Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Apr. 1, 1996
29 min read

THE AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW MAGAZINE

A crowd of children spontaneously break into a gleeful chant: “Viva Timor Leste! Viva Timor Leste!” (Wilson da Silva)

With new blood revitalising the East Timorese indepndence movement, Jakarta has little hope of pacifying the unwilling 27th province of Indonesia.

By Wilson da Silva

THREE ANCIENT Portuguese cannon stare out to sea. Knotted old trees arch their branches above the semi-circular landing of Dili’s tiny wharf. Below, the waters of the Sawu Sea lap gently at the heavy stone foundations. On either side, tall mountains follow the shoreline into the distance, while above, a hot afternoon sun bleaches the white colonial buildings and bakes the red tile rooves. Far out at sea, an occasional arc of lightning slices through heavily pregnant clouds. This is East Timor, and the wet season has set in.

Australia is to the south, and closer than Brisbane is to Rockhampton. These same waters break on the shoals of Western Australia. What two different worlds they see. While in both places the water is blue and serene, here it has been murky with human blood. Blood spilt two decades ago when an overwhelming task force of Indonesian warships, bombers and paratroopers descended on this sleepy outpost of a crumbling European empire.

Hundreds of prisoners were executed by gunfire at this wharf, their bodies falling into the water below. The rusting hulks of three Indonesian troop landers are still visible on the sandy beach nearby, frozen where they came to a halt on December 7, 1975. They are within view of the governor’s office, and only a stone’s throw from the promenade that is Dili’s main thoroughfare. Some are daubed with graffiti, most of this painted over or unreadable.

It seems insensitive, and for the casual tourist a little awkward, to have such a reminder of war so readily visible. 

On the beach, two aging Timorese men with straw hats and deeply tanned limbs tend to their nets. Red-bereted Indonesian soldiers, their automatic rifles slung lazily to one side, peer at passers-by. Their eyes betray boredom. Young Timorese men and women passing by greet foreigners with “Good morning, mister” or simply “Mister!”. It all seems peaceful, if a little odd.

The spell is soon broken. A young man, maybe 18 or 19, walks toward you along the promenade, within view of the soldiers. He smiles, his body language is relaxed. As you pass him, your eyes and his connect for a split moment. “Independençia ou morte,” he says. Portuguese for “Independence or death”.

Outside a school playground in the town centre a crowd of children, between six and eight years old, surge across the street and surround you. They are clad in red bermudas or skirts, with white short-sleeved shirts that bear an Indonesian insignia on the breast pocket. The red and white Indonesian flag flutters above. They shout and they laugh, and hold their brown hands up to touch your camera. Spontaneously, they break into a gleeful, seemingly innocent chant: “Viva Timor Leste! Viva Timor Leste!” It is Portuguese again. The cry of the banned Timorese resistance: “Long live East Timor”. 

At a Dili restaurant, a woman’s eyes fill with tears when she hears a foreigner speaking Portuguese. She sits close by, and her words pouring out between sniffs of lament. She flicks the tears away with a fore-finger in a casual , matter-of-fact way. It seems the mannerism of a person accustomed to sorrow. 

“You can’t go to East Timor and walk away without being affected,” an experienced foreign correspondent had told me in Singapore a few days before. “You can’t go there and believe that nothing is wrong.”

It is difficult for East Timor to remain an abstract political concept when the woman in front of you is sobbing as she recounts the gruesome detail of her torture. Or when an ageing Catholic priest tells of random and almost nightly beatings of his flock by Indonesian soldiers and police in riot gear. Or when, sitting on a beach outside your hotel one night, you watch with your heart in your mouth as two army trucks pull up and 15 men in riot gear surround you. They press in so close that, in the dim moonlight, you can make out the fogging of their visors with breath. You peer at their long rattan canes held at the ready, notice their bodies are tensed for action.

“This is without question the most repressive place I have ever seen,” said Reed Brody, executive secretary of International Commission of Jurists. The New York lawyer, a widely travelled former United Nations official, had just returned from a fact-finding visit to East Timor. “There is constant intimidation. Everywhere you go, you are watched. People they see you talk to are questioned.”

