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Thousands celebrate East Timor's 20th anniversary but the scars remain

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By Alison Bevege

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Thousands of people turned out on Friday night to celebrate East Timor’s independence on the 20th anniversary of the 1999 referendum that led to the end of Indonesian occupation.

Fireworks, music and song erupted at Tasi Tolu outside Dili, where the crowd sang the national anthem “Patria” which means “Fatherland”, ABC News reported on Saturday.

East Timor celebrates the date as August 30 was the day they got the chance to vote for freedom from 24 years of a brutal Indonesian occupation marked by torture and extrajudicial killings.

Nobody knows how many people died, but the death toll was estimated by the UN’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor at between 102,800 and 183,000.

Yale University includes the Indonesian occupation in its Genocide Studies programme, stating up to a fifth of East Timor’s population perished.

The killings began even before Indonesia officially invaded the former Portuguese colony in December 1975, unopposed by Australia.

Indonesian troops crossing the border ahead of the invasion shot five Australian television newsmen in the town of Balibo on October 16, then executed AAP reporter Roger East on the docks of the capital Dili in December when he tried to find out what happened to the journalists.

Mass murders during the occupation included the 1991 Dili Massacre where Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed mourners attending a memorial service at Santa Cruz cemetery killing at least 250 people.

The massacre was filmed by international reporters and the footage caused outrage around the world, galvanising support worldwide for East Timorese independence.

In 1999, the Timorese got their chance to vote for freedom at a UN-organised referendum.

By September, when the results became clear that 78 percent of voters had chosen to leave Jakarta, Indonesia’s security forces began a rampage of terror through the tiny Catholic territory, killing up to 1500 people and burning down 80 percent of the buildings in the country.

The indiscriminate violence only ceased when an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived.

East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century when its independence, first proclaimed in 1975, was internationally recognised in 2002.

The streets of Dili were cleaned ahead of the big celebration on Friday.

The public buildings were freshly painted but underneath the bitterness remains, not least towards Australia, viewed by some as having taken advantage of the fledgling nation’s gas reserves.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived in Dili on Friday’s anniversary to ratify the Maritime Boundary Treaty, agreed after years of bitter litigation sparked when Australia bugged the fledgling nation’s Cabinet office to gain the upper hand in treaty negotiations.

Australia has now launched legal action against East Timor lawyer Bernard Collaery and a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service agent known as Witness K who revealed the bugging, for alleged breach of Australia’s new secrecy laws.

Shirley Shackleton, widow of Greg Shackleton, one of the reporters shot by Indonesian troops at Balibo, tried to confront Morrison with a petition of 4000 signatures asking Australia to drop the charges against the pair who are regarded as heroes by many Timorese and Australians.

“What is happening is wrong,” she told reporters in Dili.

Two former presidents of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, have also called on Australia to drop the charges.

Morrison, however, deflected the calls at a news conference in Dili, saying: “That’s a domestic matter for Australia, it’s currently before the courts, it’s not a matter I want to comment on.”

(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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