East Timor held emotional ceremonies under tight security yesterday to celebrate six years of independence and mourn the country’s long and bloody struggle for liberation.
The hacienda-style government palace on Dili’s waterfront was bedecked with flags — including those of former occupiers Indonesia and Portugal — as East Timor’s red-and-black standard was raised under a baking sun.
East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta reviewed a guard of honor from the back of a jeep and called for peace and unity in Asia’s troubled newest state, under the watch of foreign stabilization force snipers positioned on the palace roof.
“On this day of independence we have to maintain peace in our nation, fight poverty and protect national unity. This is an obligation of all the people,” he said in a speech.
The celebrations come just three months after Ramos-Horta was shot and nearly killed in a Feb. 11 rebel attack, which also targeted Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
The rebels surrendered last month, but fears of a return to instability are overshadowing the Independence Day cheer.
Security remained tight around the country’s leaders, and international troops from a stabilization force which entered the country in the wake of factional fighting two years ago closely watched yesterday’s ceremony.
“What happened on February 11 showed that state institutions in our nation are still fragile. But this ceremony also shows that over the past six years we have achieved a lot,” the president said.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesian forces in 1975. Approximately 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of conflict and preventable illnesses over the next two-and-a-half decades.
The country voted for independence in a 1999 UN-backed referendum but was laid to waste by pro-Indonesian militia in the wake of the vote.
It finally gained formal independence in 2002, but was flung into instability again by the mass desertion of 600 soldiers in 2006, which triggered street violence between rival factions that killed at least 37.
That rebellion came to an end after the death of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado in the attack on the home of Ramos-Horta and the surrender of his followers last month.
UN police deputy commissioner Tony McLeod said this year’s Independence Day was “a bit of a test to give us a feel for the overall security situation.”
“It’s gone pretty well up till now,” he said.
Ado Amaral, a 45-year-old farmer who came down from the hills outside Dili to witness the festivities, said he was glad the event passed without trouble.
“I’m very happy,” Amaral said, “because everything is going well.”
“There’s no provocation between people, no disturbances,” he said. “It’s better than other years. I find it hard to think about 2006 but now I see that everything is going well.”
But analysts say the seeds of instability remain in the country of 1 million, and political tensions were on show even as leaders assembled on the dais for the Independence Day speeches.