A child tends a grave in Mount Ramelau (Ross Bird)

Brody went as a tourist, as had five other foreign human rights monitors: two Australians, a German, a Namibian and another American. It’s the only way to get into East Timor: non-tourist visits require an Indonesian invitation or an official permit. None has ever been granted to an international human rights group; few are granted to journalists. In 1995, when I visited the territory for this story, 35 “tourists” had been expelled from the territory. 

Even playing holidaymaker, one is followed from hotels and watched in bars and other public places. Seals left on bags to warn of searches are broken within 24 hours of arrival. Locals say that half of the staff in Dili’s three hotels are either wholly or partly on the intelligence payroll, and many cab drivers are paid to report on the movements of tourists. It can certainly be difficult to hail a taxi – at times you watch as two or three empty taxis flash past you outside the hotel. When one does stop, it tends to be driven a more conversational and inquisitive driver.

The human rights observers played elaborate charades trying to disguise their tracks, not always successfully. When the group met at a Timorese restaurant in the Dili suburbs, four Indonesian men in batik shirts and leather sneakers took a nearby table. Some of them had been seen in uniform earlier that day. The men nursed bottles of Tiger beer and smoked clove cigarettes. They did not order food. A few houses down the street, four Indonesian soldiers with walkie talkies and M-16 rifles took up station. A note arrived at our table: “Os da intelligençia chegaram” – “Those from Intelligence have arrived.”

This is nothing unusual. They are gentle reminders that East Timor is an occupied territory. That two decades after being swallowed by Indonesia as its 27th province, an extensive intelligence apparatus is still needed. A strong military presence still required. At no other airport terminal in Indonesia will a tourist, stepping off a domestic flight, be approached for his passport even as he awaits his bags. In no other province will the chief of immigration gather foreigners at their hotel and, as they sift through breakfast, lecture them for an hour about acting like tourists and “not like journalists”. 

To the casual visitor, East Timor seems a pleasant, old world paradise. No security threat is discernible. Yet, faced with such incidents, it becomes difficult to disregard the testimony of locals, who tell of a campaign of intimidation to discourage dissent. It becomes difficult to dismiss an ageing Catholic priest – the kind you would expect to be running cake raffles back home – interrupt his account of atrocities to peer apprehensively out the window before sitting down again. “We are being colonised by a Third World country,” he says. “It’s the worst colonial master to have. This kind of colonialism, if it had occurred early this century, or even before the Second World War, you could understand that. But not now. Not in the 1990s.”

Or other clergymen, like Father Domingos Soares, a Timorese priest from the mountain town of Baucau, who has of late been the target of death threats. Still, he is willing to go on the record. “They think we are animals,” he sighed, taking off his wire-framed glasses to wipe sweat from his face. “They beat the people and think they will submit like dogs. But we are human beings. They are only creating more hate, more resentment. They strengthen the determination of the people.”

But even Father Soares becomes agitated, and eventually melts away, when two burly Indonesian men arrive and eye us across the cafe.                         

ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL figures, Indonesia has six battalions of about 5,000 men stationed in the former Portuguese colony. Foreign military attachés in Jakarta say the real number is at least double that, while Australian government estimates are 15,000 to 20,000 – equal to the number that stormed ashore in the 1975 invasion. Indonesian officials say the armed resistance to Indonesian rule is long defeated: only a ragtag guerrilla band of at most 200 Timorese die-hards remain. If so, they are fearsome warriors indeed, requiring between 25 and 100 Indonesian soldiers for every guerrilla.

Timorese guerrillas in the mountains

Indonesia says it has spent US$1.1 billion on development projects in East Timor since annexing the territory in 1976. Despite this, it is clear Jakarta has failed to win the hearts and minds of the Timorese, a fact readily accepted in official reports.

“People voluntarily and enthusiastically build a church while they are unwilling to build the facilities for running water, even though they clearly need clean water,” said a 1991 study prepared by Gadjah Mada University for the Bank of Indonesia.

“The serious political unrest and abuses which followed integration meant the process of nation building in the province was blocked again and again,” said the report. Local feelings of mistrust “have been made worse because of human rights abuses by the security forces due to the prolonged war situation, and their continuing lack of understanding of the culture of the local people.”

