One of the most important experiences during my visit to East Timor came on 30th August, the actual anniversary of the referendum, when the main ceremonies were due to take place.
The solidarity activists had not received official invitations to these ceremonies. But they had a meeting with the President, and weren’t happy to learn that, in his 10th anniversary speech, he was opposing the setting up of an international tribunal to investigate war crimes alleged to have been perpetrated in East Timor by the Indonesian military.
Accordingly an international student demonstration was organised in front of the Timor Hotel where many top-level invitees were staying. Sadly, this peaceful demonstration was stopped by police, and three of the students taken into custody.
This kind of thing is happening so often nowadays, all round the world, but it was ironic that it should have happened in East Timor on the very day the winning of national freedom was being celebrated.
I have always felt very personally involved with the suffering of the East Timorese people when, after a UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999 had resulted in a massive 78% vote for independence, a terrible wave of violence engulfed the country.
I shared their rejoicing when, following international intervention, East Timor was recognised by the UN as a sovereign state, and so returning to the country for celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the referendum felt very special.
It was my fifth visit since independence, and I had been specially invited to take part in a three-day solidarity conference, as well as bring material for a commemorative exhibition.