How Timor-Leste Achieved Reconciliation with Indonesia and resolved Maritime Dispute with Australia

International Peacebuilding Forum 2021

Japan Commission on Global Governance

The Parliamentary Committee of the Diet of Japan for World Federation

How Timor-Leste Achieved Reconciliation with Indonesia and resolved Maritime Dispute with Australia



Tokyo, Japan

  • November 2021

H.E. Mr. Sei-shiro Eto, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the Diet of Japan for World Federalism,

H.E. Professor Sukehiro Hasegawa, Former United Nations Special Representative to Timor-Leste and Chairman of Japan Commission on Global Governance,

Distinguished representatives of the Political Parties of Japan, 

H.E. Mr. Tatsuo Fukuda, Chairperson, General Council of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan

H.E. Mr. Tetsuro Fukuyama, Secretary-General of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan

H.E. Mr. Muneo Suzuki, Senior member of Nippon Ishin Japan Innovation Party

H.E. Madame Hiromi Takase, Member of Komeito

H.E. Mr. Yuichiro Tamaki, President of the Democratic Party for the People

H.E. Madame Mizuho Fukushima, Chairperson of the Social Democratic Party ( of Japan)


Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

‘Ohayo Gozaimasu’!

I would like to thank your invitation to come to this event. I welcome all many long-time friends of Timor-Leste here today.

Japan has had an active voice, when it comes to peacebuilding. This is demonstrated both within the country as well as through consistent deliberations, in favour of world peace in the international arena.

And while the role played by the National Diet of Japan, towards supporting a better and more inclusive system of global governance, has always been important, it has never been more urgent than it is today.

I am honoured to join my voice to that, of the National Diet of Japan, in advocating for greater cooperation between all nations of the world, so that we may look forward to a future of stability, harmony and prosperity for all people.

Here, on behalf of the Timorese People, I bow to all the Great Friends of East Timor, from Japan, and especially to Mr. Satsuki EDA, who passed away very recently. In 1992, through his leadership, 293 members of the Japanese Diet signed a letter to UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Galli urging the United Nations to end the ongoing repression of the Timorese people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to come here and to address on very important issue, such as ‘Reconciliation with Indonesia’ and ‘Dispute Resolution under the Law of the Sea’.

Your Excellencies,

Next Sunday, on 28 November, will be forty-six years ago that, in Timor-Leste, perceiving already through deep military infiltrations in our border regions that the invasion was imminent, we declared unilaterally our independence. Nine days later, on 7 December 1975, we were invaded, in many fronts, and annexed by Indonesia. This was a brutal invasion by tens of thousands of soldiers, armed with heavy equipment, against people who were helpless and unprepared to deal with a war.

Still, faced with extermination or total domination by a foreign power, we chose to fight to the best of our capability.

When we became an independent Nation, on 20 May 2002, as the 191st Member State of the United Nations, we were a small and destroyed country, very poor and traumatised by war. And, as an important geographic factor, Timor-Leste was located between two giants: Australia and Indonesia.

We relied on the support of the International Community and International Organisations, when taking our first steps.

I must take this opportunity to once again highlight and thank the magnificent support provided by Japan, through Friends of Timor, as well as the financial support and the deployment of Japanese military engineering units to take part in the peacekeeping operations in Timor-Leste. This was Japan’s first international mission since World War Two.

It was also here in Tokyo, in 1999, immediately after our referendum, that the first Development Partners Meeting was held. This was evidence of the key role that Japan would play in our nation-building.

Throughout this process, we wanted to believe that the strong do not always prevail over the weak. Still, in order not to be weak, we required one last act of courage: to forgive, to let go of past grievances and to move forward towards a reconciliation process.

This was both reconciliation between the Timorese, who were the victims of a campaign, designed to divide us, as well as reconciliation with the former occupying power, realising that both Timorese and Indonesians had been victims of the same regime. Through this way, we were able to walk together on the path towards the democratic transition.

As a Nation, we acknowledged that we could not build a State, without making peace between ourselves and with our neighbours.

