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Public Words
some recent speeches & talks I have given

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Australia East Timor Association Dinner – 28 November, 2019

Strong Women in a Strong Nation: Timor-Leste’s First 20 Years

First of all, let me say thank you to the good and strong women behind tonight’s event. 

44 years ago today, a small nation unilaterally declared its independence. It was a simple, sombre ceremony in the forecourt of the Palace of Government in Dili.

On the horizon, not far off the coast of Atauro island, two Indonesian warships could be seen belching smoke. Amongst the members of the Fretilin CC witnessing that brave and desperate act was the 18 year old Rosa Bonaparte Soares, also known as “Muki”. Having returned only months earlier from her studies in Portugal, Muki was the founder of the first Timorese women’s organisation called The Popular Timorese Women’s Organisation or OPMT. She was young and idealistic and felt strongly that she and other educated women had a duty to emancipate their Timorese sisters or “buibere” from the traditional practices and societal norms which had enslaved them for centuries. Nine days later Rosa “Muki” was dead, her name having appeared on an Indonesian hit list of suspected communist agitators. Disturbingly but not surprisingly, this document appears to have been provided to Australian officials two months earlier but was never acted upon. But that’s a story for another day!

Fast forward to 2019 and the independent nation Muki dreamt of and fought for is almost 20 years old. What of her legacy and her aspirations for her buibere sisters? What parts of Timor-Leste’s story of new nationhood would make her smile with satisfaction and what parts would cause her to grimace? 

As you might have guessed, I chose the title of my presentation “Strong Women in a Strong Nation” because the words “strong women, strong nation” are the motto of my women’s organisation, the Alola Foundation. In many ways, the story of Alola’s genesis and work is a case study in the importance and profound value of investing in women’s empowerment which was the early mission of Rosa Muki and her OPMT. Since its inception in 2001, Alola has not only raised the status of women to be agents of change in the spheres of maternal and child health, education and economic development, but it has also become the breeding ground for female leadership. I believe that Muki would be very proud of the work undertaken by our first three Timorese CEOs, Teresa "Alita" Verdial, Alzira "Azzi" Reis and Macu Guterres, to ensure that women across the country enjoy the confidence and self-belief to nominate themselves for political leadership, have the financial means to further their education and are in control of their reproductive and sexual health through participation in village-based Mother Support Groups or Grupo Suporta Inan

In September 1975 Rosa Muki published a newspaper article which was an analysis of the situation of Timorese women. In it she wrote of the ‘double exploitation’ faced by her women compatriots, in other words the double whammy of traditional patriarchal social structures alongside the strict gender roles enforced under Portuguese colonial rule. She was never to know that an added dimension of exploitation and suffering would come in the form of Indonesia’s inhumane treatment of women throughout the period of the occupation and the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. 

In spite of this brutal legacy, across Timor-Leste women are driving change in leadership roles in many sectors. They are police commanders, the CEOs of NGOs, heads of agricultural cooperatives and micro-credit organisations.








Back in October I spoke at this year’s Alola Australia dinner about some of the qualities of Timorese women which I most admire and which, I believe, give them the edge over their male counterparts when it comes to work-place performance and professionalism ... and to getting results in whatever field they work in! These qualities include humility, intelligence, resilience, courage and team-work. The humility of women like Alola’s first two CEO’s, Alita Verdial and Alzira Reis, helped them to rise to great heights. They both began their journeys with Alola as junior staff members. Whilst they lacked leadership experience, their passion for their country and particularly the well-being of its women and children AND their thirst for learning and professional development abounded. And they rose to the challenge, blossoming into the bright, intelligent and intuitive leaders of their community which they are today. Their humility has been an asset rather than a weakness, and so it is with women generally the world over.


Do you know, we recently recruited for a new CEO to take over from Mana Alzira Reis who resigned earlier this year after 6 years of service to the Alola Foundation. Of the 20 or so applications received, only one woman applied! Not a single one of the male applicants had anywhere near the skills or experience required. Not a single one of Alola’s female managers applied. This scenario speaks volumes of the power and confidence differential between the genders in Timor-Leste. And it also points to the fact that, whilst women have carved out a role for themselves in business, politics and civil society and have acquired experiences and skills that women in Muki’s time could only have dreamt of, there continue to be significant road blocks on the path to true gender equality. They are social and they are cultural and they are psychological. And sometimes they are a combination of all of the above. One of Alola’s staff members opted not to apply for the CEO role in spite of her being eminently well-qualified because she knew that her husband wouldn’t agree with the long hours and heightened levels of responsibility. 

Muki would no doubt be impressed with the high levels of female representation in the nation’s parliament. These levels have been as high as 40% in the past and are today at around 34%, largely thanks to a system of quotas enforced by the 2006 Electoral Law. In large part due to these impressive statistics, Timor-Leste sits high up on global rankings such as the Georgetown Institute’s Women Peace and Security index of 2019-2020. In this index, Timor-Leste comes in at number 80 ahead of countries such as Thailand, Kenya and Indonesia (at 96). However, the picture is not so rosy at the level of local government where only around 4% of suco chiefs are women. And as Gisela has shared with us, many women MPs and members of government struggle to be taken seriously by their male colleagues and are often hampered in their efforts to perform their parliamentary duties due to having to juggle responsibilities to their children and other family members. These are universal challenges for women, of course, however they are amplified in Timor-Leste by still prevalent traditional attitudes to women’s place in society. A 2015 Asia Foundation study revealed that 83% of women surveyed believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family. Interestingly, a slightly lower number of men than women held this belief. Muki would shake her head in despair at the slow pace of change and be no doubt equally dismayed at the continuing high rates of intimate partner violence experienced today by Timorese women. 


However, she would also have cause to feel tremendous hope in the future and in the power of the modern day “Buibere” AND “Maubere” or Timorese men to effect change. Just last night I discovered a group called Foin-Sa’e Mane ba Mudansa or Young Men for Change. The group is using social media to encourage men and women to reflect on and challenge traditional gender roles, including addressing damaging beliefs that a strong man shows no emotion or vulnerability of any kind. Such an important movement – please like their Facebook page!  


Other developments that would put a smile on Muki’s face are that fertility rates have dropped from amongst the highest in the world at almost 8 children per family at the time of independence to just over 5 today. The Literacy rate for the adult female population is 63.44% in 2019 whereas it stood at a low 55% in 1999.  More girls (35.9 percent) than boys (29.9%) are enrolled in and attending secondary education. The qualities and skills that Timor-Leste’s strong women fostered in the independence struggle – her resilience, courage, resourcefulness and humility – alongside national laws and legal frameworks that recognise her rights, will make gender equality a reality. A strong nation depends upon it. 

Obrigadu barak. And I end with this photo which was taken in August at the simple and somewhat poorly maintained Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte garden in Dili.










This beautiful young woman is one of a group of local guides trained by the youth organisation called JDN or Juventude ba Desenvolvimentu Nasionál (Youth for National Development). Since June 2019 they have been running a Women of Timor-Leste walking tour around Dili, drawing attention to the experiences of East Timorese women throughout the Indonesian occupation. We took this year’s Study Tour group on the tour and, whilst the content was very familiar to me, I found myself quite moved not only by the stories our guides shared in words and short video clips but by how bright, confident and talented these young women are. Viva feto Timor!  

Official opening of Annual Conference of the Institute for the Healing of Memories (IHOM), Cape Town, South Africa

24 June, 2019
IHOM Patron: Kirsty Sword Gusmão

“Healing journeys: The relationship between Healing and Justice”

I feel very honoured and deeply humbled to have been asked to open this conference. Sincere thanks to my dear friend, Father Michael Lapsley, for having invited me many years ago to serve as one of a number of esteemed Patrons of the IHOM and for asking me to be here on this wonderful occasion. I have been so privileged to have travelled widely in my life. However, this is the first time in my life I have set foot on African soil, and I have to say that I am overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement.

Over two decades ago in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, two freedom fighters who devoted their lives to liberating their people from servitude met over a simple dinner (1). It was an unexpected and extraordinary meeting. One of the men was a President and former political prisoner, the other still detained for his political convictions but destined to be President only years later. The two men were Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Xanana Gusmão of Timor-Leste. The meeting foreshadowed Xanana’s release from prison just over a year later and the creation of the youngest nation in the Asia-Pacific region.

