By Dr. Alexandros Lordos
As the Conference on Cyprus was going on in Crans-Montana, I found myself in distant East Timor, a small island nation in South East Asia with a troubled recent history that is strikingly similar to that of Cyprus.
Just like Cyprus, East Timor was seeking to transition from colonial control to independence in the 1970s. But internal disagreements about the way forward, regional geopolitics and the global backdrop of the Cold War paved the way for invasion of the island by Indonesia – one of the largest countries in the region – in 1975.
The military occupation that followed was brutal, while the plight of the Timorese was for decades ignored by Western countries, who considered Indonesia to be an essential partner in the battle against communism.
During the decades of Indonesian occupation, even the staunchest supporters of Timorese independence found it hard to believe that East Timor would ever become a free, sovereign, and normal state.
And yet, in 1999, a combination of factors gave the people of East Timor an opportunity to take control of their future.
Specifically, a growing international awareness took hold that Indonesia’s presence on the island was oppressive and not contributing to stability and prosperity, while at the same time internal consensus was growing among the Timorese that independent nationhood was preferable to Indonesian control.
Finally, the Indonesian economy was in deep distress, and violation of Timorese human rights was making the international community more hesitant to trade with – and provide economic development support to – Indonesia.
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As a result, within a matter of months, Indonesia went from proud pronouncements that they would never let go of East Timor, to acquiescing to a referendum among the Timorese which was resoundingly won for Independence.
The path to freedom and peace since then has not been all rosy: Days after the referendum Indonesia attempted to destabilise the country and renege on its commitments, but was soon forced to comply and withdraw troops when it faced strong international pressure. In 2006, widespread violence erupted in the country, as tensions between groups that had taken different positions in the years of occupation boiled over.
And yet, stability was restored, while the Timorese people, learning from their misadventures, have been making strident efforts to restore unity and foster social cohesion. State institutions are becoming increasingly resilient, inclusive and service-oriented, while a new concept of citizenship – active, non-violent and responsible – is gradually taking root.
Relations with former occupying power Indonesia are now friendly and respectful, in a spirit of sovereign equality and good neighbourly relations. East Timor, through the contribution of all its communities, is on a path of economic, social and political development, with bright prospects for the future.
The message for Cyprus that I am taking away from East Timor, is one of hope: complete and total transformation is possible, even when all might seem lost. What can today seem like the iron grip of a regional superpower may vanish overnight, leaving Cyprus to its people. Post-settlement tensions are likely, and yet through them we can become wiser and more resilient.
For all this to happen, we must be committed to the cause of unity and reconciliation among Cypriots. Additionally, we need to be firm and of one mind in our insistence that Cyprus must stand free in the community of nations, in relations of friendship and sovereign equality with our neighbours, including those that were once in a position of power over Cyprus.
And, finally, we must be patient. Crans-Montana may or may not be the end of the road, so our struggle for the unity and freedom of Cyprus might need to continue, perhaps through even greater challenges.
But if there is one lesson to be learnt from East Timor, it is the following: the currents of time cannot be stopped. Change is inevitable. And the old ways cannot stand for ever.
Dr. Alexandros Lordos, Research Director, Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD)