Critical reflections on the annual commemoration of 12th November

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Every year on 12th November, the people of Timor-Leste commemorate one of the worst massacres to have occurred during our 24-year independence struggle. This event is deeply important not only because of the precious lives lost on that day, but because it set in motion a series of events that would change the future of our country – and our people – forever.

However, even though the Government decided a few years ago to rename 12th November as Youth Day, until now, the commemoration has continued to focus on the trauma and violence suffered by the past generation of youth, instead of addressing the fundamental issues and challenges facing our youth today. Indeed, the youth of today are the future of our nation, and Youth Day should therefore discuss not only the sacrifices and suffering of our young people in the past, but also the needs, hopes and desires of our young people today.

The people of Timor-Leste have not experienced conflict for more than 10 years now, and this is cause for celebration. However, the political crisis of the last two years also reveals that our leaders continue to lack the ability to resolve their differences without disrupting the normal operations of government. Furthermore, achieving sustainable peace and security requires not only elite consensus, but continuous improvement in our people’s living standards. Of course, we have seen improvement in some important areas, such as roads, mobile internet connectivity and electricity.

However, despite billions of dollars spent from the Petroleum Fund, until now too many of our people lack access to basic services, sanitation, water, decent jobs and adequate nutrition. Our agricultural production continues to stagnate from lack of investment, and more and more people move from the countryside to Dili every year in search of non-existent jobs. Our hospitals and clinics lack basic equipment, medicines and facilities, and during the Covid-19 crisis we cannot even send our people abroad for essential treatments they cannot access here, while thousands of young people graduate from universities every year, but there are few job opportunities for them. The failure of the Government to invest in our public education system has led to the sad situation where poor children sit in crumbling classrooms with no water, electricity or facilities, while the children of the elite and middle-class attend well-funded religious and international schools. The queue of young people patiently waiting outside the Portuguese embassy in the hot sun every day is a stark reminder of how we continue to fail our youth by not creating the conditions for them to stay and work towards the development of our country, instead forcing them to migrate to earn money to support their family and future.

Therefore, instead of viewing 12th November simply as an opportunity to celebrate past heroism and sacrifice, we must reorient ourselves towards facilitating open, honest and humble dialogue between our leaders and our youth about the most urgent and essential issues that affect their quality of life today, and limit their opportunities for the future. This way we can truly valorise our youth, so that their voices can be heard, their needs met, and they can build the future of our nation, rather than continuing to suffer like the previous generation, who sacrificed so much in our struggle for independence.

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