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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

Ch 6. Reflections on the transfers

The transfer of approximately 4,000 young, dependent East Timorese children to Indonesia during the occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999 is just one example of a not uncommon, although often secretive, practice in which a hegemonic power uses children in its goals of dominating the subordinate group to which the children belong. The unique factor in the transfers described here is that they were conducted by non-Europeans, indeed by people who, until 1945, had been the colonised people in a colonised territory.

Crossing a colonial border had long-lasting consequences for the identity of the children. The students learnt from the Indonesians; then many of them became leaders in rejecting Indonesian colonialism. Collaborators and traitors choose to cross colonial boundaries voluntarily and to identify with the enemy; the experience of the young, dependent children was different. In Indonesia they were raised as the children of the enemy – and took on the identity of the coloniser, simply because they grew to adulthood there. The children imbibed Indonesian culture, language and ideology and were educated to be nationalistic supporters of a united Indonesia that included East Timor. The boundaries between coloniser and colonised were blurred for them and many still do not know their origins as they have been hidden from them. The objective of New Order Indonesia for all East Timorese was to make them, in their hearts and minds, accept their identity as Indonesians. Transferring children to Indonesia encapsulated the goal of the integration project and the intention of the New Order authorities for all East Timorese whom they regarded more like children – namely, to make them Indonesians.

Indonesians who transferred children to Indonesia regarded their intentions as benevolent, but they were not motivated by humanitarian concern alone. As described in chapters 3 to 6, as the historical and political context changed, so too did the nature of child transfers and the motives that impelled them. Colonial relationships are, in the final analysis, about ensuring the hegemony of the coloniser and this is reflected in the transfers, in which humanitarian concern for the welfare of the children was aligned with and served national and ideological interests and self-interest.

In chapters 2 and 4, I pointed to the highly political and powerfully symbolic significance attached to the transfer in the late 1970s of 61 young ‘orphans’ to educational institutions in Indonesia, carried out at the initiative of President Suharto. The children were brought to Indonesia in the immediate lead-up to the launch of full-scale war by the Indonesian military to drive the East Timorese out of their mountain hideouts into Indonesian control. The transfers demonstrated Indonesian generosity to East Timorese who accepted integration, but they simultaneously served Indonesian propaganda purposes of indicating that the East Timorese wanted integration and of justifying Indonesian military involvement on behalf of those who suffered in the struggle.

The war that followed, from late 1977 until early 1979, produced many of the separated and abandoned East Timorese children taken for adoption by Indonesian soldiers. In Chapter 2 we learnt that soldiers took these children to educate them, but they also removed them because they had no children of their own or they took them to work for their families. They also wanted to adopt the children of the resistance as a way to punish, weaken and humiliate their enemy. The children were there for them to take, like other spoils of war, and bringing home a child became, for some, proof of their success in dominating the East Timorese.

Soldiers’ disregard for the trauma that transfer caused children and their families has many similarities with the attitudes of white Australian officials in their treatment of young Aboriginal children removed from their families. East Timorese parents were assumed to agree, like the parents of Aboriginal children, that their children would be better off educated in the institutions of the ‘superior’ culture. While many soldiers raised the children as their own and treated them well, some of the children, like some of the Aboriginal children, were mistreated by those who claimed to be their protectors and concerned for their welfare. Furthermore, some of those who raised East Timorese children, particularly children from Fretilin families, like those who stole and raised Argentinean children in the late 1970s, considered it better for the children to grow up estranged from their East Timorese identity and allegedly subversive backgrounds.

In Chapter 4 we saw that many young children were sent to Indonesia to be raised and educated as Muslims. They were sent away from East Timor, where it was difficult to establish Islamic educational facilities, for similar reasons that had motivated the Soviets to transfer young vulnerable children out of zealously Islamic Afghanistan to receive a communist education in the Soviet heartland. The East Timorese were expected to return home and spread Islamic faith among indigenous East Timorese. The organisers of Islamic mission in East Timor deemed it necessary to raise a community of indigenous East Timorese Muslims to help to create a space in East Timor for Islam, the religion of the majority of the numerous Indonesian newcomers there to conduct the integration project. In predominantly Catholic East Timor, a community of indigenous Muslims would help to justify the existence in East Timor of Islamic schools and places of worship.

During and shortly after the turmoil following the rejection of Indonesia’s autonomy offer in the referendum in 1999, many of those who took East Timorese children from refugee camps did so because, once again, they believed in the superior education they offered in institutions in Indonesia; they also knew that the children would help them attract donors. As described in Chapter 5, the pro-Indonesian East Timorese who took children to Indonesia were motivated by economic considerations, but equally so by ideology, although it was mostly swaggering posturing. They proposed to educate the children to struggle for the future re-integration of East Timor with Indonesia.