Indonesian scholars blame Timorese intransigence on the “trauma” of integration – a euphemism for the years of warfare following the invasion. It was a war the Indonesian generals had expected to wrap up within months. Yet, two years after their massive invasion, they controlled only three major towns and 20 per cent of the territory. Successive military commanders intensified their campaigns: British Hawk ground-attack aircraft and U.S. Bronco OV-10 bombers were purchased and deployed in East Timor. There were reports of napalm used and villages razed.

Little of this got to the outside world; for 13 years, East Timor was a closed territory. Human rights groups tell of enormous atrocities during this period, including a tactic known as the “fence of legs”, in which Timorese villagers were marched ahead of advancing Indonesian troops. 

Historians estimate that at least one third of the population – some 200,000 people – were killed by war, disease and starvation caused by the conflict. This figure, often quoted, seems hard to accept, since it would make the per capita death toll in East Timor greater than that in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Nevertheless, the data is there: East Timor’s population was 688,000 in 1974; Indonesian records show that it fell to 522,000 five years later. Had it continued to grow at the rate prevalent before the invasion, the population would have reached 806,000 by 1990. Instead, an Indonesian census taken in that year showed a population of 706,000 (including 127,000 Indonesian settlers). This suggests that some 227,000 Timorese have gone missing since the 1975 invasion, according to a Monash University study conducted by anthropologist Patricia Thatcher.

In the end, the military campaigns were effective, eventually breaking the back of the guerrilla army and creating, according to official Indonesian figures, 370,000 refugees. During this period, more than 85 per cent of the livestock was also destroyed.

“They were the darkest years of our struggle,” said José Ramos Horta, a high-ranking Timorese resistance leader based in Australia. “That’s when the largest massacres took place, when literally tens of thousands of people died like flies – of massacres, of hunger, fleeing bombardments, military onslaughts and encirclement, unable to cultivate the land. 

“They were the years when I thought, you know, we were defeated,” he said. “The odds were so great that I thought we were being deleted from history.”

It was not until 1989, with the Indonesian military firmly in control, that East Timor was finally opened to visitors. Reports of atrocities began to filter out more readily, and expressions of civil defiance to Indonesian rule were seen in the outside world. In October of that year, Pope John Paul II visited and, during an outdoor mass, students held up banners before the cameras and shouted for independence. Indonesian soldiers pounced on them, and two foreign journalists had their cameras seized and film destroyed. A few months later, about 40 Timorese teenagers besieged Dili’s Hotel Turismo where the-then U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, John Monjo, was staying, and held up placards calling for U.N. intervention. He spoke with them for an hour. As his car drove off, Indonesian riot police seized the youngsters, beating them until there were pools of blood on the driveway. A gaggle of stunned tourists, cameras whirring, watched from the front verandah.

These early incidents created a paradox that should have been deeply troubling for the Indonesian military, a warning perhaps. Suddenly, resistance was not coming from the old guard who had fought the Portuguese and dreamed of independence. It came from teenagers too young to remember anything before integration. Children who had been brought up to speak Bahasa Indonesia and salute the red-and-white flag. 

When Indonesian soldiers opened fire on a Timorese demonstration at Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, more than half of those killed were either teenagers or in their twenties. When human rights groups issue bulletins notifying of the arrest and torture in East Timor, almost all of those listed are under 30.

Still from a video of the 1991 Dili massacre, smuggled out by a tourist

In 1995 alone, there were a number of riots in Dili and Baucau; shops belonging to Indonesian merchants were burned and roads blockaded by Timorese youngsters. In one incident, Indonesian riot police and soldiers were beaten back with stones for several days. The youngsters have also taken their fight to Jakarta, more than 2,000 km west. More than 100 Timorese youths have scaled embassy walls to pleaded for political asylum. There have been 12 such incidents at the Australian, British, Dutch, French, Japanese, Russian, Swedish, Finnish and U.S. embassies. 

The Bank of Indonesia study alludes to this rising wave of dissent amongst the young. “They are not afraid to die or, if necessary, to protect a friend until their last drop of blood,” it says of Timorese youth. “To them, physical torture (feels) far lighter than the shackling of their souls by a particular system.”

Rather than waning after 20 long years, resistance appears to be rising. Two decades after Indonesian forces first landed on the beaches of Dili, and a decade after winning the ground war, it seems Indonesia now faces an intifada of the young.                   

