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20th anniversary of the East Timor independence referendum

Friday 30 August 2019 marks the 20-year anniversary of the day the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia after a 24-year occupation.

Schoolgirls in Timor East

Schoolgirls in East Timor. Credit: Gabriela-Leite Soares/World Bank.

Following the vote violence and destruction left much of the country devastated, with major public and community buildings burned, ransacked and destroyed. East Timor’s education system was thrown into disarray, with most schools suffering severe damage or destruction. As a result, school and university students missed a whole year of classes.

Twenty years on it is important to recognise the significant contribution of the NSW Department of Education and Training, its teachers, students, parents groups, the NSW Teachers Federation and the Independent Education Union to help rebuild East Timor’s education systems.

In October 2000, the then Minister for Education and Training established the Helping Our Neighbour: East Timor Education Fund. Students, teachers, TAFE colleges and parent groups from across the state enthusiastically responded, with the strong support of the Teachers Federation. Initial fundraising efforts were directed to the refurbishment of an Agricultural High School at Natarbora on the South Coast of East Timor, identified as a priority by the East Timorese.

During 2000-2001 the Department of Education and Training placed two highly skilled English language teaches in Dili to work closely with East Timorese high school English teachers, and help establish the Department of English in the new university. TAFE NSW also played an important role in reestablishing East Timor’s vocational training system.

Significant commitments were made in late 2002, with the last tranche of the Helping Our Neighbour Fund being handed to the East Timorese Director-General of Education. During this time, a departmental officer was deployed as a senior officer to the new administration in Dili, and a three-year program of bringing 10 East Timorese school principals and district superintendents to NSW public schools each year for extended placements was launched.

Over this period, the Department of Education and Training, the Teachers Federation and their members, and other organisations including the Independent Education Union worked cooperatively to deliver much needed education equipment and infrastructure to Dili.

While formal independence occurred in May 2002, acknowledging the anniversary of the independence ballot, and the destruction and new challenges that followed including for education, is also an opportunity to acknowledge the teaching profession in NSW that sought in its own small way to contribute to a neighbour to whom Australia holds historical debts from the World War II.

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