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2002-05-20

East Timor Declares Independence; UN Secretary General Hands Over Power to Xanana Gusmao

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Today is East Timor’s independence day. The ceremonies were held last night on the dusty plain of Taci Tolu, just outside of the capitol of Dili. The Indonesian military invaded East Timor in 1975 and occupied it for a quarter of a century, with 200,000 people killed, a third of the population. On August 30, 1999 East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for their independence in a UN-sponsored referendum. Days later Indonesia burned East Timor to the ground.

An estimated 200,000 Timorese walked to Taci Tolu yesterday for the Independence celebration: including thousands of school children in their uniforms and men and women in traditional woven outfits. The ceremony began with a solemn mass presided over by Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Belo. The celebration also honored East Timor’s vibrant culture with music and dancing and paid special tribute to the Falintil guerrilla fighters who spearheaded the resistance to Indonesian occupation. Ninety-two countries were represented at the ceremony, including former President Bill Clinton and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who insisted on first visiting a cemetery where Indonesian soldiers are buried.

Witnessing the moment of independence with the Timorese, who resisted for 25 years in the face of horrific suffering and U.S. backing for Indonesia’s military, was an overwhelming and humbling experience.

Shortly before midnight UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ascended the stage to formally hand over authority to the government of a free East Timor. Kofi Annan’s speech was also translated into Tetun, the language spoken by most of East Timor’s people.

Tape:

  • Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General.

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