A longer version of this article was first published in Wall Street International Magazine on July 20, 2019.
With the world at a crossroads, there is still reason for hope when I look at the progress made in my own nation. And perhaps there too are lessons for other small nations in our own efforts to move forward in a world of growing economic, trade, and geopolitical concerns.
Timor-Leste emerged from centuries of colonization and occupation less than 20 years ago when, at the stroke of midnight on May 20, 2002, the blue United Nations (UN) flag was lowered and Timor-Leste’s tricolor flag of red, black, and yellow went up after 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation.
A visitor returning to Timor-Leste after the 1999 violence and almost complete devastation of the country by departing Indonesian forces would be surprised at the dramatic positive changes that have occurred since.
Slowly but steadily, government, private sector, civil society, and development partners joined hands to deliver the dividends of peace and freedom.
First, we tried to soften the harsh social conditions that deprived our people a life with dignity. Everywhere we turned there was destitution, trauma, and pressing priorities demanding our attention.
Reconciliation and forgiveness, sine qua non conditions that are the enablers of peace and development, is the most salient example of our achievements in the journey since independence. We rejected revenge, knowing all too well that only the courage of the brave to forgive would spare us endless conflict and instability.
Resisting pressures to pursue retributive justice, we opted for healing our deeply traumatized communities and simultaneously extending a hand of friendship and reconciliation to Indonesia, together chartering a new relationship as friends and neighbors.
Second, we began to build the institutions of the state where none existed. This is a process that continues today.
In 2009, our government launched the Human Capital Development Fund, with an average annual budget of $30 million, offering scholarships towards advanced studies in science, technology, economics, public administration, law, and medicine, in selected universities across the world. Where, 10 years ago you would have seen highly paid foreign advisors in a government ministry, today you see mostly young polyglot Timorese with the best academic and professional qualifications.
In 2002, we had 19 medical doctors and average life expectancy of less than 60 years. Today, we have 1,000 medical doctors and a life expectancy of 70 years.
We enjoy fraternal relations with all regional and global powers and are active participants in regional and multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum.
The government is accelerating the process of creating a business-friendly environment, streamlining the investment regime, and ultimately fostering private-sector investment and growth. Another piece of good news is the development of strategic economic infrastructure, an indispensable building block to the facilitation of the efficient flow of people, goods, and services.
In a clear demonstration of our determination to kick start the modernization of strategic infrastructure, close to US$1 billion from the sovereign fund was allocated in 2009 towards a state-of-the-art electric grid, now benefiting almost 80 percent of the country. The government has also invested heavily in the improvement and expansion of the country’s road network, ports, and airport facilities.
Serious efforts are being deployed on business recuperation, bankruptcy and insolvency, and competition legislation according to international standards and best practices. There are also other legal initiatives under way, including trade and export promotion, rules of origin, administrative offenses, and business conflict mediation and arbitration.
These ongoing improvements in the business legal framework, coupled with economic infrastructure development initiatives throughout the country, will generate new economic dynamics and more demand from investors.
We have built a country from the ashes of 1999 to a vibrant democracy, with the freest media in the region—open, tolerant, and inclusive.
This year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Popular Consultation Day on August 30—the date of the UN referendum in 1999 that set us on the path to independence. There is still more to be done and we must not underestimate the challenges, but at this inflection point, there is much to be proud of.
Timor-Leste is at a crossroads, but the direction is clear. Our efforts in peace and reconciliation and the hard work of building democratic institutions and fostering partnerships across and within our borders will continue. There is no going back.