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Activism and Aid

Chapter One


When a development intervention takes place, whether big or small, the historical and cultural context in which it takes place will influence the outcome of the intervention. This chapter provides the contextual background to Timor-Leste’s occupation by two successive powers and its struggle for independence, providing a critical understanding of the political, social and cultural environment which has affected the different generations of Timorese in specific ways.

The people of Timor-Leste emerged from years of war with resilience and a strong sense of independence as well as deep trauma from that struggle. Activism played a key role in Timorese history, the active front of the clandestine movement included Timorese youth and student organisations, the members of which have continued to play activist roles in the development of the new nation.

Portuguese Colonisation and 1975 Activists

The Portuguese arrived on the island of Timor in 1511. Initially their contact was limited to coastal trading missions, extracting sandalwood and other resources through treaty arrangements with local chiefs (Pinto and Jardine 1997). Overall, the Portuguese exerted little influence on Timorese society, establishing a permanent presence only in 1702, at the sandalwood port of Oecussi, now a district of Timor-Leste as an enclave surrounded by Indonesian West Timor. The Portuguese formed alliances with the customary chiefs of the coastal ‘people of the sea’ through whom they inserted themselves into the indigenous systems of exchange with mountain dwelling ‘people of the land’ to pursue their political and economic interests (Traube 1995). Only in the mid-nineteenth century did Portugal move to consolidate its hold over the country, imposing a regime of forced coffee cultivation in the highland areas. Coffee became a lucrative export, while the production of sandalwood declined due to overexploitation. Forced labour was used for road construction and a head tax was imposed to ensure agricultural production exceeded subsistence levels so that surpluses would be sold in the market (Pinto and Jardine 1997). The introduction of forced labour generated rising opposition to colonial rule.

Stirrings of nationalism were not evident until early in the twentieth century when a well organised rebellion by Dom Boaventura, the Liurai (king or traditional leader) of Manufahi, united almost all of the Timorese kingdoms (Babo-Soares 2003). In response, the Portuguese brought in troops, including some from Mozambique, to put down the rebellion, with huge cost of life. This ‘pacification’ of East Timor concluded in 1912, with Portugal effectively in control of the entire territory. Timorese society is made up of many different socio-linguistic groups, including those that traverse the border to West Timor. Depending on the classification of languages and dialects there are said to be from sixteen languages to thirty ‘language varieties’, while thirty-two languages were mentioned by respondents in the 2004 population census (Taylor-Leech 2012:58). Xanana Gusmão, hero of the resistance and first President of Timor-Leste, has suggested that it was Portuguese domination that generated the notion of common heritage between the diverse socio-linguistic groups of Timor-Leste (Gusmao 2000:102). The adoption of the Portuguese language at independence was a way to differentiate East Timor from West Timor.

Historically, the Portuguese administration did little to contribute to the infrastructural development of the country, or the well-being of their subjects. Formal education during the Portuguese colonial period was largely provided by a few missions of the Catholic Church. After 1941, the church was charged with the education system as an agent of the colonial administration, and for imparting Catholic and Portuguese cultural values to the traditional liurai leadership and other local elites (Molnar 2010:36). Those that had access to education under Portuguese colonialism were known as assimilados, that is, Timorese accepted as assimilated into ‘civilised’ Portuguese society, mostly sons of the liurai and mesticos (mixed blood). In response to popular protests about poor education and social welfare in 1959, the colonial administration began to increase the provision of primary education. Over the next ten years primary school student enrolment rose from 4,898 to 27,299 and secondary enrolments from 175 to 376 (Babo-Soares 2003:109). It is estimated that at the end of Portuguese rule no more than ten percent of the population were literate (Nicolai 2004).

In 1974 a bloodless military coup known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’ threw out the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, heralding a new progressive era. It was announced that colonial policies would be abandoned and independence would be granted to all Portuguese colonies (Ramos Horta 1987). The new democratic government took power in Portugal on 25 April 1975 and initiated a rapid process of decolonisation, despite the fact that no preparation had been made by the Portuguese towards local self-rule.

