The Utah-East Timor Connection

Democracy is growing in East Timor Democracy is growing in East Timor Credit: Thomas Vuillemin on Unsplash

Eight thousand miles away and about ten times larger than the Salt Lake valley, the nation of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste (directly translated: “East East” in Malay and Portuguese) is one of the newest democracies in the world. A Portuguese colony until 1975 and occupied by their northern neighbor Indonesia until 1999, Timor-Leste became a new sovereign state in 2002.

Situated between Indonesia and Australia, East Timor has a rich cultural heritage. East Timor is also home to a wide variety of people and traditions with a population of over one million people and two official languages (Portuguese and Tetum), two “working” languages (English and Indonesian), and up to 19 indigenous languages spoken in almost 30 dialects. With such potential for differences and division, open and transparent democracy is a vital source of national unity and high-level problem-solving for this fledgling state.

Being a young state is difficult. Ethnic tensions, economic crises, and foreign influence often compete for power within a fragile government working to establish legitimacy. One need not look further than news to the effects of each of these factors on the relatively new states of South Sudan, Eritrea, or Yemen. Other former Portuguese colonies such as Guinea Bissau (two successful coups and 8 attempts), Angola (protracted civil war), or São Tomé and Príncipe (one military takeover and two coup attempts) paint a striking picture of the necessity of stability in government.

Two boys in East Timor

Photo by James Tay on Unsplash

Transparency and accountability are two pillars of democracy and stability in government. Relying heavily on foreign aid, oil and other natural resources, and agriculture for economic revenue, East Timor remains relatively poor. Despite this, and the fact that only 27% of residents have internet access, it has an open stance towards international relations. The nation is active around the southeast Asian political climate and is a regular target country for participants in the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

The mission of Utah Global Diplomacy is to promote respect and understanding between the people of Utah and other nations. One way it does this is through participation in the US State Department’s IVLP initiative. By hosting short-term visitors from other countries and giving them professional resources to help them improve their own working practices at home, Utah Global Diplomacy has helped our state be a place of learning for over 12,000 visitors. The IVLP is an international effort by the US State Department to foster and maintain ties between the United States and other countries on a personal level, with citizens of East Timor having participated in the IVLP program here in Utah several times. Abel Amaral is the most recent of these participants.

Abel visited Utah with the International Visitor Leadership Program administered by World Learning in March 2023. The goal of his IVLP visit was to “examine how transparency and accountability in government ensure public trust in the integrity and fairness of elected officials, public servants, and the institutions of government.” To do this, the international cohort visited the Utah Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the State Auditor, the Utah Taxpayers Association, the American Fork City Council, and Alliance for a Better Utah. At each of these meetings, the international cohort of diplomatically-minded professionals met with Utah officials acting as de facto citizen diplomats, providing valuable insights and expertise.

As one of the most democratic countries in East Asia, East Timor takes transparency and accountability seriously. After returning from Utah, Abel met with East Timor's top government leaders, including the president, prime minister, and representatives from the armed forces, police, and community organizations. He also engaged with various media outlets to share his experiences in the US, using both traditional and social media channels to reach a broad audience. He was also selected to participate in the Asia-Pacific Forum in Colombo and represent East Timor on an international stage.

Democracy in Discussion

Photo by Abel Amaral (Speaking)

Promoting government accountability and transparency has long been a priority for Abel. His insights on security and state-building garnered public interest even before his IVLP participation; he was regularly featured in Timorese news. His visit to Utah, however, helped to deepen his understanding of democratic values and government accountability to the people. After returning, he was appointed as a neutral observer in presidential elections and has collaborated with the East Timorese Anti-Corruption Commission. Additionally, while the current government is heavily influenced by former freedom fighters with whom striking an influential balance can be difficult, Abel has already begun working with the next generation of Timorese leaders.


Photo by Abel Amaral (Speaking)

East Timor is a youthful and democratic nation. To bridge gaps with rural communities and reach youth personally, Abel regularly visits areas around East Timor with parliamentary representatives, government officials, and media organizations to promote voting, education, and anti-corruption measures in those regions. A major point of his education initiative is to ensure that youth understand the opportunities available to them and warn them away from corruption and that all age groups engage in democratic processes and dialogue. 

Thanks to Abel’s efforts and participation in Utah Global Diplomacy’s hosting of the US State Department’s IVLP initiative, thousands of people in East Timor are better educated about the processes of democracy, transparency, and accountability in government. Citizen diplomats in Utah are changing the world “one handshake at a time.” Engaging in citizen diplomacy doesn’t have to mean flying around the world and meeting dignitaries, however. It does not require holding political office or working in local government institutions either. For those interested in making a difference, Utah Global Diplomacy offers a myriad of ways to get involved. Symposiums, fundraisers, scholarships, community events and opportunities to host international visitors are continually offered throughout the year. Please check out our website or social media for more information!

(Thumbnail Credit: Thomas Vuillemin on Unsplash)


More in this category: « The Dinner Two Days After 9/11