Dili (East Timor) (AFP)

East Timor celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the referendum on Friday, allowing the small Southeast Asian nation to end the Indonesian occupation and pave the way for its independence.

Flags and banners were deployed in the capital Dili as residents prepared to attend the festivities planned to mark the country's transition to an independent democracy.

But the relatives of the victims of the deadly violence that followed the victory of the yes in the 1999 referendum are still waiting for justice to be done.

"The Indonesian army and militia have killed those who have allowed the independence of this nation," said Vital Bere Saldanha, 48, who saw four of his brothers die in the chaos that followed the referendum.

"The fight for freedom has not been won easily", he observes, questioned by AFP.

On 30 August 1999, nearly 80 per cent of East Timor voters voted in favor of separation from Indonesia, which had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. The military occupation by Indonesia for 24 years was bloody and decimated more than a quarter of the population.

But the joy that followed the vote in 1999 soon turned into terror when Indonesian security forces, assisted by militias, launched a wave of violence that caused some 1,400 deaths and fleeing hundreds of thousands of residents.

Timor, a Southeastern Asian confetti in the north of Australia, which now has some 1.3 million inhabitants, finally achieved independence in 2002.

The celebrations on Friday of the 20th anniversary of the referendum coincide with the visit of foreign officials including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The two countries have concluded a treaty to end a dispute over their maritime borders that should unlock billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues for the small poor nation.

East Timor and Indonesia, for their part, wanted to turn the page on violence.

A reconciliation commission in 2008 found crimes against humanity committed in 1999, but leaders of both countries did not prosecute the military who were held responsible for the killings.

For Cancio Dos Santos, who lost his brother in the violence following the referendum, and whose body was never found, the celebrations bring back painful memories. "I was beaten and my brother murdered," says the 52-year-old man to AFP.

© 2019 AFP