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Timor-Leste Celebrates 10 Years of Independence
Diplomatic Pouch / July 12, 2012

By Larry Luxner

Billing itself as “the first country of the 21st century,” the tiny Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste celebrated its 10th anniversary of independence June 12 at an event filled with singing, dancing, speeches and delicious Timorese cuisine.

The reception, hosted by the Carnegie Institute for Science, attracted some 200 State Department diplomats, NGO officials and dignitaries including the ambassadors of Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Portugal and half a dozen other countries. Longtime consumer advocate and occasional presidential candidate Ralph Nader also showed up.

“I can’t believe it’s already been 10 years,” said Constancio da Conceição Pinto, Timor-Leste’s first and only ambassador in Washington, reflecting on the country’s short but bloodstained history.

It was, in fact, on May 20, 2002, that Timor-Leste (known in English as East Timor) finally became a sovereign state, even though it had declared independence from neighboring Indonesia 27 years earlier, in 1975. That year, Indonesian troops invaded the Connecticut-sized country — which occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor — sparking a war that eventually left 100,000 people dead and the economy in shambles.

“Many gave their lives for the highest cause — freedom. We have tasted the bitterness of war, the glory of independence and the challenge of young nationhood,” said Emilia Pires, the country’s visiting minister of finance, who was introduced by Pinto.

Even after independence, she said, East Timor’s problems didn’t go away. An outbreak of gang violence in 2006 forced the United Nations Security Council to set up a new peacekeeping force throughout this Portuguese-speaking country.

“It was a crisis that shook the foundations of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It undermined the confidence of donor countries and looked like it was the end for us, but we pulled through,” said Pires. She noted proudly that despite the poverty, high unemployment, droughts and crumbling infrastructure, Timor-Leste has made remarkable progress.

“Life expectancy has increased by more than two years since 2005, while infant mortality has been halved. Enrollment in basic education has jumped from 62 percent in 2006 to 90 percent in 2010, while the illiteracy rate has decreased,” she said. “We are working very hard to eliminate illiteracy by 2015.”

On July 7, voters in Timor-Leste will hold parliamentary elections, just three months after Taur Matan Ruak won the country’s presidential elections with 61.2 percent of the vote. If the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão wins the July election, the UN mission is likely to reduce its presence and eventually pull out of Timor-Leste by year’s end.

And that won’t come a moment too soon for Pinto, who has spent much of his life fighting for Timorese independence.

“We are one of the youngest democracies not just in Asia but in the world,” he told the Diplomatic Pouch. According to the ambassador, Timor-Leste’s GDP grew by 6.1 percent in 2010, reaching around $630 million — though it’s still one of the poorest countries in East Asia.

However, Timor-Leste now exports gas to Australia and organic coffee to U.S. retailer Starbucks, while Japanese, Korean and Australian tourists enjoy the country’s white-sand beaches and pristine coral reefs brimming with marine life. Pinto said he also hopes his country will soon join ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“We don’t use a public-relations firm because we don’t have money yet, but for now we are using our network of friends to promote Timor-Leste,” said the ambassador.

Following the speeches and protocol, a visiting troupe of Timorese artists studying at the East-West Center in Hawaii performed some indigenous dances, providing a colorful conclusion to the evening’s festivities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couldn’t attend the event herself, though she did offer heartfelt congratulations by video.

“This is an occasion to reflect on your rich history and the struggles you have endured,” she said. “The Timorese people have a lot to celebrate. Your economy is growing, the security situation is stable and genuine national reconciliation is underway. The United States and Timor-Leste are bound together by mutual respect and shared interests. We are committed to promote democracy, freedom and human rights in the years to come.”

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