Today marks a significant milestone for East Timor and Western Sahara. As East Timor (a.k.a. Timor l`Este conducts its own presidential elections, the online edition of the portuguese daily newspaper Estante P has published an article written by a member of the Portugal-Western Sahara Friendship Association, Luisa Teotónio Pereira, that has also been a great activist during East Timor struggle for Independence. Here below, we republish an English-language version of her commemorative statement—HLRN.

In the 1980s, Portuguese solidarity signaled in different ways, on the same day, the right to self-determination of Timor-Leste and Western Sahara. In one of these initiatives that became memorable, José Afonso added his voice to those present at Voz do Operário, in Lisbon, increasing the strength of convictions in the fight for justice at an international level.

The 20th of May celebrated the formation of the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), in 1974, which. months later, would become the Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN). It was the date chosen for the international recognition of the country`s independence, in 2002, whose 20th birthday we celebrate this week. But he also recalled the first armed action by Frente POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro) against Spanish colonialism in 1973. As the two “non-autonomous territories,” pending decolonization, and appearing on the United Nations list under the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960), the parallel was evident.

There were a few more coincidences. The dictatorships that ruled the two colonizing countries collapsed in the mid-1970s, giving rise to democratization processes: In Portugal, on 35 April 1974, through a military coup that turned into a revolution; in Spain, by the will of the dictator [Ferdinando] Franco, through the re-legitimization of the constitutional monarchy, in 1975. The two territories were invaded by a powerful neighbor, in the last quarter of 1975:

Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco at the end of October (the conventional date is 6 November); East Timor by the Republic of Indonesia, also from October, with the final assault on Dili on 7 December. Both actions were strongly condemned by the UN. The respective independence movements, as a way of fighting the illegal occupation of their countries, unilaterally proclaimed independence: The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste was established days before the forcible conquest of Dili, on 28 November 1975; the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was consecrated the day after the total withdrawal of Spanish troops, on 27 February 1976. In 1984, it was accepted as a full member of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union).

In 1991, a ray of hope appeared: POLISARIO and the Kingdom of Morocco signed a ceasefire agreement, under the auspices of the UN and the OAU, agreeing to hold a referendum of self-determination to decide on the future of the territory.

In this sense, the United Nations Peace Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created, and the process of identifying the Saharawi electoral universe began. The Timorese Resistance, activists in several countries who supported the struggle for the rights of the people of Timor-Leste, celebrated. It was an important precedent, and much could be learned.

In the same year, 1991, while the Moroccan regime posed all possible obstacles to the preparation of electoral rolls, the Santa Cruz massacre took place in Timor, which triggered global indignation and overturned a plan negotiated for years between Portugal and Indonesia toward acceptance of Indonesian sovereignty against promises, by Jakarta, of respect for Portuguese culture and the Catholic religion in its “27th province.” This was followed by the arrest of Xanana [Gusmão] and his judgment for media purposes, the reinforcement Timorese youth protests, the expansion of international solidarity to all continents and, in 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mons. Ximenes Belo and José Ramos Horta. It was on that day, in his acceptance speech, that the Timorese bishop stated: “When a people chooses the non-violent path, often nobody listens.”

Faithful to the word given and to the confidence in the political struggle by peaceful means, the people of Western Sahara waited until the UN, in 2000, ended the voter registration. Upon learning the result, predicting a defeat, Morocco refused to hold the referendum. The logic of Rabat then was the same as that of Jakarta: In 2007 it offered the Saharawis the possibility of autonomy within the framework of the kingdom.

The Timorese people had the opportunity to choose, on 30 August 1999, between accepting or rejecting the “special autonomy integrated in Indonesia.” It is known that, despite the threats, 95% of registered voters went to vote, and 78.5% refused autonomy, opting for independence. It took foresight and political courage on all sides and international support for a peaceful resolution of a dead-end conflict. The United Nations gained credibility, Portugal, the administering power, experienced a moment of national unity remembered with pride and nostalgia, Indonesia freed itself from a war, and the region created ties of cooperation among the countries that make it up, at all levels.

In the case of Western Sahara, the negotiations conducted by the UN have not reached the outcome that, according to International Law, can only be one: To give the Saharawi people the floor so that no one chooses their future for them.

As a result of 45 years of stalemate, the war between the POLISARIO and Morocco restarted in November 2020, and continues. The search for a political solution [restarted] as well.

At the same time, the spiral of human rights violations does not stop, because an occupation of a territory by force is exactly what it causes: humiliation and discrimination of the population, its reaction, more violent repression, strengthening of convictions and the struggle. A regime that oppresses other peoples does not accept liberties or criticism at home. Consistently, Morocco is an autocratic regime that harshly punishes all people, including intellectuals and journalists, who dare to demand justice.

The unacceptable invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread, vehement, and righteous condemnation of Putin`s Russia. The Secretary-General of the United Nations said: Borders must not be redrawn at the whim of the great powers... The Charter of the United Nations is based on the sovereign equality of all its members. It demands `respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples`. We cannot allow these norms to be undermined (13 March 2022).

These and other similar statements, as well as the process of self-determination in Timor-Leste, expose a problem that [occupying Powers] often try to hide: The practice of the policy of “double standards,” according to circumstantial interests.

Let us know how to renounce it, it is our common future that is at stake.

Luisa Teotonio Pereira

Former coordinator of the Commission for the Rights of the Maubere People (CDPM), member of the Portugal-Western Sahara Friendship Association (AAPSO)

Original article (in Portuguese)

Photo: East Timor celebrates 20 years since its independence vote, 30 August 2019. Source: Deutsche Welle.