The drama of the story which connects me to all of you unfolded on the other side of the world from where we stand today. Let me tell you a little bit about the small half island nation called Timor-Leste or East Timor which has been my life’s passion and which I called home for 15 years … and continue to in many ways, although I am now living in Melbourne, Australia.

Timor-Leste or East Timor is half of the island of Timor which lies just 600 kilometres north of Australia. For 500 years it was a colony of Portugal which, according to most historic accounts, treated its far-flung territory with benign neglect. When Portugal decided in 1975 to divest itself of its overseas territories, the East Timorese prepared themselves for national independence. It was a short-lived dream. On 7 Dec 1975, Indonesia which governed the western half of the island of Timor, launched a brutal military invasion of East Timor. To cut a very long and tragic story short, over the next 24 years, Indonesia ruled the territory with an iron fist. Up to 250,000 Timorese, a quarter of the total population, perished in famines, massacres and systematic violations of human rights designed to quell dissent. Countries like Australia, the country of my birth, chose to stay silent about the human tragedy unfolding on our doorstep. After all, Indonesia was an important trading partner and Australian politicians deemed it more desirable to negotiate with Indonesia to exploit the vast oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea than with an independent East Timor.

Finally, after 24 years the East Timorese people achieved their long-cherished dream. The demise of the dictator, Suharto, and the onset of the GFC in 1998 caused Indonesia to capitulate to international pressure to allow a UN-supervised referendum on independence. In August 1999, a large majority of Timorese voted in favour of independence. Militia supported by the Indonesian military then initiated a campaign of violence, which led to the widespread destruction of the built infrastructure of the country and displacement of the majority of the population. A United Nations force established peace in 2000 and national independence followed in 2002. My former husband, Xanana Gusmao, who had led the armed resistance to Indonesian rule for 18 years, was elected President and I became the tiny fledgling nation’s first First Lady. Perhaps you can get a sense of the challenges and tremendous learning curves for me and Xanana when you take into account the fact that Xanana had spent 18 years leading a guerrilla struggle in the mountains of Timor-Leste, followed by 7 years in jail. He didn’t even own a neck tie! And as for me, not having a predecessor to take guidance from, I had no idea what was expected of me.


The journey I have taken alongside Timor-Leste, first as a pro-independence activist, subsequently as partner of the first head of state and more recently as an advocate for the rights of women and children through my Alola Foundation, has been both tumultuous and richly rewarding. I have quite literally witnessed the birth of a nation, experienced its growing pains, rejoiced in its milestone achievements and anguished over the very many challenges that still lie ahead to ensure peace, healing and prosperity for all East Timorese. Whilst female representation in our national parliament and in senior ministerial portfolios in government is a vast improvement on Australia, family violence continues to be a major social issue, as does malnutrition and stunting in children, some of the most tragic consequences of poverty.


When I first heard of Father Michael’s incredible story of activism and struggle alongside the people of South Africa, I was struck by the parallels with my own journey to help liberate a country, making use of the privileges which flow from being brought up in a western democracy. Michael’s experiences of leaving his homeland to throw his lot in with a nation and a people whose freedom he deeply desired resonated strongly with me. I was also struck by the relevance and importance to Timor-Leste of the healing work being undertaken by the Institute. Imagine my delight and surprise when Father Michael accepted my invitation to visit me and Xanana in Jakarta in 1999 when Xanana was still being held in house arrest in the Indonesian capital and working hard with the UN and the international community to pull off the independence ballot.


Returning to Timor-Leste in October 1999, Xanana and I encountered a country decimated by destruction, a people traumatised by the violence and loss of life and personal property wrought upon them by the departing Indonesian military. Everything needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.


Many of the high-level military personnel and militia leaders indicted for atrocities evaded prosecution by seeking sanctuary in Indonesia. As a consequence, these key perpetrators continue to live with impunity in Indonesia where attempts to prosecute them have largely been ineffective. Many continue to mete out suffering on other vulnerable communities across Indonesia, including West Papua. There is no extradition arrangement between the two countries, and no evident political will on either side to ensure that those responsible for the abuses are brought to justice.