While Indonesians believed that the East Timorese received special treatment and were showered with generous development projects, like a ‘favoured child’ (anak mas) (Media Dakwah 1995d: 6–7), development was often delivered in contradiction to the rights of the East Timorese. Abuses perpetrated by the Indonesian military backers of the New Order regime created such trauma in the population that benevolent rule was not achievable. The tension in the relationship is mirrored in the generous treatment of many of the East Timorese children by their carers in Indonesian homes and institutions, in contradiction with the frequently forced transfer of the children out of East Timor. Many of the transfers contravened rights enshrined in Indonesian and international laws and conventions. Coercion and threats to force families to hand over their children were in breach of Indonesian law. The smuggling of children out of East Timor by soldiers indicates that removing children contravened Indonesian law. It is also forbidden by Indonesian law to raise children in a religion different from that of their parents. In many cases children were deemed abandoned orphans in order to justify their transfer, yet they had family members in East Timor who were denied the right to care for them and keep in contact with them. Almost invariably military abuse in East Timor went unchallenged and, in most cases, East Timorese were unable to demand their rights, including the return to East Timor of the children removed from them under duress.

An extra dimension in the relationship with which the Indonesians had to contend was that integration was never recognised under international law. The territory was under the international spotlight and integration was challenged, increasingly over the years, much to the irritation of the New Order authorities. This dimension may help to explain not only why children were transferred, but also why the transfers were conducted surreptitiously with so little known about them in the public sphere.

Taking East Timorese children to Indonesia proved that Indonesians were concerned about the children. Children were not transferred out of other conflict areas in Indonesia, such as West Irian and Aceh, on the same scale as occurred in East Timor. These young impressionable East Timorese children who were brought up as Indonesians, understanding Indonesian language, culture, ideology, and often given new names and a new religion, were living proof of the reality of integration. They symbolically portrayed East Timor as belonging within the embrace of the wider Indonesian family. The young children, along with the thousands of students studying at Indonesian institutions, helped to justify Indonesia’s claim to ownership of East Timor.

Why then were child transfers conducted in such a low-key almost furtive manner? Part of the reason for the secretiveness lay in the fact that it is not acceptable in Indonesia for young children to be taken from their families, but there were other reasons as well. The war against Fretilin left many destitute and abandoned children. To admit this would have indicated the scale of the fighting and the resistance to Indonesian rule by the East Timorese. While many soldiers left children to die in the aftermath of battle and in concentration camps, those who took children home out of compassion could not fully disclose why there were abandoned children in East Timor. To friends and neighbours, Indonesian soldiers presented them as the children of East Timorese who died fighting against Fretilin to achieve integration. Another reason for the low profile of transfers is that public acknowledgement that many children from East Timor were raised as non-Catholics, particularly in Islamic institutions in Indonesia, was likely to cause unrest in East Timor. Consequently, it was usually the most destitute children from the most vulnerable families who were sent to Indonesia – children abandoned and separated during war and conflict, orphaned child, children of the poor, fatherless children, children of the resistance who were deemed to have no rights, children of families who could be manipulated and coerced. The families of these children had few resources and little recourse to political influence to challenge the transfer of their children or to reclaim them.

The students sent to study in Indonesia took up positions of leadership in East Timor, but most did not ultimately become collaborators in the East Timor integration project as the Indonesians had hoped. Their experiences and those of their parents and families living under abusive, Indonesian military rule led most of them to reject integration. Nevertheless, they are grateful for their Indonesian education and benefited and learnt from it. But, like young Indonesians who had benefited from their colonial Dutch education, East Timorese young people also demanded the same right to freedom that the Indonesians had won from the Dutch. Fernando de Araujo, former student leader and parliamentary leader in 2008, asserted in 1992 that the East Timorese people could not ‘exchange their fundamental right to be free, for development’.1

During the Indonesian aggression and occupation in East Timor the relationship between Indonesians and East Timorese in the public arena never rose above a colonial relationship. Nevertheless, individual Indonesians and East Timorese formed bonds during the occupation that will serve them in building a relationship between two democratic nations. There is no doubt that some of these connections are between the colonial Indonesians who tried to help, albeit ‘from above’ and paternalistically, and the students and children they raised and educated in Indonesia. The story of child transfers helps us to form a more nuanced understanding of the intertwined social dynamics that will continue into the post-colonial relationship between the new, young nation of East Timor and its powerful neighbour.

Many of the young children who were taken across the colonial border do not, however, have much information about their East Timorese origins and they do not have the resources to search for their families. I hope that this account of the transfers will be supplemented by the work of future researchers and that other sources will become available – the archives of the Indonesian military and those of Indonesian institutions, as well as personal archives – that will contribute to greater understanding and, most importantly, to future reunions of children and their families. It is even possible that Indonesian military personnel who forcibly abducted children can be brought to justice, as has happened in one case in Argentina more than 20 years after the kidnapping (BBC News 2005).

I began by saying that we have many stories from the resistance, but that the stories of the children who were raised in the homes and institutions of Indonesians are also part of the history of the struggle of the East Timorese. However, the stories you have read here are also important in themselves, not only because we learn from them about the ambiguities and complexities in the relationships between vulnerable groups dealing with hegemonic cultures, but also because they tell us about the world that we have created and how we treat the weak and powerless.


1 de Araujo was chairman of Renetil, the East Timorese student resistance organisation during the occupation and in 2008 a political party leader and leader of the national parliament. He made this statement in his defence during his 1992 trial for organising demonstrations in Jakarta after the Santa Cruz massacre (CAVR 2006: 7.9.4 No.128).

Cite this chapter as: van Klinken, Helene. 2011. Conclusion : 'Reflections on the transfers'. In Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. Pp. 172-177.

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken