Facing a Dark Spot in the History of Timor Leste

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By: Dewi Anggraeni

“Lusitania Expresso? Is that a variety of espresso coffee?”

Twenty years is a lifetime for young people. And, I wasn’t exactly young then, when as Australia correspondent for Tempo news magazine, I came on board a rusty old merchant ship with a bunch of motley crew of activists and other journalists from around 26 countries, to cover an important event.

I thought it was important then, but I certainly hadn’t realized the real significance of it for those in Timor Leste (East Timor at the time), until earlier this month when I was invited to Timor Leste for the 20-year commemoration of Lusitania’s voyage, coinciding with the 21st commemoration of the Nov. 12 Santa Cruz tragedy in Dili.

Very few Indonesians really knew what had actually happened in their newest province, as what reached them had been carefully vetted by those in power.

In October 1991, a group of pro-independence activists planned to take advantage of a visit to Timor Leste by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Torture, Pieter Kooijmans, to draw his attention to the situation in Timor Leste. When the plans were discovered, some tried to seek shelter in the Motael Church in Dili. But, they clashed with a group of pro-integration-with-Indonesia activists. A member of the independence group, Sebastiao Gomes, was subsequently shot by troops.

On Nov. 12, after a memorial service for Sebastiao Gomes, thousands of men and women marched from Motael church to the Santa Cruz cemetery 4 kilometers away. Two US journalists and a British documentary maker Max Stahl, who were there to cover Kooijmans’ visit, took part in the march. Emotions ran high.

An officer, who, according to Stahl, attacked a girl carrying a flag, was stabbed. This was apparently taken by the troops as a declaration of war.

Reinforcements arrived and began shooting; the scenes were caught by Stahl’s camera.

Earlier in 1991, a group of young people in Portugal, led by medical student Rui Marques, were driven to show their solidarity with those who fell at the Nov. 12 shootings.

They activated their students’ network throughout Europe, the US, the UK and Japan, and managed to raise some funds among them. They planned to sail to Timor Leste, land in Dili and lay wreaths in Santa Cruz. Even with the additional funds from Marques’ contacts in the corporate sector, they were only able to hire a dilapidated former car ferry with a skeleton crew.

Participants, mostly young people, arrived in Darwin where the voyage would begin. International media representatives promptly followed. I was the only journalist from Indonesian media representing Tempo that was accepted by the organizing committee to join them.

While finding the group very optimistic for thinking that they would be able to enter Dili, I admired their ardor.

And true enough, the Lusitania was barred by the navy and was forced to turn back and return to Darwin. Before they left however, they lowered the wreaths on to the sea following a small but emotionally charged ceremony.

Was I scared when I saw that the ship I was on was flanked by two frigates, and another smaller battleship further away, and military helicopters circling us? Of course I was.

So, Lusitania Expresso failed to accomplish its mission in 1992, but it certainly rattled the political and military elites. It drew international attention to the situation on the ground.

However, most of those in Indonesia who heard about the Lusitania mission at the time were not particularly moved, nor did they have that much sympathy for those in Timor Leste who wanted independence from Indonesia — a vast majority it turned out, as would be revealed by the 1999 referendum.

What many non-Indonesians are unaware of is what a good job the first president, Sukarno, did in instilling a sense of nationalistic pride in most Indonesians.

Indonesians will complain bitterly among each other about the nation and the way it is governed, the corrupt high-ranking officials, the opportunistic behavior among many, and a host of other problems, but as soon as there is a notion that an outsider, especially one they perceive as having vested interests, sheds a bad light on the image of the nation, they will close ranks.

When Soeharto came to power in 1966, Indonesia’s economy was in tatters. With the help of a number of Berkeley-educated economists, Soeharto successfully revived the near-collapsing economy and began to record strong growth year after year.

The population benefitted from this. By the 1980s, however, it began to be obvious that the president was treating the country as his kingdom. He distributed business licenses among his family members and cronies. Social and political observers, who watched this happening and tried to warn the public, did not go very far.

Timor Leste was a source of the Soeharto family’s wealth, with their businesses covering coffee plantations, sugarcane fields and cement manufacturing, involving notable families in Timor Leste and high-ranking military officials. But, the majority of Indonesians were barely aware of this.

What they knew was that the government had built roads, schools, factories and health services in Timor Leste and that for some reason, Timor Leste received preferential treatment.

Timor Leste’s aspirations for independence, therefore, came across as ingratitude.

On top of that, these aspirations attracted international attention and sympathy, especially from those Australia.

In Indonesia, while some human rights activists in a number of non-governmental organizations showed sympathy, the political elite were annoyed, and no less so, most of the population.

There had been cases of hardships throughout the country caused by those in power, very few generating a stir in the international community, including Australia. Understandably they thought, “Where were you when we were victimized? Are we less important than the people in Timor Leste?”

After the 1997–1998 Asian economic crisis, the New Order government began to unravel. It culminated in Soeharto ceding power to BJ Habibie in May 1998.

Despite being Soeharto’s protégé, Habibie showed an independent spirit. He authorized a referendum in Timor Leste. It led to the founding of Timor Leste as an independent nation, though the exiting Indonesian military sacked Dili and left devastation behind.

In the meantime, in Indonesia information flow gained speed and strength. Increasing numbers of people learned the truth about what happened and had happened in Timor Leste, not only from media reports, but also from fictional works by a number of journalists.

Timor Leste is now an independent nation and largely acknowledges Indonesia’s gesture of friendship. However, is it fair for Indonesia to decide to “let bygones be bygones” then, carrying on as if nothing happened?

At the commemoration of the Nov. 12 tragedy this year, the grieving of those whose relatives had died, many missing, or at least the whereabouts of their remains are unknown, was extremely palpable. Many do not feel that their losses have been properly recognized.

Isn’t it a sign of a mature nation when it can bravely look back into the dark spots of history, confront the ghosts and learn from its mistakes?

Were the terms of reference of the Commission for Reconciliation and Friendship sufficiently effective? We owe it to ourselves to help them find closure. It will certainly make us stronger.

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Footnote: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Saturday, November 24, 2012; and in the Paper Edition, it was printed in the Page: 4. The full article is also able to be searched at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/11/24/facing-a-dark-spot-history-timor-leste.html [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 27th November 2012].

The writer is a journalist and adjunct research associate at the school of political and social inquiry in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University in Melbourne.

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