issue 253 - March 1994
a brief history of East Timor
Compiled by John Taylor.
Many centuries ago successive waves of migrants, mostly Malay and Melanesian, settled on the island with the original inhabitants, the Atoni people of the central highlands. This ethnic mix was compounded by the arrival of Chinese, Arab and Gujerati traders, who visited Timor in search of its valuable sandalwood. The island was divided into kingdoms ruled by princes (called rajas or liurai) and clan leaders who exercised power in kin-related villages. These contained hamlets whose inhabitants grew subsistence crops and traded with each other. The first Europeans to settle in the area were the Portuguese, on the neighbouring island of Solor in 1566. They made annual trips to Timor to collect sandalwood and trade in finished goods. Their rivals in the region were the Dutch, who followed soon after, gaining control of most of what we now know as Indonesia.
Although the Portuguese established a colonial administration in Timor in 1702, they disputed and fought with the Dutch for control over the island for the next three centuries. The two halves of the island finally were separated in an agreement signed by the two colonial powers in 1913 – the Dutch taking the west and the Portuguese the east. The Europeans profited from their control over the sandalwood trade and introduced coffee in the mid-nineteenth century, which became Timor’s principal export, supplemented with rubber, tobacco, copra and peanuts. Revolts by the Timorese against colonial rule were frequent, and most of them were suppressed brutally. The last of these continued from the late 1880s until 1912, and was defeated with the deaths of around 3,000 Timorese.
During the Second World War Timor was occupied by the Japanese, who encountered widespread resistance to their attempts to force the population to grow food, both for their troops and for export. By the time the Japanese surrendered in 1945 some 60,000 Timorese, or 13 per cent of the population, had died. In 1949 West Timor became part of the post-colonial Indonesian Republic. Portugal retained East Timor, adding a small ‘legislative assembly’ whose selected members were trained as an indigenous administrative élite. Economically, the Portuguese pinned their hopes on oil – discovered in 1972, and on an expansion of tourism. An embryonic nationalist opposition emerged in the 1960s based on young people educated in Catholic schools and the Dili seminary or trained in a radicalized Portuguese army.
On 25 April 1974 the Portuguese Armed Forces Movement overthrew the Caetano regime and began a process of decolonization in Portugal’s African and Asian colonies. In East Timor political groups were organized and given a free rein. In January 1974 the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) entered a coalition with the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor (Fretilin). Both parties agreed with the Portuguese to move towards independence over a three-year period. The Indonesian military bribed and persuaded several UDT leaders to organize a coup in August 1975.
But by September Fretilin was in control of virtually all of East Timor. Its leaders continued to recognize Portuguese sovereignty and called repeatedly on the Governor to return and oversee the transition to independence. Lisbon refused and Fretilin’s administration became the de facto government. On 28 November, with the Indonesian invasion imminent, Fretilin leaders declared independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of East Timor.
On 7 December 1975 Indonesian armed forces invaded. The invasion was followed by brutal treatment of the civilian population – indiscriminate killings and rape in the streets of Dili, with buildings sacked and burned. By February 1976, with troops spreading out from the capital to occupy villages to the east and south, East Timor’s Indonesian-appointed deputy governor, Lopez la Cruz, admitted that 60,000 East Timorese had been killed.
Despite this onslaught the Indonesians controlled only the coastal and border regions, and areas accessible from the country’s tiny network of roads. Troop numbers were increased and draconian controls were imposed on the population, isolating the territory from the outside world. In an operation beginning in late 1977 – called ‘Encirclement and Annihilation’ – mountain areas where people had taken refuge were bombed. In 1978 and 1979 tens of thousands of East Timorese came down from the mountains, to be rounded up and resettled in strategic villages set up by the military. Many died of hunger. Those who were not transported to camps were either imprisoned or disappeared.
Continuous military campaigns against the population had a devastating effect. In one called Operasi Keamanan (‘Operation Final Cleansing’) in 1981, males between the ages of eight and fifty were recruited to form human chains across the island to flush out Fretilin groups. After such campaigns many of the population were relocated in ‘resettlement villages’, distant from both their homes and the zones of fighting, where they were subjected to a rigorous system of internal control. Regular famines resulted.
Meanwhile, land outside the villages was devoted to the cultivation of cash crops for export in agricultural projects set up by the military, who appropriated most of the land previously under plantation crops. Land was transferred to migrants from areas outside East Timor as part of the Government’s ‘Indonesianization’ strategy. Mosques were built at an increasing rate. East Timor’s lingua franca, Tetum, was banned, and Bahasa Indonesian taught in schools. Informers, directed by appointed elders (katuas) became responsible for the surveillance of groups of 10 to 15 families.
By 1979 Fretilin was almost destroyed as an organization. All its original leaders had been captured or killed, leaving behind a small group which managed during 1980 to reorganize the movement from the eastern tip of the island, attacking Indonesian targets in different parts of the country. Between March and August 1983 the Indonesian military and Fretilin agreed a ceasefire, which enabled Fretilin to gain support for its position internationally and to persuade the UN Secretary-General to act as a mediator in the conflict.