The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor Leste (Commisão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação de Timor Leste, CAVR) was established in 2002 and modelled to a significant extent on South Africa’s TRC. It completed its substantive work in 2004. I would like to acknowledge the presence and participation here at this conference of Viriato Soares Pereira and Eugenio Baptista of the Centro Nacional CHEGA! which is the govt’s response to the recommendations of the CAVR.


The CAVR’s mandate was to establish the ‘truth’ in relation to human rights violations in Timor Leste between 1974 and 1999, a key aim being to facilitate reconciliation and the re-integration into the community of those who committed ‘less serious’ offences (such as arson, theft, house destruction, or the killing of livestock). I am sure we will hear more from my compatriots about the CAVR’s important work in the course of this conference.


One of the key themes of this conference is: Can healing happen in the absence of Justice? Has healing occurred in Timor-Leste in spite of the fact that justice has not been done? I am sure that my compatriots from Timor-Leste will have their own perspectives to share on this matter. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer. I am fortunate not to have had direct lived experience as Michael and many of you have had of the physical pain and suffering caused by acts of state terror. As such, I feel ill-equipped to offer much more than a few observations on the matters of justice, peace-building, the psycho-social effects on the Timorese people of Indonesia’s reign of terror and healing which is very much a work in progress.


As in other post-conflict countries, there is tension between the desire to build peace and leave the past behind, and the need to establish the truth and achieve justice in relation to past human rights violations.


Xanana Gusmão’s own views on justice have been controversial. He has preferred to pursue reconciliation with Indonesia, reminding his compatriots that Timor-Leste shares a land border with its huge and powerful Asian neighbour and that demanding the prosecution of Indonesian generals could bring a return to conflict and strife. He extended an olive branch to those East Timorese pro-Indonesian militia leaders who fled across the border to avoid prosecution for their crimes. He understood the dangers to peace and security of having large groups of fearful and stateless men fomenting unrest on the border between west and east Timor. The Community Reconciliation division of the CAVR assisted with the voluntary re-integration of those responsible for minor crimes through the process of community reconciliation hearings. Religious and traditional ceremonies were central to the process in a country where animistic and Catholic belief systems remain strong. In spite of the community reconciliation work delivering very positive results across the country, some participants expressed frustration and anger. For example, some perpetrators who were called to appear before reconciliation processes in the villages for minor crimes felt it unjust that they were held accountable for their actions by the CAVR whilst the ‘big people’ who had ordered or supervised serious crimes lived with impunity. Some members of the resistance movement who fought for many years in conditions of great hardship felt that since independence, their contributions had been forgotten and their sacrifices remained unacknowledged. I know that similar feelings have been noted among former political prisoners here in South Africa (Kagee, 2003). The integration of former resistance fighters into the Timor-Leste armed forces and the awarding of veterans’ pensions to key freedom fighters has to some extent mitigated the impact of the conflict on the post-independence social and economic status of victims.


I believe that anger and its expression are normal in post-conflict settings. My experience of working with women and their families over more than a decade has taught me that in most cases the anger and sadness arising from loss and pain requires little more than genuine acknowledgement, the affirmation that comes from being able to tell one’s story to an attentive listener or listeners. This of course goes to the heart of the methodology of the healing of memories workshops. The fact that they have been embraced by communities across the globe is testimony to the liberating power of sharing one’s story.


It is possible that uncontrolled anger can result in adverse social consequences, for example by contributing to problems such as domestic and interpersonal violence, and at times, in acts of criminal violence. Since there is no data as yet to support such links, further research in the field is needed. In particular, at a societal level, it is possible that some of the social instability and civic upheavals that are common in post conflict settings may occur, at least in part, from collective anger arising out of feelings that past injustices have not been adequately addressed. Of course, individuals have a choice as to whether or not they act upon their feelings of anger. I know from my experience in Timor-Leste that the conditions for healing and recovery are greatest when the victim enjoys conditions of safety and security and where family and community bonds remain intact. The ability to engage in political, religious, cultural and spiritual practices that confer existential meaning are also vital. The Timorese people have found solace and healing in their Catholic faith and the fact that the Church was able to remain a physical and spiritual haven to them for most of the 24 years of Indonesia’s occupation was very important to their resilience and ability to cope.


I recall a conversation I had with Xanana back in early 2001 when I was considering what the focus of the work of my women’s organisation, Fundasaun Alola, might be. I shared with him that I thought that trauma counselling and psycho-social supports for women and their families would be a good place to start. He responded that, in his view, the best form of healing from pain, loss and grief was hope – hope in a future of Peace, improved conditions of life, better health and education facilities and enhanced employment prospects for future generations. And, in fact, when I travelled around the country to meet with women in remote rural villages, in communities still reeling from the wanton destruction wrought upon them by the departing Indonesian military, what they told me was: “Mana (Sister) Kirsty, we have lived with pain, loss and trauma for 24 years. We have developed ways within our families and communities to survive and keep moving forward. What we need from you is help to rebuild our lives and livelihoods and restore our agency by giving us the means to feed, clothe and educate our children.”


And so my Alola Foundation which provides small business loans, training opportunities for women entrepreneurs and aspiring leaders, scholarships for disadvantaged young women, education on breastfeeding, immunisation, family planning and so much more, is contributing in a small way to Timor-Leste’s healing through women’s empowerment, giving women and girls cause to hope and dream.


Over the years, I have marvelled at the capacity of the people of Timor-Leste for forgiveness. I still recall watching on in awe when, as early as 2000, within only months of the post-ballot violence concluding, crowds of men, women and children spontaneously greeted with cheers then Indonesian president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid on a historic fence-mending visit to Dili. On that occasion, the President apologized for the sufferings Indonesia had caused. Similarly, on the night of the Independence celebrations in May 2002, Gus Dur’s successor, President Megawati Soekarnoputri, was greeted by a standing ovation and resounding applause. These are, I believe, examples of the East Timorese people's tremendous political maturity and will to move on. (Perhaps in Timor-Leste’s case, however, the fact of having the UN move in to oversee the transition to independence and democratic governance with no vestiges of the old regime and those linked to it still in power smoothed the path to forgiveness.)


One of the many compelling questions to be discussed at this conference is how do we heal the wounds of indignity and dehumanisation caused by the injustice of poverty and inequality? Well, surely accepting and acknowledging the facts of the leading causes of such poverty and inequality is an important precursor to any healing journey. A case in point is that of the Aboriginal people and the road to reconciliation and recognition in Australia. And I am not talking only about the question of recognition of our first nations people in the Constitution, but acceptance by every Australian of the facts of the invasion of Australia by the British. The question of the timing of our national day still sparks controversy and is a divisive issue. We still argue about whether celebrating our national day which has historically fallen on 26 January every year and which marks the arrival of British ships on Australian shores is offensive to our First Nations people. Of course it is. We need to change the date. And then there are the words of our national anthem. Recently a ten year old girl ignited a heated national conversation when she refused to stand for and sing the national anthem because, as she told her school principal, the reference to Australia as “young and free” denies the existence of the oldest living culture on earth, that of the Aboriginal people. Some of our conservative politicians declaimed that the insolent young lass should be expelled from school. Ordinary Australians shook their heads and wondered why it had never occurred to us to take issue with that same line in our anthem when we were 10. Changing a national anthem and a national day may seem tiny and overdue gestures, however they are steps on the road to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. In the Timor-Leste context, too, it is only when the facts of gender inequality and the physical and psychological harm cause by patriarchy, including domestic violence, are acknowledged and spoken about will we be able to move towards solutions and healing.


The Global Peace Index (GPI), which ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their level of peacefulness concluded that in 2019 more than 400 million people live in areas with low levels of peacefulness and high risk from climate change (Global Peace Index 2019). It also concluded that whilst more people across the world now feel that they have more freedom in life and that their countries are better places to live for ethnic and religious minorities, daily feelings of sadness, worry, and stress have also increased over the past decade. Concerns about global warming and the future of the planet, the fear of terrorist attacks and uncertainty regarding the rapidly changing employment market due to technological advances mean that our youth like never before struggle to feel hopeful about the future. They need our care and attention like never before, so we must make sure we take them with us in our healing work.


I thank you sincerely for listening to me this morning. As practitioners, educators, freedom fighters and nurturers of communities from the four corners of the globe, may the experiences and stories we share in the next two days serve to heal our souls, enrich our minds and improve our practice.


Obrigadu barak / Thank you

(1) - Read an account of the extraordinary 1997 meeting between Xanana Gusmão and Nelson Mandela here:

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