Dili (East Timor) (AFP)

East Timor celebrates on Friday the twentieth anniversary of the referendum that allowed this small Southeast Asian-speaking nation to put an end to the Indonesian occupation but the massacres that preceded its independence still haunt memories.

Flags and banners were deployed in the capital Dili, where people participated in parades and traditional dances to celebrate 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.

- Terror post-referendum -

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

The Timor, located in the north of Australia, which now has some 1.3 million inhabitants, mostly Catholic, finally gained 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, which should unlock billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues for the small, poor nation.

Canberra has also pledged to pay to upgrade a military base and a new submarine internet cable linking the two countries.

After a chaotic start, with an assassination attempt on former leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta in 2008, the political scene in East Timor is now pacified.

But the economic situation of the island remains difficult with some 40% of the population living below the poverty line, according to World Bank statistics.

The country, with very rich offshore hydrocarbon reserves, may be tempted to seek help from China to develop, say analysts. A prospect that worries neighboring countries in view of the growing influence of Beijing in the region.

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

A reconciliation commission in 2008 found serious human rights violations during the occupation and in 1999, but leaders of both countries did not prosecute the military who were held responsible for the killings.

UN efforts to prosecute military officials, including the current Indonesian Minister of Security Wiranto, for crimes against humanity, have had to be abandoned.

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