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East Timor in Suharto's Shadow
A people's struggle toward independence
Dili, June 28, 1998. They
came running at us, screaming something. One man's face was painted red and
white, the Indonesian flag, and his fist hit my chin, a sharp jolt near my ear
as I staggered back. His colleagues surrounded me and Felipe and Jose, two
East Timorese university students, on the narrow side-street. These guys were
surely paramilitary thugs (Indonesian and East Timorese) hired by the
Indonesian military to surveil and terrorize East Timorese. They wielded iron
bars, knives, and curved swords. Jose looked at me and I saw the same fear on
his face that must have been on mine. For an instant I thought it was just a
terrible dream, must be, to die in East Timor.
Eighteen days earlier,
June 10, 1998. The
plane I took from Bali to East Timor's capital, Dili, passes along the
island's northern coast, with its endless beach and barely green hills that
give way to mountains running the 150 miles of this former Portuguese colony.
The East Timorese had seemed to wait patiently in the decades after World War
II, picking up neither stone nor gun, nor offering even mild nationalist
opposition. In 1974, socialist military officers overthrew the dictatorship in
Portugal. East Timor, after 450 years of plunder and neglect, was promised
independence by the new Portuguese government.
The fomenting of a brief
civil war among East Timorese by Indonesian military intelligence the next
year and the ensuing Indonesian invasion strangled the promise. The occupying
forces acted as one might expect of a military that had ten years before
facilitated the slaughter of at least 500,000 fellow Indonesians. In the next
decade, 200,000 East Timorese, one-third of the population, were killed by
bullet, bomb, napalm, and white phosphorous or died of starvation and disease
in Indonesia's resettlement and pacification campaign.
Felipe had said soon after I
arrived, “This is East Timor, Billy. In one year, you will know many
terrible things.” He was right. But the people of East Timor have never
stopped fighting and that spring and summer when Suharto fell and the East
Timorese took to the streets in the tens of thousands, I would also witness
I had come to East Timor
after a month in Jakarta, where I had marched and occupied the parliament with
students to push Suharto from office. There, I had heard the amazing news that
a protest in Dili had not been attacked by Indonesian security forces. I knew
protests would escalate. I had to see for myself what was going to happen.
Jose was my first friend
there. Like many
students Jose lived with relatives in Dili. He was too poor to visit his
parents, subsistence farmers in the mountains, more than once a year. I met
him at the end of the second independence rally at East Timor University on
the day I got to Dili.
When I arrived with two
German television journalists, the students crowded around, plying me with
questions about American policy and the possibility of UN troops coming to
East Timor. They explained that everyone in East Timor wanted the Indonesians
Jose came to my hotel the
next day and we walked miles on the road along the sea to Areia Branca, the
white sands beach, where we splashed in the water and laughing children jumped
from my shoulders. But almost every place in East Timor holds a terrible
story. To that beautiful beach had floated the swollen bodies of hundreds of
East Timorese murdered by the Indonesian soldiers in the days after the
Indonesian landing in Dili on December 7, 1975.
Our long walk together would
have ended differently only a month earlier. Jose would have been jailed and
beaten for talking to me; I would have been packed off on the next flight. But
the military had been off the streets since Suharto stepped aside, easing one
of the most repressive political climates in the world.
One student friend in the
recalled fleeing as a child to the mountains soon after Indonesia invaded East
Timor. Everywhere people lay dead on the ground as his family made its way
toward guerrilla-held territory. He asked his mother why they were all
sleeping like that. Another friend told me that in his village soldiers raped
young women nightly; and so parents often sent daughters to live with
relatives in the city. My friend Francisco received electric shocks while
having to squat barefoot in a puddle of water. He told me he had been merely
“questioned.” Felipe quickly listed a half-dozen family friends whose legs
had been broken by military interrogators.
The photos published around
the world last year showed soldiers asphyxiating young East Timorese men with
long pipes thrust down their throats and soldiers hammering dozens of nails
into naked, raped schoolgirls. An exiled Timorese had given me these pictures
and several of my Dili friends cried, a hand covering their tears, as they
crisis and the
removal of Suharto was the best thing to happen to East Timor in 23 years. To
re-attract international creditors and to temporarily stave off more serious
challenges in Indonesia, the new government had to allow greater political
freedom and to appear like serious reformers. This change of face offered an
opening and fresh hope to East Timor's independence struggle. A number of
new organizations emerged to cultivate that hope.
In late May, a week after
Suharto left office, a few university students created an independent student
committee to mobilize all East Timorese to demand a referendum to gain
independence. “It was urgent to do something new,” one organizer recalled.
“We were not constrained as the clandestine movement was. We called it the
East Timor Students Solidarity Council.”
On June 6, 1998, two weeks
after Suharto stepped down, thousands of young East Timorese flooded a small
meeting of pro-Indonesian East Timorese elites. When the governor said East
Timor only wanted a greater measure of home rule—“special
autonomy”—the crowd began shouting for independence.
Nine months earlier, in fall
1997, Manuel Carrascalao, an ex-member of the rubber-stamp provincial
parliament and brother of a former provincial governor, gathered people from
two of the 1975-era political parties, UDT and the Apodeti, into the
Reconciliation Movement. The new group hoped to promote discussion and unity
among all East Timorese and called on Suharto to withdraw troops and end human
Like Fretilin, the party that
had waged a guerilla struggle against the Indonesian occupation, UDT, had
lived an illegal existence these 23 years. The tiny, pro-integration Apodeti
operated with Indonesian assistance. Francisco Lopez Carvalho, an Apodeti
member, who had been an Indonesian military intelligence officer for 17 years
was another leader of the Reconciliation group. By 1998, even much of Apodeti
wanted a referendum.
Felipe and other students,
unforgiving about the choice to work with the Indonesians that Carrascalao,
Carvalho, and many others had made, joked bitterly about killing all of them.
In late April, as student
protest mounted against Suharto's rule, the CNRM (National Council of
Maubere Resistance), the decade-old umbrella independence organization led by
the imprisoned Xanana Gusmao, recognized the new possibilities for bringing
collaborators and ex-collaborators to participate in the movement. They
embraced the Reconciliation people and renamed themselves the National Council
of Timorese Resistance (CNRT)
The students organized three
rallies from June 10 to 15. They were the first demonstrations ever that were
not attacked by the security forces, which remained in barracks. High school
and nursing students, Catholic and elementary school teachers-in-training,
other youngsters and older people joined 2,000 university students. One farmer
in his sixties, who had fought the Indonesian invasion, flexed a bicep for me
and shook a fist. “I'm ready,” he said.
The students, though, were
not ready to take their protest off the relative safety of the campus. They
weren't afraid of dying, everyone said, but were afraid for their fellow
students. Students knew that they would have to leave the campus soon. They
needed to give courage and a vehicle for public expression to their fellow
East Timorese. The opportunity to provide that vehicle came the day after
their third protest, when a soldier fatally shot 21-year-old Herman Soares
while he was collecting wood on the road near Manatuto. In Manatuto, young
residents destroyed several police posts during the night.
In Dili the following day,
June 17, thousands gathered at the gates of the campus as buses, trucks, and
minivans lined up. Still tentative about marching even the few blocks to
Soares's family house, students crowded in and on top of the vehicles. For
years now, students in Southeast Asia have used such caravans as means to
demonstrate. We walked through the town behind a symbolic, varnished wooden
coffin. Shops, all owned by Javanese and Chinese immigrants from Indonesia,
were shuttered. Neither police nor military appeared.
The next day 10,000 solemn
marchers, including East Timorese Indonesian government employees in their tan
uniforms, took Herman's body to the grave. At the Santa Cruz cemetery, so
full of East Timor's enormous tragedy, it was dry and windless and quiet
except for the grief of Herman's mother and the rhythmic shoveling of the
As soon as we marched from
the cemetery, banners, little seen until that day, appeared. Exhilarated by
our numbers and mood, we began to jog and then to run. As we approached an
army base, soldiers in riot-gear and with automatic weapons dashed to the
entrances but came no farther. The youths dared them to fight.
We rallied at the unkempt
grounds of the small parliament building. A couple of Indonesian-appointed
East Timorese legislators joined the march back to Herman's house,
surrounded by student security. One of them stiffly held in front of him a
headband with the word “Referendum” on it. The legislators seemed captured
prizes, not willing protestors.
Similar protests continued
over several days culminating in a caravan of 150 trucks and buses and
hundreds of motor bikes. Everywhere we went, residents young and old ran out
to flash the victory sign, to wave and sing with us. An immense weight was
lifting off these people, a new hope visible in the way they stood and smiled
and shook their heads in delighted disbelief.