JOÃO IS A WAITER at the Hotel Turismo in Dili. He has been a waiter there since 1970. He still remembers the last meal he served Australian journalist Roger East the night before the Indonesian invasion. “He sat over there,” said João, pointing to a corner of the weatherboard restaurant where the 52-year-old Sydneysider ate alone. “He ordered grilled fish and soup.”

Thirty-six hours later East, his hands tied by the thumbs behind his back, was gunned down by Indonesian soldiers at Dili’s tiny wharf – even as he protested that he was a journalist and an Australian citizen. His body fell into the harbour, joining the scores of Timorese prisoners who were taken, often at random, and executed that day.

“He had a white shirt and khaki-brown shorts,” said one witness to the killing, a Timorese of Chinese extraction now living in Melbourne. “He wore thongs and glasses. His hands were tied behind. They turned him toward the sea, and the man turned back. He talked or argued with the Indonesians. They hit him with guns, but he kept talking. I didn’t understand (what he said). They used automatic weapons. It wasn’t just one soldier, it was three or four who fired. There were many killed. The pier had lots of blood.”

It was December 8, 1975, the day after the invasion began. East’s disappearance has never been explained, his family never told he had died. No inquiry was called by the Australian government, no witnesses testified, no official protest lodged. As late as 1980, Australian authorities told journalists they were still “seeking an early reply” to their inquiries. “There was never any confirmation, no passports or papers,” said East’s sister, Glenise Kathleen Bowie, a 69-year-old Sydney pensioner. “There was nothing to confirm that he’d gone.”

His death had been largely forgotten, although those of the five Australian-based television journalists a few months earlier were not. The five died in the Timorese hinterland town of Balibo, where they had gone to verify reports of clandestine Indonesian border raids. Jakarta maintains the five – two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander – were killed in crossfire between warring Timorese factions. But recent evidence by former Indonesian collaborators contradicts this, suggesting they were executed by Indonesian soldiers keen to keep Jakarta’s illegal cross-border raids from international attention. 

The six Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975: Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Roger East.

Prompted by public pressure, and threats of an inquiry by the Australian Senate, then Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans established an investigation into the death of the journalists in 1996 – including that of Roger East. A number of Timorese refugees who witnessed his death testified at the inquiry. In the end, it found that the journalists had ‘probably’ died of crossfire between Indonesian soldiers and Timorese troops. The case of East was not so easily dismissed.

Evans, like many political leaders in Australia, has tread more carefully on the East Timor issue of late. Protests against Indonesia draw bigger crowds and get more airplay in Australia. The discomfort became personal when, in an inglorious moment in 1995, Evans was forced to defend the Australia-Indonesia Timor Gap oil treaty before the World Court. The treaty between Australia and Indonesia divides up the potentially rich Timor oil and gas fields between the two countries.

Portugal, East Timor’s former colonial master, argued that the treaty was void: Indonesia had no right to sign it since it acquired East Timor by force, and therefore Australia was party to an agreement that was in contravention of international law. Evans argued that the Timorese were actually Indonesians, so the issue didn’t arise. But back in Australia that same year, he found himself petitioning the courts against the granting of refugee status in Australia to 1,300 recent arrivals from East Timor. His argument? That if they had justified grounds to fear persecution, they should go to Portugal because, actually, Timorese are Portuguese citizens. 

Surveys indicate that Australians smell a rat. That they continue to harbour misgivings about government policy on East Timor, and two decades don’t seem to have tempered this. An AGB-McNair poll in September 1995 found that 58 per cent of respondents want the federal government to be more critical of Indonesia on East Timor, with 32 per cent saying they would be prepared to risk the bilateral relations in order to do so. The forced withdrawal of Indonesia’s ambassador-designate that same year, Lieutenant-General Herman Mantiri, following public uproar over his comments defending the 1991 Dili massacre, helped to highlight the blind spot Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs has when it comes to East Timor.

But it also proved that, 20 years after the event, East Timor remains an issue in the public mind. It is an itch that just can’t be scratched. Perhaps it is a general distrust of our populous northern neighbour and its authoritarian form of government. Perhaps it is a suspicion that the journalists’ deaths in 1975 were anything but accidental. Or perhaps it is lingering guilt that 40,000 Timorese died when they chose to help Australian commandos fight a guerrilla war against Imperial Japan in 1942.

One of the diggers who survived that campaign, Ray Aitken, once told me of his suspicion that Canberra has looked the other way all these years because it wanted the rich oil fields of the Timor Gap. Australia had coveted them since the 1930s but found the Portuguese dragging their feet. Australian diplomats had felt a deal could be more easily struck with East Timor under Indonesian control. “Australia owes the Timorese a debt,” Aitken said. “We’ll be written into history as sacrificing them for oil, of betraying them.”

The ‘diggers’ are still remembered by the elderly of East Timor, though perhaps less fondly. One woman, whose relatives fought alongside the Australian commandos, remarked: “Maybe we chose the wrong side in that war.”

                        

A LIFE IN EXILE

JOSÉ RAMOS HORTA is the least favourite Timorese in Jakarta. Vice-president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the umbrella resistance group, he is the public face of the Timorese struggle for independence. 

Originally an official of the ruling Fretilin political party in East Timor, Horta was appointed foreign minister on November 28, 1975. He flew out on December 5 to present his credentials to the United Nations, and try and draw attention to a widely-expected military incursion. But by the time his plane touched down in a wintry New York, Indonesia had already invaded. He was 25, had never been to a big city and never seen snow. And was suddenly a political exile. 

“A very nice American couple took me to a nearby store to buy cutlery,” he recalls. “I bought only one of each – one fork, one spoon – and they were amused that I didn’t buy a set, which would have been cheaper. But I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I was just passing by New York, and I was going back to Timor soon.”

Within days, Horta was slushing through snow to speak to an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council. News footage of the time shows a young man with an enormous Afro haircut and an ill-fitting brown suit reading from a prepared statement. His English is slow and heavily accented. The U.N. Security Council votes to condemn Indonesia’s invasion in an unanimous resolution, despite lobbying by Indonesia and Australia. Horta is euphoric. Indonesia will comply, he thinks, or the Security Council, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, will amass a military force and drive it out. 

Twenty years later, he’s still waiting. “I had expected to go back with a U.N. resolution in my hands in triumph,” he said. “Instead, I found out that piece of paper didn’t mean much.”

In the two decades since, Horta has travelled the world lobbying his cause, speaking at human rights forums, U.N. meetings, church gatherings, university conferences, political rallies – to anyone who will listen. In the two decades since, his sister Mariazinha has been killed by shrapnel from Indonesian bombing. His brothers Nunu, a guerrilla fighter, and Gui, have been captured and executed by Indonesian soldiers.

He travels for 10 months of the year. He has no home, no furniture, no car, no driver’s licence. His bed is a sofa or a guest room in the homes of a dozen friends around the world, or an economy-class seat on a transcontinental flight. His life is an eternal transit lounge. 

His hope, and that of thousands of his compatriots, is for an international solution to the long-festering issue. The United Nations does not recognise Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor; it is considered a non-self-governing territory of which Portugal is the administering authority. The U.N. is trying for a solution; U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali brokered day-long talks between Portuguese and Indonesian foreign ministers in London last month. It as the seventh since 1983. Again, little progress was made. 

Despite this, and a long line of delays and disappointments over these long 20 years, Horta feels that the tide is turning against Indonesia. The vivid footage of the Dili massacre has helped reawaken the ghost of Timor. Not just in the public mind, but in the diplomatic conscience. Indonesia, which long relied on its anti-communist zeal to win Western support, has found that the post-Cold War world is less willing to overlook human rights issues – the U.S. has halted military training aid and small arms sales, while some European nations have ceased aid. U.S. President Bill Clinton has joined other world leaders in lobbying Suharto for a review of Indonesia’s rule in East Timor. 

In the meantime, Horta has earned the public odium of Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. At a press conference in Jakarta in March 1995, Alatas charged that the embassy sit-ins by Timorese youths were contrived by a “desperate” Horta in an effort to “revive the waning international interest” in East Timor. Shortly after he spoke, 10 Timorese students were arrested attempting to enter the Japanese embassy in Jakarta, while another five managed to break into the New Zealand embassy. A few days later, Timorese guerrillas ambushed an Indonesian patrol in the Viqueque region of East Timor, killing Indonesian seven soldiers and two civilians.

Horta shrugs off the barbs and disappointments. In answer, he points to a poster on the wall. It displays the motto of the guerrillas, still fighting up there in the mountains of East Timor: “Resistir é vençer”... “To resist in to win”.