In East Timor political parties began to be formed by students returning from Portugal in 1975 with ‘radical’ new ideologies. As the beneficiaries of Portuguese education, the Timorese intellectual elite had been able to attend university in Lusophone countries, where they acquired knowledge of, and sympathy for, independence movements around the world, particularly in Lusophone Africa. Students from Liurai and elite families studying in Portugal established the first political parties – Timorese Social Democratic Association (Associação Social Democrática Timorense – ASDT) which was the precursor of the Revolutionary Front for Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor-Leste Independente – FRETILIN) in 1974, as well as the National Democratic Union (União Democrática Timorense – UDT) and the APODETI party (Associacão Popular Democratica Timorensa or Timorese Popular Democratic Association) (Hill 2002:68–70). These three major political groupings were formed around different political aspirations. The nationalist anti-colonialist FRETILIN party wanted independence from Portugal. The UDT, representing the landowning and conservative elite, favoured remaining with Portugal with greater autonomy. The APODETI party had a small following of people that favoured local autonomy under Indonesian rule. According to Molnar, this party was led by the liurai of Atsabe, whose kingdom extended beyond both sides of the Timorese border and who sought unification of his people (Molnar 2010:44).

FRETILIN was founded by student activists in their twenties, largely people from middle-class families resident in the capital Dili. They did, however, have in their ranks representation from different parts of the country and so were not dominated by any particular linguistic grouping (Hill 2002:68). Members included Mari Alkatiri, the future first Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, and Jose Ramos Horta, the future first Minister of Foreign Affairs who became second Prime Minister, then President until 2012. Of his early involvement in FRETILIN, Ramos Horta later wrote: ‘I had been named Minister for External Affairs and Information in the new, and first ever, cabinet of an independent, free East Timor. I was 25 years old, probably the youngest and least experienced cabinet minister in the world!’ (Ramos Horta 1987:98).

An early coalition between FRETILIN and UDT had formed but collapsed some months later, due in part to meddling by Indonesia, resulting in a brief but violent civil war between them that left a legacy of bitterness to the present day (CAVR 2005).

FRETILIN declared the independence of East Timor on 28 November 1975. Rumours of an imminent Indonesian invasion had put pressure on these young leaders to act quickly. Following the invasion by Indonesia on 7 December, Ramos Horta was the diplomatic representative for East Timor from 1975–1999. For eight years, from 1976 to 1984, he was based in New York lobbying the UN. He was banned from entering Australia where other family members lived (Scott 2005). At independence he became the first Minister for Foreign Affairs, then briefly Prime Minister of an interim government in 2006, following a political crisis, and was elected as the second President on 9 April 2007.

Mari Alkatiri was born of a Timorese mother and Yemeni father who was a member of the small Muslim minority. He studied surveying in Angola, returning to Dili in 1975 to become co-founder of FRETILIN. Days before the invasion he was sent by FRETILIN to mobilise support for East Timor abroad. In Mozambique, he undertook a degree, graduating in law from the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. He remained in Mozambique as leader of the FRETILIN Political Front throughout the twenty-four year Indonesian occupation. He became the first Prime Minster in 2002 but was forced to step down in a political crisis in 2006.

The third major figure of the ‘1975 generation’ leaders is Xanana Gusmão, popularly considered ‘father of the nation’. He was the leader of FALINTIL in East Timor from 1980 until he was captured by the Indonesian military in 1992 and jailed, after which he led the youth movement of independence activists from jail. He was freed in 1999 and became the first President of Timor-Leste. Gusmão stepped down as President in order to form a separate party to contest FRETILIN in the national elections in 2007, and became Prime Minister, forming a multi-party alliance (AMP) following inconclusive elections. Gusmão became the Prime Minister of the Fourth Constitutional Government in August 2007 and was re-elected to lead the Fifth Constitutional Government in 2012.

The Indonesian Occupation and the ‘new generation’

On 7 December 1975, just a few days after the declaration of independence, Indonesia invaded East Timor with tacit support from Australia and the USA. It was claimed that East Timor was not a viable state, due largely to Cold War fears in Indonesia and Australia about having a small left-leaning state on their doorstep. Australia did not oppose the Indonesian takeover of East Timor (Fernandes 2011). Indeed, on the strength of their tacit approval of the invasion, Australia negotiated a very favourable maritime boundary with Indonesia, in which it obtained access to the majority of the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Australia in 1978 gave de jure recognition to Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, becoming the only Western country to formally recognise East Timor as a legitimate part of Indonesia (Scott 2005). Indonesia’s President Suharto was embraced as a cold war ally of Australia, the US and Great Britain, and these countries supplied military aid and technical assistance to the Indonesian military which was used against the Timorese. In spite of Australia’s diplomatic efforts to persuade other nations to support Indonesia’s position, East Timor continued to be an unresolved issue at the UN Security Council until 1999.

The Timorese armed resistance, FALINTIL, fought a bitter twenty-four year struggle against the superior might of Indonesia. Initially establishing zonas libertadas (liberated zones) in the mountainous areas, FRETILIN controlled over two-thirds of the population, as many abandoned their homes and sought refuge behind FRETILIN lines (Cox and Carey 1995:29). In the FRETILIN-controlled interior of the country there were disagreements on political ideology and violent purges against people who disagreed with the Marxist tendencies of some FRETILIN leaders or who wanted to surrender to the Indonesians to escape the hardship in the mountains (CAVR 2005:79).

Indonesia responded to the resistance with air strikes across the FRETILIN held mountain areas including bombing and chemical and biological warfare. The intensive bombing of the mountains by the Indonesian military in 1977–8 resulted in heavy losses such that the armed resistance of FALINTIL appeared to have been destroyed (Cox and Carey 1995). From 50,000 guerrillas in 1975, the numbers reduced to 700 by 1981 (Rei 2007). FRETILIN was forced to change its military strategy, sending much of the population down from the mountains to live in occupied East Timor. The hardship faced by the people had been extreme. With limited opportunity to grow their own food in the mountains, starvation became another significant cause of death. By the end of the Indonesian occupation an estimated 200,000 people, a third of the population, had died (Pinto and Jardine 1997:106).

For the Timorese, Indonesia’s most significant contribution to development in East Timor was to make education universally available for the first time. From the Indonesian perspective the education system was a way of influencing young Timorese. Students were expected to learn the Pancasila, the five guiding principles of the Indonesian constitution, and Indonesian national values, in ‘an educational system designed to inculcate in children respect and admiration for Indonesia’s values, beliefs and practices’ (Arenas 1998). Rather than producing obedient Indonesian citizens, however, the system succeeded in breeding a new generation of independence activists. The use of education as a tool for instilling a sense of Indonesian citizenship failed, as Timorese youth and students became engaged in clandestine activities across the country.

There are two published accounts by Timorese activists of the underground resistance which I have chosen to draw on in this section. One is by former youth leader Constançio Pinto, who described the new era of school students beginning to support the resistance movement as it re-organised itself into small guerrilla units spread throughout the mountains (Pinto and Jardine 1997). The other is by Timorese activist Naldo Rei who, like Constançio Pinto, published a detailed account of his engagement in the clandestine struggle.

For some dozen years, East Timor was closed to the outside world, with Timorese living in complete isolation from the international community. It was only in 1989 that Indonesia finally declared East Timor open again to tourists and investors (Pinto and Jardine 1997). Meanwhile the Catholic Church played an important role in caring for the wives, widows and children of the freedom fighters and providing education. This also served to strengthen Portuguese as the language of the resistance, as well as giving leadership skills to youth which contributed to their later involvement in human rights advocacy.

The guerrilla force initially followed directives from the exiled FRETILIN Central Committee in Mozambique. But, unhappy with this situation, Xanana Gusmão broke with the FRETILIN leadership in 1986. There followed a reorganisation of FALANTIL and the formation of the united Conselho Nacional de Resistência Maubere (CNRM),1 with Gusmão declared leader in 1988 (Niner 2009). Gusmão recognised that many pro-independence supporters were not FRETILIN members. National unity became an ideal of CNRM, in which the armed resistance, FALANTIL, was fighting for all Timorese, not only for the FRETILIN party. As noted, when Gusmão was captured by the Indonesian military, in November 1992, the armed resistance continued.

Timorese youth were engaged in the independence struggle, initially through the Organisation of Timorese Youth (Organisação da Juventude Timorese – OJT) which was tasked with supplying FALINTIL in the mountains (Ospina and Hohe 2002). In the late 1980s, as Commander of FALINTIL, Gusmão envisaged a new and distinct role for youth and students as the centre of the urban-based clandestine struggle (Nicholson 2001:19). From this point on, the Timorese students and youth organisations played a pivotal role in the secret movement, particularly through the National Resistance of East Timorese Students (RENETIL) led by Fernando de Araujo (known as Lasama), the Organisation of Catholic East Timorese Youth and Students (OJECTIL) led by Gregorio Saldanha, and the ‘Always United Front of Timor’ (FITUN) led by Armando da Silva. Through them, awareness was raised internationally about the human rights situation in Timor-Leste. Other organisations, such as Orgão Oito, led by Constançio Pinto, operated clandestinely to directly support the armed resistance (Pinto and Jardine 1997; Nicholson 2001).

The first significant event organised by the youth resistance movement was for the visit of Pope John Paul II in October 1989. This visit was given great importance by the Timorese people, of whom over ninety percent became Catholic following the 1975 occupation.2 Importantly for the history of struggle, the Timorese church was led by the Apostolic Administrator for East Timor rather than the Indonesian Catholic Bishops Conference. Thus East Timor, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, continued to be a separate country. This position was held by Bishop Belo for much of the occupation. He was initially accepted by the Indonesians as a ‘moderate’, but became sympathetic to and supportive to the Timorese struggle after he saw the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Indonesians.3 During the occupation, the church gained increasing respect and acceptance by the Timorese for its role in providing sanctuary for independence activists being hunted by the Indonesian armed forces, and standing up for human rights.

The Indonesian authorities hoped the visit of the Pope would result in the Vatican recognising East Timor as part of Indonesia. The first demonstration of the youth movement was an action organised by the Catholic scouts aimed at overturning the possibility of this outcome (Pinto and Jardine 1997:110). The presence of contingents of news and media reporters for the Pope’s visit was expected to ensure success in alerting the world to issues inside East Timor. A year later in 1990, another student demonstration took place during the visit of US Ambassador John Monjo. Students succeeded in entering the hotel where he was staying, presenting flowers and a petition and talking directly with him. Many of the demonstrators were afterwards severely beaten by the Indonesian armed forces (Pinto and Jardine 1997:117). These student actions drew international attention to the situation prevailing in East Timor, for the first time in more than a dozen years.

In 1991 a Portuguese parliamentary delegation was planning to visit the territory which, it was hoped, would resolve the status of East Timor.4 Student activists, led by the Organisation of Youth and Students of Timor-Leste (Organização Juventude Estudante de Timor-Leste – OJETIL),5 had been planning for the visit for a year, but it was cancelled. The military started hunting down student activists and many students sought protection by hiding in Motael church (Pinto and Jardine 1997:182). The Indonesians surrounded the church, shot and killed one of the student activists – Sabastião Gomes – and arrested twenty-five others.

Sabastião Gomes’ funeral became a symbol of resistance. Several thousand, mostly young people, joined the procession to the cemetery. Fully armed Indonesian troops opened fire on the young mourners, killing 271 students and youth and injuring hundreds more (Pinto 2001). This event in November 1991 became known as the Santa Cruz Massacre and was a pivotal moment for the resistance struggle. The presence of Western photographers and film makers at the event helped inform the world of the atrocities taking place in East Timor.6


Statue commemorating the 12 November Santa Cruz massacre where 271 youth were killed.

In the wake of the Santa Cruz massacre, the leadership gave a new prominence to the student and youth movements’ crucial role in the pursuit of Timorese independence. To complement the Political Front led by Mari Alkatiri in Mozambique and the Diplomatic Front led by Jose Ramos Horta in Australia and the US, a Clandestine Front was established involving four youth organisations in East Timor and Indonesia. From then, according to Pinto, the resistance was in the hands of the new generation (Pinto and Jardine 1997:237–8).

Timorese activist Naldo Rei describes the high degree of intercommunication between Xanana Gusmão, as the leader of FALINTIL, and the clandestine youth movement. For example Rei received direct communication from Xanana telling him to organise a demonstration in Dili to coincide with a meeting with non-aligned world leaders in Jakarta in 1992 (Rei 2007:60).

The student movement broadened its scope on two fronts from 1992. RENETIL, the clandestine organisation for Timorese students studying in Indonesia, began collaborating with Indonesian student organisations to inform and engage Indonesian students in the Timorese struggle. As well, the movement expanded its focus from the liberation struggle to other issues of human rights and democracy within Indonesia. Significantly, this resulted in demonstrations for the Timorese struggle being held in Jakarta. For instance on 7 December 1995, the twentieth anniversary of the Indonesian invasion, the Timorese students scaled the fences of the Dutch and Russian embassies in Jakarta, demanding self-determination via a referendum (Sword Gusmao 2003; Rei 2007). Timorese student activism is said to have played no small part in the pro-democracy movement which eventually toppled Suharto from power on 21 May 1998 (Nicholson 2001).

Outside East Timor RENETIL members were able to meet and have discussions more freely, including with students from other islands of Indonesia, politicising them in issues of democracy and freedom.7 The official Indonesian East Timor Students Association, IMPETTU,8 was infiltrated by RENETIL members to convert it into a pro-independence organisation supporting the clandestine movement.9

Within East Timor, young people were engaged in the resistance movement through a network of small pro-independence groups. Different youth or women’s cells were responsible for providing medical supplies and food to particular groups of resistance fighters in the mountains (Pinto and Jardine 1997). Others sold goods to raise funds for the resistance. Each clandestine cell had a code name and would work without knowledge of what other cells were doing to keep the identity of members of the pro-independence movement secure (Pinto and Jardine 1997). Students with knowledge of English played an important role in developing contacts to pass information from the resistance leadership out of the country. Others in Jakarta were couriers and disseminators of documents from the resistance guerrillas (Sword Gusmao 2003).

The Catholic Church also played a role in organising youth and many churches and missions become safe havens for targeted pro-independence youth. The Catholic youth groups such as Catholic Scouts became an important forum for analysis and reflection about the violence that was taking place in the community, and was also one of the few youth organisations which encouraged girls’ participation.10

There were, however, also youth who joined the Indonesian intelligence organisations and the military fuelled inter-communal conflict by promoting and funding youth gangs such as the Ninjas, Gadapaksi. The Ninjas emerged in Dili in 1995 roaming the streets at night, intimidating and kidnapping independence supporters. The Gadapaksi (Youth Front for Upholding Pancasila) emerged a year later, provoking disturbances among the Timorese by instigating fights with Catholic youth. In 1997 and 1998, Caritas Dili staff referred to provocations such as Gadapaksi members insulting Bishops or priests and disrupting Catholic ceremonies.11 Like the Ninjas they were drawn from unemployed East Timorese youth and were linked to criminal networks and the Indonesian Special Forces.12 Gadapaksi were paid a monthly stipend by the Indonesian military. The Gadapaksi youth informed the military about pro-independence youth who would then be kidnapped in night time raids. These tactics helped to create an impression that internal divisions were at the heart of the ‘Timor problem’.

Despite Indonesian oppression and intimidation, the UNTIM students found they were able to voice community concerns as a student body from within the university. One activist described how people from the community came to the university to complain of being intimidated by the Indonesian military and to ask the students to inform the civilian authorities. Students would raise the issues with the government and, if there was no response, they would hold a demonstration. The first demonstration following the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre was in July 1994, but after that demonstrations were held regularly by UNTIM students.13

President Suharto’s downfall in May 1998 was a turning point for East Timor: political expression and organisation was permitted for the first time since 1975. In Jakarta, Indonesian students demonstrated and spoke openly to the press about the injustices that President Suharto had perpetrated against the people. The Timorese instantly recognised this was a new period of political openness, which gave rise to new hope within Timor.14 In the months that followed, groups of people started to congregate in the streets, discussing or socialising, something unheard of previously as it had been forbidden for more than four people to meet except at Catholic Mass.

UNTIM students in Dili held a meeting in June 1998 with 500 students, forming the East Timor Student Solidarity Council (ETSSC), known in Indonesian as Dewan Solidaritas Mahasiswa. ETSSC had a new sociopolitical mission focussed on issues pertaining to peace, democracy, reconciliation, and the promotion of self-determination through a referendum.15 In June 1998, ETSSC initiated a series of rallies at UNTIM in Dili calling for an end to human rights violations and demanding a referendum and an end to the military occupation (ETAN 2000).

On 9 June 1998 Suharto’s successor, President Habibie, suggested that he would be willing to grant East Timor ‘special autonomy’ in exchange for Timorese recognition of Indonesian sovereignty (Lloyd 2000). This offer was rejected by the Timorese, but it paved the way for the United Nations (UN) to initiate a transition plan (Smillie and Minear 2004:61). Following this, the students travelled to every district and sub-district to hold dialogues to help the people understand their democratic rights, to understand what a referendum would mean and invite them to express their views on the future of the country (Taudevin 1999:185–6).

Arrival of the UN and International Agencies

In early 1999 President Habibie announced that the East Timorese would be given the opportunity to decide on their future through popular consultation. On 5 May 1999 an agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the UN was signed in New York – the culmination of seventeen years of negotiations by the offices of the UN Secretary –General (Martin 2000). The agreement outlined the principles for a universal popular consultation, a secret ballot by which the Timorese could vote for or against autonomy within Indonesia. If they rejected autonomy there would be a transfer of authority through the UN to independence. This paved the way for UN Security Council Resolution 1246 to establish a United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) which would set in place conditions for a UN sponsored popular consultation on autonomy. A condition imposed by Indonesia was that they alone would be responsible for the security arrangements (DFAT 2001).

A new wave of attacks against independence supporters across the country had already started with killings in Alas in late 1998. From this time, Timorese youth were being recruited into locally based militia that were provided with arms and monthly stipends by the Indonesian military to guarantee their willingness to carry out acts of violence on command. Sporadic unprovoked attacks on pro-independence communities involved vicious killings and widespread burning of houses. The trickle of people who fled their villages in January became a steady stream. At the end of January 1999 there were 5,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). The reign of terror in the countryside resulted in numbers of IDPs escalating to 60,000 by July (Smillie and Minear 2004). The horrific events which led to this displacement are presented in a journalist’s detailed account (Martinkus 2001).

The political situation continued to deteriorate. The ETSSC forums could no longer be held as ETSSC students were targeted. The District Coordinator of ETSSC in Covalima explained: ‘Militia from Mahidi and Laksaur tried to kill me many times. They came to my house in the day and in the night. Then one day the Commander of the TNI (Indonesian army) came to my house with weapons. I managed to escape’.16 He was forced to flee to Kupang in West Timor in April 1999 and did not return until July when he was called to assist the registration of voters for the independence ballot.

Fear amongst the Timorese was understandably high – there were few international observers and the UN personnel did not start arriving until late May to prepare for the ballot in August. In Liquiça Church in April 1999 over one hundred people seeking refuge from the militia were massacred. This took place when many Timorese scholars and activists were in Melbourne for a Timorese Development Planning Conference organised by the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) in Melbourne. On hearing of the massacre the participants were devastated; a number lost family members. Caritas Australia, which had supported the Director of Caritas Dili to attend the conference, made arrangements for him to meet