We went to the roots of our problems, we faced our victims and our bitter memories, and we focused on national unity. Although this was a collective commitment, it was also an individual process. The process of internal reconciliation and the process of reconciliation with Indonesia were vital to our society, which was fragmented and traumatised.

Timor-Leste and Indonesia established a Commission for Truth and Friendship, featuring both Timorese and Indonesian officials. The purpose of this Commission was to listen to and register all the testimonies of human rights abuses.

I recall that, back to 2000, I came to Japan to seek for financial assistance to help us to be able to continue the work done by the Commission of Truth and Friendship and the then Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, asked and insisted with me many times, like “forcing” me, to run for President of the Republic for at least 5 years, and explaining to me his point of view, which was in order to settle the relations with Indonesia, considering the deep animosity between the two countries and knowing the good relationship I was having with the Indonesian Generals. It was also a starting point, in support for the Reconciliation between Indonesia and Timor-Leste, made by a true Stateman – a Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi.

And so, we sat with our former occupiers and we embraced those who had deprived us of freedom and dignity for a quarter of a century. We also brought together brothers and sisters, cousins and sometimes even parents and children, who had gone in opposite directions, during that dark time in our history.

While we were recovering from the trauma of the past, the International Community insisted that the perpetrators should be brought to justice and that there should be no impunity.

Always, we said ‘NO’! We did not want to be tied down by our bitter past. We needed to move away from hatred in order to heal our wounds.

In 2003, I went to New York and delivered the Report of the Commission of Truth and Friendship to the UN Secretary-General, Koffi Annan, informing him that, through that process done with Indonesia, both countries just wanted to affirm to the world that ‘what happened in the past, belongs to the past’, with a political compromise that will never happen again in the future!

However, the International Community insisted that reconciliation should not replace accountability. This meant that human rights crimes would have to be tried in accordance with international law.

We refused to do this, for two main reasons: – Firstly, we did not want to be burdened by our bitter past. Secondly, several Western countries had been complicit with the atrocities carried out in Timor-Leste, by selling war vessels and thanks, jet fighters and napalm used in Vietnam, cannons and weapons to the occupying forces and, even, training them to kill us and, not less important, by silencing our voice in the international arena.

Who then would be held accountable for all the atrocities that had been perpetrated in Timor-Leste? Would it be just the Indonesians? What about the Western powers that, in exchange of millions of dollars, helped and allowed the Indonesian military to kill the Timorese people?

The reconciliation, openness and dialogue template is the one I would like to see replicated in every place where there is conflict.

We were also able to acknowledge that we do not just share an island with Indonesia – we also share a future. Today we walk side by side, in friendship and cooperation. Our reconciliation is a model of good will, focusing on the future and on development, rather than being a tale of bitterness and conflict.

We also had to look inwards. We recognised that it is sometimes harder to reconcile amongst ourselves than with our “enemies”. This led us to realise that we had to come together and work on our internal differences.

As a Nation, we acknowledged that we could not build a State without building peace within ourselves.

Today, Timor-Leste and Indonesia are a positive example of cooperation between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds. Both countries provide an example of friendship, trust and common development.

We focused on addressing the causes of our own setbacks and today we have an excellent friendship and relationship of cooperation with Indonesia.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

For 24 years, the small Timorese guerrilla army fought against its powerful neighbour, which was receiving weapons, ammunition and military training from Western countries.

It should be said that this new war, in Southeast Asia, started a short time after the US lost the war in Vietnam. The Cold War forced countries to enter into geopolitical alliances that conformed to the international hypocrisy of the time, which argued that our annexation into Indonesia was the best solution for world peace.

Furthermore, Timor had rich resources including oil, which had been discovered one decade before the Indonesian invasion. In a world where greed prevails, this undoubtedly played a part in the Western support to Indonesia.

While the world turned a blind eye to a war that the Timorese were waging with great sacrifice, Australia – the only Western country to recognize the illegal annexation – started negotiations with Indonesia in order to delimit our maritime boundaries.

Thus, Australia and Indonesia signed an agreement in 1989, splitting in half the revenue from the exploration of the valuable resources in the Timor Sea. This was known as the ‘Timor Gap Treaty’.

