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How Timor-Leste's fight for independence shaped the lives of three generations in Australia

ABC News - August 29, 2019

Anthony Stewart and Erwin Renaldi – Kuon Nhen Lay had just joined the resistance movement against Indonesia's invasion of Timor-Leste in December 1975, when his wife went into labour the next day.

The then 34-year-old guerilla fighter was forced to keep a low profile to protect his family, and soon sent his wife and newly-born to Australia while he stayed behind to fight.

"The Indonesian [military] were killing people everywhere, it didn't matter whether you were armed or a civilian," recalled Mr Lay, who was reunited with his family in Melbourne in 1981.

"I didn't want to leave East Timor, but I had to."

Mr Lay is among the wave of East Timorese who fled to Australia during Indonesia's bloody occupation, during which at least 100,000 people were killed in the conflict.

On August 30, 1999, the Timorese people overwhelming backed independence in a UN-sanctioned vote, but the outcome sparked a fresh wave of violence in the developing South-East Asian nation.

An Australian-led peacekeeping force was also deployed by Canberra to stop the violence.

Twenty years on from the referendum, Mr Lay and other members of the Australian-Timorese community have reflected on their role in the struggle.

Fighting for freedom was 'a wonderful thing': Kuon Nhen, 78

After arriving in Australia in 1981, Mr Lay became a tireless campaigner for East Timorese independence, working alongside exiled leaders including Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri.

And in the lead up to 1999 independence vote, he went from house to house in Victoria's Timorese community to encourage the Timorese diaspora to vote.

"People [in Australia] did not want to appear on TV or in the newspaper, because they were scared [their families] back in East Timor would be arrested or worse," Mr Lay told the ABC.

Despite the fears more than 78 per cent of Timorese voted for independence on August 30, 1999. "I knew we were going to go for freedom, it was a wonderful thing," Mr Lay said.

But celebrations quickly turned to horror as Indonesia-backed militias went on a violent rampage throughout the country, killing hundreds of people and razing the capital city, Dili.

Watching from his home in Australia, Mr Lay felt powerless. "People had been fighting and suffering for 24 years, they were starting to see new life, and then they lost their life," he said.As the violence escalated the Australian public reacted, with mass rallies around the country.

Mr Lay said it was the public protest that pushed the Australian Government to send in peacekeepers.

"People came from every walk of life, they showed their kindness and friendship," Mr Lay said, adding it was that friendship that helped push him to become an Australia citizen earlier this month.

"I always wanted to go back to East Timor, but my kids and family are here. [Australia is now] my home."

Independence won with 'blood and tears': Carla, 34

Carla Chung, a union organiser in Melbourne, was 14 years old when she witnessed the Santa Cruz Massacre in Dili.

At least 250 East Timorese students were killed when Indonesia soldiers opened fire on a peaceful pro-independence protest in 1991.

"We were kids," Ms Chung told the ABC. "We didn't think that [the soldiers] would shoot us, because the international media was present."

The incident radicalised Ms Chung, and her increasing involvement in student protests meant her family feared she would be killed.

"It was not safe for me to stay [in Timor-Leste], women were subject to rape, [and] I could have been murdered," she said.

Family connections allowed her to flee to Victoria in 1994.By 1999, Ms Chung had become a vocal community activist and worked to encourage the East Timorese community to vote in the referendum in Melbourne.

She grew apprehensive as the prospect of an independent East Timor approached, and her fears came true when violence erupted after the independence vote when Indonesia-backed militias went on a bloody rampage.

Ms Chung's parents fled their home in Dili but an estimated 1,400 East Timorese died.

"[Independence] was not handed to us like a gift, it was something we got by trading it with blood and tears."

'I want to show the world what we can do': Samuel, 19

Samuel Boavida is among the first generation of East Timorese born after the Independence vote.

While the 19-year-old, who was born and raised in Australia, never experienced the struggles of the previous generations, he still values the independence his country had won.

"It is important because I feel we're able to take control for ourselves and... be able to [show] who we are," Mr Boavida told the ABC.

"It's great to be independent, but at the same time there are issues that still need to be solved within the community in our country."

Mr Boavida said he had "mixed feelings" about celebrating the 20th anniversary of East Timor's independence because the country needed many repairs including roads and other infrastructure.

"I want us to thrive in wealth, strength, and independence... [and] show the world what we can do," he said.

Mr Boavida added he was proud to be Timorese, and growing up in Australia had also made him more accepting of other cultures.

"I've been told to be proud of where I come from, not be ashamed and hide away from that, and share my culture with other people," he said.

"Because it's all about [loving], sharing and being accepting."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-29/timor-leste-independence-referendum-dispora-in-australia/1145605