A student activist and member of ETSSC at university in Dili, Ergilio Ferreira Vicente founded the Suai Youth Centre and continued as Coordinator for many years. The banner reads, ‘Build capacity, Create ideas, Nurture creativity and Strengthen unity’. Ergilio now coordinates the Youth Parliament Program for the Secretary of Youth and Sport in Dili.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to provide an eyewitness account of the violence that was unfolding inside the country. Disappointingly, the Foreign Minister maintained the official Australian view that ‘rogue elements’ were responsible for the violence, even though witnesses in East Timor reported that the Indonesian military was instigating the violence.17

Following this, Caritas Australia sought Timorese views about how it could help. Father Barreto, the Director of Caritas Dili, had no hesitation in his response – he asked for international witnesses to come to Timor to act as a deterrent to the violence that was being unleashed against the Timorese people. A Caritas volunteer ‘witness program’ was quickly devised, which I coordinated, resulting in a dozen religious sisters, health workers and Australian resident Timorese volunteering to work alongside Timorese colleagues in church organisations or clinics, protecting them with their simple presence as foreign observers. Once the UN volunteers arrived to assist the ballot in May and June they also played an important role in this regard.

UNAMET set up operations in May 1999 with over 400 foreign UN volunteers making up the corps of electoral officers, assisted by 600 local Timorese staff (DFAT 2001:93). Timorese students who were studying in Indonesia returned to help enrol voters for the ballot. Educated young people who had learned some English were employed by UNAMET as interpreters. This sudden and massive requirement for interpreters and translators catapulted large numbers of young Timorese into a new context of foreign values and the English language medium of communication. This opened new opportunities for their futures and paved the way for their continued involvement with international agencies in the decade that followed.

Students and young people worked to ensure people knew where, when and how to register and, subsequently, to vote. Militia violence caused delays in ballot registration that forced a three-week postponement of the ballot until the end of August, necessary to enrol the 60,000 IDPs who were required to register in their home villages. The students were threatened and the RENETIL office had to be closed due to threats of violence (de Araujo 2000). Some students were killed for their efforts (ETAN 1999). Women’s organisations played a crucial role in the campaign in the months leading up to the ballot (de Araujo 2000). Voter registration of over 450,000, almost all the adult population, was achieved in spite of the threats and violence.

The head of the UNAMET mission, Ian Martin, recognised that UNAMET’s objective of peaceful implementation of the consultation process was not going to be achieved, but a further postponement would make it unlikely that the ballot would proceed at all (Martin 2000). Due to the determination that the UN sponsored ballot should go ahead, the ballot was held on 30 August 1999. On polling day 98.5 percent of registered voters turned out, in spite of the continuing threats of violence. This was a show of grim determination by the Timorese, in which a massive 78.5 percent voted against autonomy within Indonesia and for independence (Martin 2000). The international presence in East Timor had given people confidence to turn out even though they nevertheless anticipated retribution.

It came. The post-ballot rampage by the militia and Indonesian security forces resulted in almost 1,500 people losing their lives across the country. In one of the most horrific events of a terrible year, on the morning 6 September 1999, at 9 am, three priests and 115 refugees sheltering in the church in Suai were gunned down.18 In a well-planned military operation 250,000 East Timorese, a third of the population, were herded by the military at gunpoint onto trucks and transported across the border to West Timor (CAVR 2005), reputedly to show the world that many Timorese were opposed to independence and frightened to stay there.19

The violence extended to the destruction of most of the infrastructure that the Indonesian government had built, along with houses of pro-independence supporters. Seventy percent of buildings were destroyed, including thousands of houses, schools, health clinics and administration buildings across the country. The Portuguese buildings such as the Government Palace in Dili were left unharmed. Dili was abandoned. A quarter of the population had been forcibly removed to West Timor and the remaining population fled to the mountains.