But new obstacles soon
were excited because three Jakarta-based European ambassadors planned a
fact-finding mission to East Timor beginning June 27 on behalf of the European
Union. But we heard that starting on the 26th, the Indonesian government and
the appointed provincial governor planned to mobilize East Timorese who
supported continued Indonesian integration. Because no one was sure what this
would mean, the Student Solidarity Council, in order to avoid conflict,
cancelled a march and urged students to stay away from the pro-integration
As Jose and I ambled along
the sea-front promenade on the day of the integration rally, we came on 100
East Timorese and Indonesian men lounging across from the governor's office.
They wore solid shoes, not the usual sandals. One man adjusted a radio under
his jacket. These were the elite of Indonesia's various paramilitary thugs,
intelligence agents known as Intel.
At first, the pro-Indonesian
integration event seemed a joke, only 60 people. Then, with horns honking and
engines roaring, 20 trucks and another 20 motorcycles, perhaps 1,000 people in
all, circled the block. It was still pathetic, considering Indonesian
officials' claims of a divided East Timor.
I soon noticed that six truck
windshields were smashed or missing. The trucks had been stoned as they
entered one Dili neighborhood. Young independence supporters, I heard, had
also blocked eight trucks from entering the city.
demonstrators told me they had been forced or tricked into joining the rally.
One man said his village headman told him and others they would be joining
student demonstrations for independence. He was too scared to leave once he
knew what was happening. Workers on a construction project were told they
would be fired if they didn't mount the trucks. Others expected to be
welcoming back from Jakarta their spiritual leader, Bishop Belo, the 1996
Nobel Peace Prize winner. Still others had been transported and paid a
half-month's salary by a district chief in the far east of the country. Some
were Indonesian “trans-migrants” from West Timor. It seemed to me, perhaps
with some bias, that most of the crowd was ashamed to find themselves there.
Whatever their feelings, they limply held the banners given to them.
The next day, June 27, the
“pro-Indonesian” forces re-mobilized to greet the ambassadors. Trucks
were stoned by independence youth. Armed men in the trucks fired,
killing one man and wounding others.
In Dili, truck occupants were
given little Indonesian flags and told by organizers to shout “Viva
Indonesia, Viva Integrasi” as the ambassadors approached. But many
demonstrators just watched the ambassadors drive by.
A thousand pro-independence
people (not university students whose leaders and student security were
keeping them two blocks away at the campus) were throwing rocks at the
integrationist gathering. The mobile police brigade arrived—the first time
the security forces had appeared in more than a month—and fired tear gas to
drive the pro-independence crowd back. The Intel men carried iron bars,
nunchuks, bush-knives, and even a spiked mace or two.
Felipe, Jose, and I circled
parliament to find one of the pro-independence crowds. On our way, we turned
down the wrong side-street where a half-dozen men attacked us. After I was hit
a couple of times and pleaded that I was a pro-Indonesia tourist, one of them
apparently decided that a dead white guy would not look good and restrained
his colleagues. The three of us walked away shaken. I had gotten my taste of
We found 10,000 people
escorting the cart-drawn coffin of Manuel Soares (no relation to Herman) to
the governor's offices. Soldiers stopped the coffin from reaching the
building's entrance. A scuffle started and soldiers immediately fired tear
gas. The crowd responded with stones. The soldiers seemed about to use their
M-16s. Everyone scattered and reformed at a distance to march around the city.
Dili had relaxed in the
last month. There had
been no reports of arrests even in the villages, where the military operated
free of scrutiny. Now uncertainty descended on the capital. Dili had been shut
down since morning. No buses ran all day and few cars. That night the streets
At least two persons were
killed: one shot by men working for the pro-Indonesian district head and an
Intel agent I had seen covered in blood in the back of a police ambulance.
Evidently the army was not initiating deadly force. Yet there was clearly a
military policy of stirring up violence and the image of civil war, one far
from the reality of near unity for independence.
The next day the police and
the military guarded only the governor's battered offices. “Pro-integra-
tionists” had gone home. The danger of yesterday seemed gone. Thousand of
independence marchers escorted the visiting ambassadors to a meeting with the
On the following day, June
29, however, events reached a climax. In Baucau, two hours east from Dili,
during a visit by the ambassadors to the bishop, panicked plainclothes
military intelligence officers shot and killed Orlando Marcelino, a
35-year-old farmer, and wounded others.