These resources belonged to Timor-Leste. These resources could have enabled an independent State – despite all that said, we would never be able to succeed as a nation. This meant we had to continue fighting for our self-determination and for our self-rule.

This long process, filled with blood and tears, culminated with a UN Referendum on 30 August 1999. Here, despite an atmosphere of violence and intimidation, our people voted overwhelmingly for independence. In 2002, our country began a new challenge, that of building a State-Nation literally from the ashes.

For decades, we suffered from deceitful diplomacy that claimed that, the oil and gas on our side of the median line, belonged to others.

For years, the Australian government and multinationals turned a blind eye to the tragedy taking place in my country, because having control over our resources was more important to them than human suffering and even more powerful than the international law.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Just two months prior to Timor-Leste regaining its independence, Australia withdrew from all international law maritime boundary dispute resolution procedures, thus preventing Timor-Leste from requesting an international tribunal to rule on permanent maritime boundaries with Australia.

On the first day of our independence, we were induced to sign a Treaty that re-established the agreements Australia had made with our previous occupier, so that Australia could hold on to its rights and benefits in the Timor Sea.

Two years after our independence, Australia insisted to have negotiations on how resources should be shared, in another bigger petroleum field, called Greater Sunrise, and, at a time when we were negotiating, the Australian government illegally bugged the Timorese government’s office, by using military intelligence service and equipment, to collect ‘commercially’ sensitive information about our position and about our weakness, in those negotiations.

By the time we learned of the bugging, we had already signed that new Treaty, the CMATS (Certain Maritime Arrangements on Timor Sea), setting a 50-year moratorium on maritime boundary negotiations.

Everybody here can understand that we were just a young and inexperienced State, in dire need of revenue to lift its people from poverty. What could have we done but sign that Treaty?

This illegal practice was exposed, in 2009, by a courageous whistle-blower but, we had to wait until 2013, and we brought the issue to the Hague, where we start questioning the validity of the CMATS, by asking the International Tribunal, for the annulment of the Treaty, because it was the result of an unacceptable and immoral act, made by a rich country.

Then, it was only after we had signed our Maritime Boundary Treaty, in 2017, that the Australian government prosecuted the whistle-blower and his lawyer.  Further, in an affront to open justice, Australia insisted that the trials be conducted in secret, arguing that it is to protect their national security”.

It should, actually, be a ‘national shame’ and, regrettably, the trial against the lawyer, for his alleged role in exposing the bugging, continues. I have called upon the Australian government to act in good conscience – and in the interests of upholding justice and the relationship between our countries – and to drop the prosecution. I hope that the Australian government can positively react to my appeals.

This bad practice, from a developed and rich country, is something that always concerns us, however, and very recently we came to realize that it is, in fact, the Australian government’s political and cultural identity, which forced Emanuel Macron, the French President, to publicly accuse the Australian Prime Minister “of lying about the submarine contract”, between the 2 countries.

Therefore, Timor-Leste tried to be a steadfast defender of the international system and international law.

Under UNCLOS, as well as customary international law, all countries have an obligation to negotiate permanent maritime boundaries with their neighbours.

As you know, UNCLOS also provides avenues for dispute resolution.  If a negotiated agreement is not possible, disputes can be submitted to an international court, tribunal or other body under UNCLOS. 

The binding dispute resolution bodies under UNCLOS include the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and other arbitral tribunals.

And as I said before, to prevent Timor-Leste from requesting an international tribunal to rule on permanent maritime boundaries, Australia withdrew from all international law maritime boundary dispute resolution procedures. Since our independence in 2002, Australia had always refused to seat on the table to discuss with us about the maritime boundaries, arguing that there was nothing to be discussed because Australia had the benefit of ‘continental shell’, which marked the boundary almost until our shores.  

Fortunately, UNCLOS also provided an alternative avenue that had never been used before – Compulsory Conciliation.  Under this option, Australia could not, anymore, avoid seating in the table of negotiations.

On 13 April 2016, I personally delivered a copy of the notice initiating the Compulsory Conciliation process to the then Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, in New York.

