CLA member Sandra Nelson visited her traditional home recently as a representative of the NT government to celebrate her motherland’s 20 years of independence.
Nelson is the Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for Katherine, but also of Timorese descent. Here she reports on her visit:
On 30 August 1999, the people of Timor-Leste cast their ballots in a UN–administered popular consultation to determine the fate of the country: 78.5% of the Timorese people voted to separate from Indonesia.
Timorese people living outside of Timor were also able to participate in that vote. My parents, along with thousands of ex-patriate Timorese, voted at polling centres throughout capital cities in Australia.
The events that followed the 1999 independence referendum shocked the world. An estimated 1500 people were killed, and more than 300,000 people were displaced, ironically mainly to neighbouring West Timor, an Indonesian province. More than 80% of the East Timor (Timor Leste) infrastructure was destroyed and left in ruins.
What we witnessed that historic day was a country, a people exercising self-determination, deciding its own path for itself after 500 years of colonialism, not having that path decided by someone else, and with the international community both respecting and facilitating the exercise of that right.
Rebuilding a country is not an easy task, regardless of its size and its resources and its time. Different countries have different experiences, and we cannot expect an instant transformation from a country reborn from the ashes. Twenty years is not a long time.
Yes, there still is poverty, malnutrition amongst children continues to be a concerning problem, the median salary is less than $500USD per month, there are still power outages that last for hours, sometimes days, undeniably there is still much more to be done, there have been failings undoubtedly.
I was asked by a journalist while we were in Dili if I believed that Timor was better off today than where it was 20 years ago. And my response was this:
“Take a look around you. Maybe what you see are roads that need to be fixed, a few burned-out buildings, relics from the violence of 1999, maybe you see garbage on some streets. And maybe you’re thinking, it looks as if not much has progressed. That’s looking at Timor through the lens of someone that has lived in a country that has never been oppressed.
“When I look around me, here in Timor, I see all the things you see, but overwhelmingly what I also see are people freely walking to work, to school, on the beach, I see free trade, open fruit and vegetable markets, thriving little store fronts, bars, restaurants, I see people laughing, I hear people speaking without fear of being shot or imprisoned, I see people very proud of their country, of where they are today from what they have survived.
“Yes, they are 100% better off today because they are free. Every failure, every success, every achievement and every problem is theirs, it is of their own making. You cannot put a price on freedom.”
I felt so incredibly honoured and proud to be in Dili, officially representing the NT Government at the 20-year celebrations. During the events my mind wandered often to my father, my uncles, my grandmother, family members that fought for independence – some didn’t live to see an independent Timor.
I also thought of the hundreds of Australians who either travelled to Timor in the lead up to the vote for independence, or who were in Timor on the day of the vote as international observers of the election process. People like Tim Fischer, Laurie Brereton, Janelle Saffin (the Member for Lismore in NSW), Marise Payne, Pat Walsh, Wes Smith, Alannah MacTiernan…some of these people were there with me this weekend.
“I listened to the ABC Darwin radio feature of Timor, 20 years on – ‘Darwin Remembers’. Hundreds of Darwin residents did so much to support the Timorese refugees evacuated to Darwin, escaping the violence post the vote for independence. It has been so incredibly heart warming, and at times emotional, listening to people recount their experiences during that time. Overwhelmingly I was reminded of how small the world really is, and how incredibly compassionate and generous Territorians really are.
Indeed, it was an honour and privilege to be there as a member of the NT Parliament, as the first Timorese-born person to be elected to any parliament in Australia, and proudly as the Member for Katherine.
Note: Nelson was representing the NT government at the celebrations, and also as an ambassador for the Arafura Games in Darwin.