But in Dili, unaware of the
shootings in Baucau, the mood was celebratory. A massive, 3-mile-long caravan
of 1,000 trucks and buses and thousands of motorbikes carried 50,000
demonstrators for 4 hours through Dili. To bring all these vehicles together
in such a poor country struck even the young East Timorese as incredible. It
seemed that the rest of the city's 130,000 population was lining the roads,
and they cheered as the euphoric caravan rumbled past. After that day, it no
longer made sense to speak of an independence movement. It was well beyond
what I understood as a movement. The movement was not fish in the sea, but the
Yet, the gigantic
mobilization posed a dilemma for student leaders. It would be hard to match
it. It was time to pause and think strategy. A few days later, Orlando
Marcelino's funeral was held in Baucau, a town perched against the sea on
rocky volcanic hills. Orlando's family and hundreds of others followed his
coffin and a large wooden cross up a long road to the plateau above the town.
The sun had just set and the blue sky was splotched with red and yellow and
black, and far away to the east was a towering rainbow. Angry youths raised
their fists and shouted in the name of the struggle. In the quickening
darkness, the coffin was lowered.
Within the core of the
independence movement activists
disagreement arose in the next two weeks about the July 17 anniversary of East
Timor's “integration” and the impending visit of the United Nations
special representative on East Timor. Some urged caution; others wanted
Historically, the infrequent
visits by prominent foreigners were almost the only occasions to capture world
attention. To allow the yearly integration celebration to go on without
independence protest, when the world was watching, irked some students. But
Xanana Gusmao, from Cipinang prison in Jakarta, called for an end to protest
until further notice. He wanted a return to a more selective mobilization,
determined not by the new student movement but by established leadership.
Xanana neither gave explanation nor asked for student opinion, and it rankled
some. Did he have some information the students lacked?
Not that the Student
Solidarity Council had fundamental disagreements with Xanana and the CNRT.
Like Xanana, they were proud to call themselves moderates. As Fernando Da
Araujo, leader of Renetil, the organization of East Timorese students outside
East Timor, told me, “That is the kind of leadership we need now.”
Certainly there was danger of
swift and deadly violence, despite the recent restraint of the Indonesian
armed forces toward the protests. The clandestine movement reported that at an
early July meeting, regional military commanders had decided on a
shoot-to-kill policy. These commanders were apparently close to the
now-disfavored Suharto son-in-law General Prabowo, former head of Kopassus,
the Indonesian Special Forces, and thus cared little about international
opinion or creditors. They might have desired to undermine armed forces chief
Wiranto and the newly anointed President Habibie.
Still, many students did not
want to wait. One friend said to me, “We are willing to die to bring our
country's freedom. It is our turn.”
There were several reasons
for Xanana's directive. It was not clear that more sacrifice in the streets
would bring East Timor closer to independence. But what I heard most from CNRT
leaders was that the world needed to be shown that East Timorese were not
violently quarrelsome by nature. Indeed, many East Timorese I met believed
that they tended to fight more among themselves than people in other places
and that the world believed similarly about them. Aiming for a referendum
rather than declaring independence also signaled this concern.
The consequences of the CNRT
perspective weighed on the movement over the next months, tipping the balance
away from the very thing that effectively capitalized on the new, mass public
protest. Tens of thousands in the streets made the international press and
foreign governments take notice. It encouraged solidarity efforts in countries
around the world, which in turn had an effect on their national media and
A lie repeated often
sounds enough like truth when
little else is being heard. The quieting of independence protest worked well
for Indonesia. Even more clearly than in 1975, without Indonesian involvement,
there would be no civil violence between East Timorese. But the minor
confrontation produced by sham pro-integration protests appeared to be
harbingers of violent civil conflict. Foreign journalists could not help but
cover government pronouncements, like those of the Foreign Minister Ali Alatas,
that a referendum and independence would bring a more terrible repeat of the
1975 civil war. Look at what had happened when the European ambassadors
visited, Alatas said. Indonesia had to keep peace.
