By Florentino Sarmento
I’ve seen my country, East Timor, mired in conflict. There were times when hopes were raised and then crushed. I have lived through 3 major periods of violence that swept Timor from tip to tip, from 1975 up until the most recent conflict in 2006-07.
In 1975 a civil war erupted between the two political parties and created an opportunity for neighboring Indonesia to invade, occupy and annex the territory for 24 years. Around 200,000 people perished during the civil war, military occupation, and more than 2 decades of conflict, massacres and extra-judicial killings.
In January 1999, the then-President Habibie of Indonesia bowed to international pressure and announced that a referendum was needed to end the conflict of East Timor. Two options were given: an autonomous region of Indonesia or independence. The overwhelming majority of Timorese voted for Independence. The departing Indonesian military and their Timorese militiamen carried out scorcthed-earth attacks and triggered waves of violence that swept the whole country. The violence destroyed most of the infrastructure, killed 1,200 and displaced 300,000 (about one-third of the population) who sought refuge in neighboring West Timor of Indonesia.
Finally, the 2006-07 political-military crisis and general elections witnessed widespread violence across the country and displaced 150,000 people from their homes. At the time, the UN estimated that it would take at least 10 years to r resettle that number of people. But, under the leadership of Prime Minister Xanana and his newly formed government, the displacement crisis was resolved in less than 3 years. The people of East Timor have slowly moved forward from this pattern of violence.
Our history is deep with conflicts that have occurred every time we have faced a major political change, from freeing ourselves from colonial power, to occupation by a foreign country or, most recently, during a democratic process of general elections in 2007. Violence, destruction and loss of lives have become part of everyone’s experience in Timor. Even after independence, this history held the Timorese people in fear as we approached another cycle of general elections in 2012.
In this climate of fear and distrust, the Church and CRS stepped into action to do everything possible to advocate for peace and to give hope to Timorese people for a peaceful election process in 2012. The Church and CRS started a campaign of 111 days of prayer for peaceful elections. On February 21, 2012, the day the campaign launched, a crowd of 10,000 people flooded the main road with candles in their hands, walking under the hot tropical sun, echoing songs and prayers for peace.
“It was very amazing. There couldn’t be a more powerful message for peace in this war-torn land of Timor,” Fr Justiniano de Sousa, SDB, (Salesians of Don Bosco)told me the following day after watching the procession that was broadcast to the entire country on national television.
The truth is, peace has prevailed in East Timor throughout the hectic electoral cycle, after 2 rounds of presidential elections in May and the parliamentary elections in July. A new national parliament was installed in August 2012. Despite the many rounds of voting and many people debating the candidates, everything remains peaceful. It seems that major violence will not erupt.
“We are very, very grateful to the Catholics in the United States, who through CRS, joined the Church in Timor in prayer for a peaceful election”, Sr. Claire Garcillano, SPC, (Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres) ( said.
Finally, the Timorese can now celebrate the peace and stability that we have prayed for these many years. But the path forward in this little half-island nation is still challenging. Along with difficulties such as the fragility of state institutions and lack of a skilled and experienced work force, more than 50 percent of our people still live in absolute poverty. Despite of all the odds, East Timor, which is overwhelmingly inhabited by Catholics, is ready to face the future with hope. And CRS will continue to work in Timor, helping to move those hopes forward toward peace and a better life for people around the country.
Florentino Sarmento is partner relations and capacity building manager for CRS in East Timor. He has worked for CRS for more than 30 years.
Tags: East Timor
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