz massacre, sent around the world in 1991, kickstarted international support for the independence movement which eventually gave Timor-Leste its freedom. As citizens mark the event’s 25th-anniversary, interest in the nation has turned to resources and opportunities.  

By Holly Reeves

“The Santa Cruz (or Dili) Massacre, for us, is a national day. It is a turning point for the struggle of Timor-Leste pursuing the independence,” says Constâncio Pinto. Today he is the country’s  minister of commerce, industry and environment but on that day 25 years ago he was an organiser of the bloody pro-independence protest where hundreds of people died in clashes with the Indonesian army.

“We continue to do this in order to keep the flame of our spirit, nationalism and patriotic sentiment among the young people, because the young people, sometimes they think that the independence was a gift given by the Indonesians,” he says. In fact, the events of 12 November 1991, caught on camera by Western journalists, kickstarted a wave of support that brought the young country to independence just over a decade later.

The protesters were on a peaceful memorial march in a graveyard. The soldiers were armed with powerful semi-automatic weapons. The pictures, later beamed around the world, drew attention to the growing demand for independence among of political activists and ordinary citizens. It was the shocking loss of life that day that drew international support for the eventual referendum which severed Jakarta’s decades of administration.

Time for recognition?

Today Timor-Leste seeks a different kind of relationship with Indonesia; as brothers at the table of ASEAN member states. Having separated from its southeast Asian neighbour in the late 1990’s, and received recognition of its independence in 2002, the small nation submitted its application to join the bloc five years ago.

However, although it has support from big players such as Malaysia and the Philippines, its efforts have been blocked by Singapore and Laos who say it needs to work harder on the development side. That is despite the fact that the United Nations Development Human Development Index, which considers factors like a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and having a decent standard of living, ranks the nation higher than some existing ASEAN members  – such as Myanmar.

The feasibility studies completed to reach this conclusion actually state the administration needs to work on human resource development and building economic growth and skills. But previous entrants, such as Cambodia, struggled with similar issues and were instead offered the opportunity to learn from their partners as they moved closer together.

In fact, according to some experts allowing the country entry would have benefits for both sides. The mark of recognition would prompt and simplify investment, allowing the fledgeling nation to open up its trade links and expand economic opportunities. This would not only provide a perfect vehicle to power its regional integration, but provide new markets and trade routes for ASEAN members.

As a final note in its favour, it is worth considering the bridge that Timor-Leste could provide between ASEAN and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, Europe and Latin America. And considering previous Philippine support for Timor-Leste’s membership now may be the right time to complete the process; the country holds the chair in 2017.

Changing dynamics

But ASEAN nations are not the only regional players with an interest in relations with Timor-Leste. China has been a long-time supporter of the nation, providing investment and finance for a number of government buildings. “The relationship between China and Timor-Leste has been very beneficial to China,” believes Charles Scheiner, an analyst at La’o Hamutuk, an NGO based in Timor-Leste.

He says China has sent $77 million in aid since 2011, but there is also the matter of the $525 million worth of construction contracts that have changed hands. Clearly, China has made a lucrative business of its support to the island nation. However, there are questions about just how long that relationship may last. The mainstay of Timor-Leste’s economy is its oil and gas income, but this peaked several years ago. Meanwhile, its only producing field, the Bayu-Undan project, will produce minimal revenues from next year.

It will be interesting to see if Chinese companies are still interested in a few years after Timor-Leste’s oil reserves are depleted, and the investment and cash flow process inevitably becomes smaller,” says Scheiner. There are already holes in the country’s financial projections, and some predictions say the treasury could be bankrupt by 2027. ASEAN membership could be a vital lifeline.

And so the flame of spirit, nationalism and patriotic sentiment which Pinto says represents Timor-Leste’s fight for independence needs to take on a new urgency. Now the struggle is to forge a new path for the country which wins respect and partnership of its neighbouring nations. They must also build an economy that goes beyond resources beneath the ground, and instead build upon those in the hearts and patriotic spirit of its people.