Most UN personnel and other expatriate staff had been evacuated to Darwin. Several weeks later, on 20 September 1999, INTERFET peacekeepers arrived in Dili. International agencies arrived to find near total destruction of its public records and wholesale destruction of infrastructure by the pro-Indonesian militia rampage. More than 8,000 largely Indonesian civil servants, including most of the teachers, had fled the country (Freitas 2005). The international community appeared to be unprepared for this outcome, although it has been suggested that Australia was deliberately turning a blind eye to what their intelligence agencies were telling them (Fernandes 2008).20

In October 1999 the UN established a civil administration, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), which would, in its first act of UN sovereignty, administer the country until independence (Chopra 2002). The emergency response planning process and coordination began in Darwin, with Dili abandoned and houses burning, and a huge emergency relief effort was mounted, which involved hundreds of foreign aid agencies. UNTAET assumed all executive and legislative authority for the transitional state, operating with a $700m budget from UN member states until formal independence was granted (Smillie and Minear 2004).

The history of struggle is a critical factor in the way the Timorese people responded to the post-conflict interventions that followed. The brutality, forced removals, hardship and misery that most people had experienced during the occupation period would be replaced by a new era, in an independent Timor-Leste, that would work in the interests of the population. Most Timorese had high expectations that their lives would be rapidly improved.

1     Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Maubere (CNRM). Maubere was a term of insult used by the Portuguese against the peasantry. It was adopted by FRETILIN as an endearing term for all Timorese people. In 1998 the name was changed to Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Timorese (National Council of Timorese Resistance).

2     The majority of Timorese had identified as Catholic only since the Indonesian census required them to nominate one of five official religions (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism and Catholicism) and 98% ticked the Catholic box in the absence of an option for animism, the main belief system in East Timor (Timor-Leste Health and Demographic Survey, 2003, Dili).

3     I worked as East Timor Program Manager for the Catholic organisation Caritas Australia from 1997 to 2000. I refer here to what I learned during that period working in partnership with Caritas Dili which was intimately involved in human rights issues.

4     Beginning in 1982, at the request of the General Assembly, successive Secretaries-General (SG) held regular talks with Indonesia and Portugal aimed at resolving the status of the territory.

5     OJETIL was a major Fretilin youth organisation formed in the 1990s from the Catholic youth organisation OJECTIL.

6     These include photographer Peter Cox, who with writer Peter Carey, published a book ‘Generations of Resistance in East Timor’ on the youth movement, and film maker Max Stahl, a British television journalist who produced a documentary ‘Cold Blood’ on the Santa Cruz massacre.

7     Interview, Samala Rua, Dili, 31 July 2006.

8     IMPETTU – Ikatan Mahasiswa Pelajar Timor Timur.

9     The politicisation of IMPETTU had been a strategy of RENETIL since its inception. In Denpasar, the birthplace of RENETIL, all IMPETTU leaders after 1989 were RENETIL members. Student leaders were able to use IMPETTU to organise allowable student events which RENETIL, as a clandestine organisation, used as cover for more subversive activities.

10   Interview Abrantes, Dili, 30 July 2006.

11   I worked as East Timor Program Manager for Caritas Australia from 1997–2000, and regularly visited East Timor during that period, working in partnership with Caritas Dili.

12   James Scambary – personal communication 8th July 2008. The Special Forces are known as Kopassus.

13   Interview Barros, Suai, 7 August 2006.

14   Personal observation during visits to East Timor in 1997-8 as Program Manager for Caritas Australia. At a meeting held in Bali with my Caritas Dili colleagues (because it was unsafe for them to hold a meeting with foreigners in Dili) we watched reports of Suharto’s downfall on Indonesian television. My colleagues were amazed and excited to hear interviews of rebellious Javanese youth being broadcast on TV, the first time they heard alternative opinions to the government line expressed in the media.

15   Interview, Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

16   Interview, Vicente, Suai 7 August 2006.

17   I attended the meeting and acted as translator from Portuguese.

18   Interview, Vicente, Suai, 7 August 2006.

19   I heard a number of such accounts including from Caritas East Timor staff and many others in more recent years.

20   The Australian Government continued to insist that ‘rogue elements’ of the Indonesian military (TNI) were behind the violence. The final report of the Commission for Truth and Friendship Indonesia – Timor-Leste which was set up to investigate the events of 1999, has confirmed that the TNI was behind the atrocities and had backed the Timorese militia groups in the killing, rape and destruction that took place in 1999.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth