DILI, East Timor: East Timor on Friday marked 20 years since a United Nations (UN)-backed vote ended a bloody, decades-long occupation by Indonesian forces and paved the way for it to become an independent nation.
Banners and flags dotted the capital Dili as residents geared up for celebrations later in the day, two decades after the tiny nation saw a rocky transition to stable democracy.
But there has been little justice for the families of those who died in a wave of bloodshed unleashed by the Indonesian army following the 1999 independence vote, which was eventually quelled by Australian-led UN peacekeepers.
“The Indonesian military and militias murdered people who chose to make this an independent nation,” said Vital Bere Saldanha, 48, who saw four of his brothers die in the post-vote chaos.
“The fight for freedom wasn’t easy.”
On Aug. 30, 1999, nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted to split from neighboring Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 — starting a brutal 24-year military occupation estimated to have claimed as many as 250,000 lives through fighting, disease and starvation.
Joy over independence quickly turned to terror as Indonesian security forces and proxy militias went on a scorched-earth rampage. They destroyed infrastructure and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to other parts of Indonesia. Around 1,400 people were killed.
East Timor — a mainly Catholic country of 1.3 million people — was recognized internationally as an independent state in 2002.
On Friday formal events and 20th anniversary celebrations are scheduled with foreign dignitaries, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
He is expected to mark a maritime border treaty with East Timor that could unlock billions in offshore oil and gas revenue seen as key to the impoverished, half-island nation’s future.