Courtesy of UNifeed
Thirteen years ago, the border been Timor-Leste and Indonesia was a tense place. If you were there in 1999 you probably would have seen some of the 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the border, or the 260,000 Timorese refugees pushed steadily westward, or maybe the advance of Indonesian militias that would devastate the country’s economic capacity, as the two countries feuded over territorial integrity and national sovereignty. You would have seen a pair of nations that looked to be locked in a state of conflict.
Today, the border is a different place. The UN has left, and Timor-Leste, once one of the world’s poorest economies, is now considered a lower-middle income nation. A peaceful transition of power after an election this year has left Timor-Leste looking ripe for investment, and like a success story in the world of international development.
In fact, if you were on the border today you would have seen one of the starkest signs yet that the war is over and that both Timor-Leste and Indonesia are pursuing a healthy relationship – a column of some 300 bicyclists crossing the border freely in the course of the newly minted Tour de Timor. This year was the first time in the history of the four year tour that participants were allowed to cross the border, and ride through Indonesian West Timor to reach Oecussi, a Timorese enclave on the other side.
“This is a step that both countries want to live in peace and friendship,” said Jacinto Soares, one of the bicyclists.
One of the race’s winners agreed. “For me this year is very unique because we have to cross the border and enter the territory of Indonesia,” said Anche Cabral, who led her team to win in several categories throughout the five day tour. “We hope that Timor-Leste and Indonesia have a better relationship.”
The Tour de Timor is the brainchild of Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos Horta, who conceived the race as an effort to promote peace and development through sports. A tough 345 mile route, it takes riders through mountain, jungle, and coastline, showing off the natural beauty of the young country.
This year’s race was attended by newly inaugurated President Taur Matan Ruak, who could not help but to show his pride in the event. “Only Timor-Leste can do this,” he claimed.