In August the Indonesian Government unilaterally broke the ceasefire. Fretilin organized ambushes and attacks on Indonesian troops, using support networks set up in the resettlement villages. In the late 1980s these attacks became less frequent, and in November 1992 Fretilin’s leader, Xanana Gusmao, was captured. This was followed by the capture of his successor, Mau Honu, in April 1993. Currently Fretilin retains a resistance network in the centre, south and east of the territory, but is less capable of mounting major attacks than in earlier years; yet it continues to receive wide support from the population through an underground resistance network.
Since the late 1980s opposition to the Indonesian occupation has shifted to younger East Timorese who have built up networks in the main towns and villages, notably Dili and Baucau. These groups organized demonstrations during the Pope’s 1989 visit and for the planned visit of the Portuguese Parliamentary delegation in November 1991. When this visit was cancelled, a demonstration in Dili went ahead on 11 November. Its suppression by the military ended in the infamous Santa Cruz massacre. Despite a deeply conservative colonial role and antipathy to Fretilin during the pre-invasion period, the Catholic Church has been increasingly critical of the military.
Both the present and former Bishops of Dili – Carlos Ximenes Belo and Martinho Costa Lopes – have denounced torture, imprisonment and human-rights abuses. Church organizations have provided basic health and education facilities, and Tetum-speaking safe havens, despite increasing opposition from the military. In January 1985 the East Timorese Council of priests called for the right of East Timor to determine its own future and referred to the Church as ‘being witness to a process which is slowly leading to the ethnic, cultural and religious extinction of the people of East Timor’.
All designs from Motivos Artísticos Timorenses e a sua Integração by Ruy Cinatti, Istituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, Museu de Etnologia, Lisbon, 1987.
They count us and count the bullets
Mr Siong: In December the Indonesians came during the early morning when it was still dark. There were a lot of green parachutes dropping from the sky and our soldiers shot up at them. Some parachutists were killed and dropped in front of the Toko Lay flats.
Mrs Siong: There were a lot of soldiers. They had long automatic guns with strings of bullets. They kept shooting over our heads. Then they told all of us to go out and kneel down outside, everyone, children too. We were numb, we didn’t know what to do, blank and crying. Everyone kneels down and the Indonesians count our heads and count their bullets to see if they match! They ask if anyone is still in the house. They tell whoever has friends or relatives inside to get them out. People do this, get the others out and then all kneel down. We beg the Indonesians not to kill us.
They make us walk. Near the harbour there is an open space, a garden by the sea, like a park. There they ask us to kneel down again. This time they make us face the sea. Whoever is short must be behind, the tallest in front next to the sea so the soldiers can see every person.
The soldiers are behind us. I was holding the baby. They tell me to put the baby behind my back because they can’t see the baby. They let me keep touching the baby if they can see it. Again they count us and count the bullets. Everyone is crying. We try to guess what the Indonesians say. All the languages are mixed together.
Mr Siong: At the harbour we have to pick up dead bodies. There were about 10 of them, two women and the rest men. I didn’t know any of those people. Some of the men wore Portuguese army uniform, the women wore dresses. The bodies were just lying where they fell on the wharf; they had been shot.
There were a lot of iron pipes on the wharf and we must tie the dead bodies on to them with parachute rope and throw them into the sea. We tie the rope through the hole in the pipe and tie the body on to that.
After we threw in those dead bodies some Chinese Timorese from Colmera came, 17 or 18. I knew all of those people, they were friends and neighbours. All were too frightened to speak, there was no crying, no noise. People came in groups of two or three or four, stood on the wharf and were shot. One group after the other coming and coming, killed and thrown into the sea. Two were couples, one with young children who went with relatives. The other couple were elderly, and the rest were men.
A crowd of people outside the wharf could not see the others shot; they could hear a little, but they did not really know. Sometimes some of the people who were to be killed had to help us six to tie other people and then after it they were killed. Some are shot and fall into the sea at once, but if they fall on the wharf we have to tie the pipe to them. We are trembling, we are nearly gone mad, but we don’t know what to do, just do whatever the Indonesians want.
One killed with those Colmera people was an Australian man [This could only have been the journalist, Roger East – the only Westerner who chose to stay in order to record the invasion of Dili]. The soldiers push him. He was talking to them saying, ‘Not Fretilin, Australian’. He spoke English. I understood it: sometimes Australians came to shop where I worked.
He wore brown shorts, a cream shirt and sunglasses. I didn’t notice if he wore shoes, no. He has short hair turning grey. He looks a strong man. They push him, tell him to face the sea. He refuses to do this. The Indonesians just fire at him. He falls straight into the sea.
Next they bring the ten that had been working with us, digging the graves. The Indonesians tell them to stand and face the sea and then they are shot with a machine gun. Four people were father and son, but the Indonesians didn’t know this. There on the wharf they kill the father, and the son must tie and throw his father into the sea. Then they kill the other son and his father is one of the six of us who must tie and throw his body.
They were the last killed that day, those 10 people. We do not know why they were killed.
From Michele Turner, Telling – East Timor: Personal Testimonies 1942-1992, New South Wales University Press, 1992.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7