Timor-Leste has just commemorated 20 years since the 30 August 1999 Independence Referendum, and Carmelite priest Fr Augusto Galhos recalls what it was like to take part in the historic vote.
After a 24 year-long struggle against Indonesian occupying forces, 98.6 per cent of registered voters turned up to vote in the ballot. A clear majority, 78.5 per cent voted for independence, or ‘separation from Indonesia’.
Today, Fr Augusto is the Assistant Priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Zumalai, Timor-Leste. He remembers those intense days surrounding the vote.
“I was 24 years old in 1999,” he says. “I was a Carmelite student, studying in Flores, Indonesia. Our Carmelite leaders in Indonesia gave 10 of us East Timorese students permission to take leave from our studies and return to Timor to participate in the popular consultation.
“When we got to Timor, the situation was ‘hot’. There was intimidation. The pro-Indonesia groups would say things like ‘if you want to choose independence, you are risking your lives’. But we thought: we have risked our lives for many years already. This is an opportunity for us to decide our own future. Even in a situation which made us feel scared, unsure, distressed, we had our principles.”
Fr Augusto says that once in Dili, the group of 10 split up, each going to their own family’s home. He was with his family in Bidau, on the eastern edge of Dili.
“On the 30th of August 1999, I woke up early. We ate before we left because we didn’t know how long it would take. I was with my mum and my sisters. We walked about 2km to get to the local primary school where the United Nations had set up a voting station,” he says.
“I felt really happy about being able to vote. And I was also worried that I might make a mistake. Before we left home, we reminded each other to do it properly. We had to get it right so that our vote was counted.
“At the voting station, everything was organised really well. There were United Nations officials there, and Timorese officials too. Also volunteer observers from different countries. It was a secure place and our votes were secret. I didn’t feel scared when I voted.
“On 31st August us 10 Carmelite students gathered together in Motael. It was difficult for us to get out of Timor. There were some scary moments. But, thank God, we were eventually able to leave Timor and all of us made it safely back to continue our studies with the Carmelites in Indonesia.
“Now, as an East Timorese citizen, I’m so happy to be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the referendum. I’m proud that we have our freedom. If we compare today with the past, with colonial times, I feel that we are suffering. But you know, in the past there was change and development, but we weren’t in charge of it. Now at least we are in charge of our own country, our own land.
“We need to look at how to work together, to collaborate to fulfil our newfound freedom. How can we come together again? To embrace diversity, reject discrimination, work for peace, work for the good of all. This is what we need to do to really feel freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Love for our nation, and love for each other, no matter who we are. Now we need to work hard to achieve well-being for our people with the freedom and independence that we have.”
This is an abridged version of an article from Mayra Walsh that was first published on the website of the Carmelites of Australia and Timor-Leste.