When the government announced
a 1,000-person combat troop withdrawal at the end of July and flew 100
Indonesian and foreign journalists to Dili from Jakarta to report it,
Indonesia won an important international media skirmish. Few journalists aired
the clandestine movement's reports of an influx of Indonesian troops at
Students revered Xanana as a
great leader and future president, but his statements that summer sometimes
seemed so uncomprehending of the optimism and sense of freedom created by the
explosion of mass protest that it worried them. Xanana told Time
magazine in late June that under President Habibie a referendum could not be
gained. He proffered a several-stage, seven to ten year plan originally
proposed by the independence movement in tougher times at the beginning of the
decade. Pushing hard would backfire with the proud Indonesian military.
Habibie's regime was too weak; the military too strong. Reform did not yet
mean self-determination for East Timor. The Indonesian elections that Habibie
promised for spring 1999 would probably bring a government more amenable to
East Timorese sovereignty. The protests had served their purpose. Diplomacy,
patience, and flexibility would occupy this next phase.
Many students and clandestine
activists figured just the opposite—that economic crisis and an
unconsolidated regime offered the best chance for referendum and independence.
It was as possible that the military would more openly and firmly rule by the
next year, given the growing turmoil and challenge to authority and power all
Later, after Antero Benedeto
Da Silva, the Students Solidarity Council leader, returned from a visit to
Xanana in Jakarta in August, the CNRT placed an unhappy Student Solidarity
Council under its aegis. Given the circumstances of struggle, CNRT people said
to me, there must be a single chain of command. But there was a further
problem. Several Reconciliation people now occupied prominent positions in the
CNRT. They would exercise control over the students whom they had publicly
called immature and impetuous. The students didn't fully trust these
Why do the rulers of Indonesia hold on to East Timor? Fear of centrifugal effects on other independence-minded or dissatisfied regions remains the principal reason why Indonesia won't let go. Others argue, however, that there is little danger of Indonesian territorial fragmentation; face-saving, military profiteering, and oil deposits are mostly what keep Indonesia in East Timor. The careful strategy of Xanana and the CNRT is meant to let the Indonesians leave gradually, pride intact. But the fact that East Timor is the only area with international standing, a cohesive and hegemonic national liberation movement, and a different colonial master matters little to the folks actively seeking independence in Aceh or West Papua/Irian Jaya. Or to the military and ruling elite, which is still unwilling to test the theory that other “parts” of Indonesia would not be electrified by East Timorese independence.
The East Timorese have had to
be extraordinarily patient. But they have also been undefeatable. The
Indonesian military will never wipe out the clandestine movement or the
guerrillas, who rarely initiate confrontations but remain a source of great
pride for the East Timorese. So many East Timorese have had to fashion a
compromise with the occupying forces; the guerrillas are pure,
East Timor has now glimpsed a
long-sought freedom and it seems impossible that the Indonesian military will
be able to lower the steel shutters again without mass rebellion and another
Americans, whose successive
governments have provided Indonesia with its military might can speed the day
of East Timor's nationhood and thus lessen the pain that its populace will
have to endure. They can put pressure, through legal and extra-legal
means—as the East Timor Action Network has been doing since 1992—on the
U.S. government to take a stronger stance against the occupation of East Timor
and for the ending of the military's political power in Indonesia. The
people of East Timor must know they are not alone.
East Timor's greatest hope
in the near future may lie in further change in Indonesia. Judging from his
statements and his actions over the summer, this seems to be the verdict of
independence leader Xanana Gusmao. The elections planned for next year could
bring a reform government willing to let East Timor leave its Indonesian
prison. Will the military allow that change?
It is also difficult to
predict the strategy, timing, and course of the independence movement; to
factor the movement's internal dynamics with its fight against the occupying
forces. The history of movements is often written as the logical unfolding of
grand ideas and broad, abstract forces. Although their final destination may
sometimes be deduced, events often travel a haphazard course, pushed this way
and that by historical accidents and intrusions and by human beings. So it
will likely be in East Timor, where one day the people will have their nation,
generations and a genocide too late, and probably by a series of events that
no one now suspects.
On my last day in East Timor,
at the beach across from my hotel, I encountered children again. They drew an
Indonesian flag in the sand at water's edge and let the lapping sea wash it
away. Inevitable forces, these never-ending young waves of a people.
As I was leaving, Pedro, an
older man I knew, said to me in broken English, “Independence this year,
that's what I need. I like soon, but if next year, I take.” Then he smiled
and raised a fist. Z
Billy Nessen is a student of Southeast Asia
and a long-time activist.