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'They're young, they're hungry': Born after independence, the next Timorese generation finds its voice

Melbourne Age - May 20, 2023

Chris Barrett, Dili – When Timor-Leste was reborn as an independent nation in 2002, formalising its freedom from Indonesian occupation and, before that, Portuguese colonialism, boys and girls wrote down their aspirations for the new state on the back of postcards.

"Their vision for Timor-Leste was to be a democratic nation with better living conditions and opportunities, especially for young people," said Joalita Teresa Magno, a 21-year-old student at the National University Timor Lorosa'e.

"But actually we still have many, many issues and problems our people face."

Twenty-one years after those postcards were penned, a new generation of Timorese are ready to have their say on the direction of the country.

For the first time on Sunday, people born after the restoration of independence will be old enough to vote in a parliamentary election.

There is no shortage of them. As many as 15 per cent of voters among the 1.3 million population will be first timers to the polls, reflecting a national median age of just 21.

They are decades younger than the leaders they can choose from: resistance-era figures and founding fathers Xanana Gusmao, 76, and Mari Alkatiri, 73, who front the largest two parties, and Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, 67.

But the likes of Magno, who studies pharmacy and is a member of youth organisation Young People for National Development, are eager for their voices to be heard.

While Australia's close neighbour is peaceful and a thriving democracy, it remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, held back by myriad difficulties, from sporadic access to clean water and electricity in rural areas to troubling rates of infant mortality and stunting in children.

Youth unemployment is also a big issue, with the job market unable to absorb the thousands who emerge from high school and university each year.

Magno, who hails from the southern town of Suai but lives in the capital, Dili, would like the next government to invest in Timor-Leste's agricultural sector to create new opportunities, and also to prioritise education.

"In the past, the youth wrote on the postcards that they wanted the young people of the future to have access to good education," she said.

"But right now, we don't have access to good education and facilities, especially in the rural areas. Education is the key for our future so that we can achieve anything."

Two hours' drive south in mountainside Maubisse, the youth are also clamouring for change.

At a pre-election rally there for Gusmao's National Council of Timorese Resistance, they spoke about local challenges such as the low quality of roads connecting the town centre to the more remote villages and of a desire for the tourism sector to be developed to take advantage of the country's scenic landscape and views.

"The big thing I hope from the new government is to look after the future of the new generation. To create better job opportunities," said 20-year-old Ricardino de Orleans Carlos.

As the new generation graduates to voting age, Timor-Leste's celebrated political elites are still the centre of attention.

But there are signs even they are beginning to cast an eye to the future. Independence hero Gusmao has had his 20-year-old Australian-raised son Kay Olo, who is something of a TikTok star, with him on stage at campaign events.

Olo has a thick Australian accent – a product of his Melbourne upbringing with his mother, Gusmao's ex-wife Kirsty Sword Gusmao – but he can speak Tetum, the Timorese language. He intends to spend more time in Timor-Leste and party officials already have designs on him going into politics one day.

As for his father and his fellow elders, with another five years until the next poll, this could be their last outing barring a snap election in between.

"One would assume that, the [Mohamad] Mahathir model notwithstanding... people are expecting a political transition in the term of parliament coming," said Swinburne University of Technology professor Michael Leach, referring to the former Malaysian prime minister, who was 94 when he last held the post in 2020.

"These leaders have all that resistance-era legitimacy. They are capable of uniting the country. They have a glorious history of a successful independence struggle. The next generation of leaders – some of them were clandestine activists and bring that sort of legitimacy as well.

"But those younger ones are less associated with the military resistance. That said, they are also less divided. This generation has had a lot of political conflicts. The next generation, it is hoped, will be a lot more unified."

Parker Novak, a Timor-Leste analyst and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, said the so-called generation of 1975 had retained political relevance because so much of Timorese identity was wrapped up in the resistance to Indonesian rule.

But many in the younger masses are focused on modern-day realities, rather than the tragedy and ultimately triumph that came before them.

"They grew up after the occupation. For some of them it's the past. They're young, they're hungry, they perhaps want more," Novak said.

"They revere their leaders, they trust them, but you're also seeing signs of frustration with their ability to find a job and make a living. I take the view that they're thirsty for more and that changes the political dynamics moving forward."

Magno, the university student, is among those already acting to improve the nation.

She has represented Timor-Leste as a young activist at a UNICEF food environment campaign in Thailand and is running an online business with the goal of opening her own pharmacy one day and hiring local young employees.

"The leaders must involve the young people in taking decisions, to address the issues we face in our own lives," she said.

"When we identify and prioritise what needs to be done, we can see where we need government to work with us to make this change. That's the only way we can achieve everything in the future."

– with Raimundos Oki

Source: https://www.theage.com.au/world/asia/they-re-young-they-re-hungry-born-after-independence-the-next-timorese-generation-finds-its-voice-20230517-p5d98c.htm