The process involved an independent panel of Conciliators, known as the Conciliation Commission, engaging with the parties in dialogue to reach an agreement. 

This mechanism was designed to ensure that no maritime boundary dispute is left unresolved, in the interests of maintaining international peace and security. This was the option that Timor-Leste took to resolve our maritime boundaries with Australia.

Consequently, instead of giving up in our efforts regarding Australia, we decided to make use of the Compulsory Conciliation mechanism under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It was the first time ever that this mechanism was used. The Conciliation Commission, established under the Compulsory Conciliation, helped Timor-Leste to try to reach an agreement on maritime boundaries with Australia. And this was an important new start.

This negotiation mechanism was difficult, and sometimes downright exasperating, but with persistence and determination we succeeded in defending our sovereignty. It was intensive and both Timor-Leste and Australia fought hard to defend their national interests. 

After many rounds of negotiations, guided by the Conciliation Commission, a breakthrough was achieved on 30 August 2017 – 18 years to the day since the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence.  An agreement was reached with Australia on a maritime boundary that was consistent with international law.

The conclusion of this Treaty clarifies the rights and responsibilities of Timor-Leste and Australia, concerning the resources and activities located within our respective sovereign territories.

For Timor-Leste, the achievement of Permanent Maritime Boundaries with Australia represents one of the last steps in our journey to full sovereignty. 

Whether dealing with Indonesia or Australia, our perception remains the same. The purpose of international law is to lead to peaceful solutions and, as such, we believe in the basic principle that all States are equal.

It is also a testament to the determination of our people, who took a chance of testing a procedure that had never been used before. 

The maritime boundary with Australia has brought pride to our young country and given us the opportunity to realise the potential of our seas. I also believe that the success of the Compulsory Conciliation can serve as an example for other countries in similar situations.

The UNCLOS conciliation shows the promise of the international system and the rule-based order at a time when it is under stress.  In our increasingly dis-ordered world, international law provides the foundation for peace and for development. 

That is why this exchange of ideas is so important – it brings together people who can defend the International System and who understand the importance of the Law of the Sea.

Your Excellencies

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are currently holding consultations on delimitating boundaries with Indonesia, both in Land and Sea, agreeing that these negotiations will also be held in accordance with International Law and UNCLOS. Because of Covid19 pandemic, we could not go forward, waiting for the right opportunity to continue.

Although it is expected that such a negotiation process will necessarily entail some tension, we know that nothing can jeopardise the peace and stability we sacrificed so much to achieve. In the international arena, everyone “must give some and take some from the other”, so that no one loses everything, particularly their life, their dignity, their hope and their future.

This is a powerful example of where the path towards reconciliation can lead you.

Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Australia are friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, these relationships always had a “pebble in the shoe”.

“Reconciliation” with Australia made use of the international law created by the Community of Nations to regulate relations between States and to contribute towards the constructive and peaceful resolution of international disputes.

Timor-Leste and Australia set a good example of how it is possible to overcome differences peacefully, while at the same time strengthening friendship and cooperation between both countries. This was achieved by realising that every State is equal before international law, regardless of whether they are large or small, rich or poor.

I am certain that Australia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste will continue to work together in the future, bringing development and prosperity to our nations and to our region.

In conclusion, I can say that we kept the promise we made to the West during the years of occupation, namely that we would never jeopardise stability in the region.

We also acknowledge that Reconciliation is vital for preventing recurring conflict and for building peaceful and prosperous societies. This reconciliation must come from within and must include everyone’s participation: political and religious leaders, the private sector and civil society – particularly women and young people.

Furthermore, Reconciliation must be able to rely on the International Community’s genuine and active participation, putting the interest of World peace above any other interests.

The World needs to feel peace and to have hope that humankind will move into a new stage: the stage of Reconciliation, Cooperation and mutual Trust. The stage where all individuals, Peoples and States contribute to a World of Peace.

“Hanasaku amondo no kinoshita. Jinrui o yusaburi, futto sa seru”, by Matsuo Bashô. “Under the almond trees in bloom, Humanity swirls and boils”!

Domo Arigatou Gozaimasu!!!

Thank you very much.

Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão


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