Australia and Timor-Leste will be finalizing their Timor Sea maritime-border agreement this month through the first time use of a compulsory conciliation clause that is part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Moreover, the reconciliation effort of Indonesia and Timor-Leste has led to, among other things, successful negotiations of their land border. Together these two accomplishments could help propel a broader regional narrative that promotes and institutionalizes support for democratic ideals, reconciliation-based solutions and international norms—challenging China’s one-sided border demands in the South China Sea. But for this to happen the United States must champion such regional developments.
Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony, voted in a plebiscite for independence from Indonesia in August 1999 (78.5 percent in favor to 21.5 percent against) after twenty-four years of occupation and resistance, which killed nearly a third of the population and affected every family. The opposition to occupation and international pressure on Indonesia eventually led to a trilateral agreement signed between the United Nations, Portugal and Indonesia in May 1999, which enabled the Timorese people to determine their destiny through a UN-sponsored ballot. The victory quickly turned to devastation as departing Indonesian-backed militias burned much of the country’s limited infrastructure to the ground.
The subsequent story of reconciliation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is remarkable for the process and its success. After gaining independence in 2002, the leadership of Timor-Leste prioritized reconciliation with truth-telling to forge a new relationship with its closest neighbor, and to heal its divided community. The process was supported by an Indonesian government democratizing its politics and reforming its security institutions. Instead of following the standard international human-rights agenda to prosecute individual perpetrators of violence, the leaders of Timor-Leste and Indonesia instead sought a model of reconciliation anchored in both local peace-building and state-building.