School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS)

Companion to East Timor

Santa Cruz and the Aftermath


Thanks to cartoonist Malcolm Evans for permitting the use of this cartoon.
Several other cartoons by him also appear in this site with his permission

A parliamentary delegation from Portugal was supposed to visit East Timor in late 1991. A week before the visit was to take place, Indonesia objected to the presence of three journalists on the delegation because their 'hostility towards Indonesia' would not permit the 'desired objectivity.' Mediation by the UN Secretary-General's representative proved unsuccessful, and the visit was suspended.

Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas and many members of the government were unaware of the extent of East Timorese opposition to Indonesian rule. Alatas had never believed the confidential reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross, although he received them regularly. He was quite agreeable to the parliamentary delegation's visit, and argued for it within Indonesia's cabinet. Unbiased observers could see the human rights abuses and the extent of East Timorese opposition quite clearly. Paul Moore, the retired Episcopal Bishop of New York, visited East Timor in 1989 on behalf of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. His background as a US Marine during World War II in the Pacific and his involvement in the US civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements drew him to East Timor's independence struggle. He was sufficiently concerned to write to the New York Times warning that 'far from tolerating the increasingly vocal dissent of the student movement for self-determination in the territory, Indonesian authorities will respond with a Tienanmen Square-style crackdown.'

However, members of the clandestine resistance in East Timor had spent months preparing for the visit, possibly exposing themselves to capture by the Indonesian intelligence services. One group of youth activists painted banners on the grounds of Dili's Motael church, monitored continuously by the Indonesian authorities. Late at night on 27 October, a group of provocateurs working for Indonesian intelligence began taunting them in an attempt to draw them into a fight. More provocateurs joined them as tensions rose. A fight broke out between the provocateurs and pro-independence youth, resulting in a fatal blow to the head of a provocateur, Afonso Hendrique, and the fatal shooting of a youth activist, Sebastiao Gomes. The two bodies were found near the church early in the morning of 28 October.


Photo by Clinton Fernandes.

Meanwhile, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture, Pieter Koojimans was in Dili in November. His presence was the result of a diplomatic move made by Portuguese diplomat Ana Gomes at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. On 12 November 1991, fourteen days after the death of Sebastiao Gomes, mourners gathered in his memory at Motael church. After an hour-long Mass that ended at 7 a.m., a procession left the Church and headed towards the Santa Cruz Cemetery on a winding, four-kilometer route. Some 1,500 people began the procession, but they were joined en route by more people, including schoolchildren on their way to classes. Some activists displayed pro-independence banners and flags. The procession went past the Governor's mansion and was supposed to go past the Hotel Turismo, where Koojimans was staying. Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) troops blocked the road to the Hotel Turismo, so the marchers turned south instead. There was a scuffle as the procession passed by the office of the 'Association of the Wives of Public Servants', known as Dharma Wanita. Indonesian army Major Andi Gerhan Lantara was stabbed and his assistant, Private Domingos, was also injured. A marcher, Leonardo de Araujo, was stabbed in the right leg by a man in a camouflage uniform. The marchers turned east near the Balide Church before arriving at the Santa Cruz cemetery. Another 500 mourners were already waiting for them there.

Also arriving at the Santa Cruz cemetery from Taibessi (at the base of the southern foothills of Dili) were troops from Brimob 5486; troops from A Company, Battalion 303; D Company, Battalion 303; and a combined company – formed in an ad hoc fashion the night before – of Brimob 5486 and C Company, Battalion 303. A detachment from the Dili-based Battalion 744 and personnel from Kodim 1627 were also present. What has come to be known as the Santa Cruz Massacre occurred next. According to Jacinto Alves, a clandestine activist who had participated in organizing the demonstration, 'I heard rapid gun-shots for about five minutes, followed by isolated single shots that continued long after I reached my house.' According to Russell Anderson, a foreign eyewitness to the massacre, 'Suddenly a few shots rang out, continued by an explosive volley of automatic rifle fire that persisted for two or three minutes. It sounded like the whole 15 in the front row had their fingers pressed firmly on the trigger. They were firing directly into the crowd.' Soldiers positioned inside the Indonesian military Heroes' Cemetery also fired into the Santa Cruz Cemetery directly opposite. Civilians were shot in the back as they tried to escape the shooting. Soldiers kicked and stabbed the wounded and other survivors inside the cemetery. More wounded civilians were killed in neighbouring villages, on the way to the hospital and in the hospital itself.


(Link to file on YouTube)

Unknown to the Indonesian authorities, British journalist Max Stahl had captured the massacre on film, which he buried in the cemetery. He was searched on his way out of Dili but some of the key tapes were smuggled out to Jakarta and then to the Netherlands by a Dutch reporter, Saskia Kouwenberg. British photographer Steve Cox, who was severely beaten, had taken graphic photos which were also smuggled out. Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, two reporters from the US, were also present. Their camera was smashed and both were badly beaten.

Read about the proactive investigation by the International Forensic Team in 2008 here. Read East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation discussion here: in English, Indonesian and Portuguese.

The Santa Cruz massacre was a major setback for Indonesian diplomacy. Almost a decade later, Indonesia's foreign minister Ali Alatas said that it was:

'a turning point in our diplomacy over the East Timor issue… Since then, international political support had been on the wane. Countries that formerly supported us were shocked… If the incident had not occurred, our diplomacy would have scored more success.' 1

There were harsh crackdowns after the massacre, with numerous arrests and the targeting of several resistance figures. There was also a rapid growth in international solidarity. Read New Zealand historian Maire Leadbeater's account here. Read an excerpt of the Australian Ambassador's memoir here and here, and my comments.

Meanwhile, some popular publications continued to obscure the reality of the situation in East Timor. Bruno Kahn, from the French activist group Agir Pour Timor, wrote to the editor of Lonely Planet Publications pointing out that there were

'fundamental problems in presenting East Timor as a touristic destination in Indonesia. Not the least is that East Timor is not part of Indonesia. There is no mention anywhere in your book that it is an occupied territory. The only country in the world that has recognised the Indonesian annexation is Australia, where your book is published… It is amazing that you talk about the Hotel Flamboyant of Baucau without mentioning that it was used for years as military headquarters and as a centre of detention and torture, and sections of it still are today... How can you be so close to a territory where large-scale atrocities have happened consistently for 17 years and be so light and uninterested by it? There is no way you can claim difficulty to get information. Australia is not the worst place in the world to learn about East Timor. Consult your closest solidarity group or go to Darwin talk to the Timorese. Your book is the most influential guidebook on South East Asia in Australia and possibly in the world. What you write or do not write in such a case significantly contributes to influence public opinion.' 2

The editor replied that 'putting a place in one of our books does not in any way imply approval of the government concerned' and that 'nor does it mean we're suggesting it's necessarily a nice place for tourists.'

He continued:

So we are certainly not going to leave Timor out of our book just because the Portuguese were bloody stupid and the Indonesians have not been very nice. Nor are we going to treat it as a separate country when the reality is that to an unobservant visitor it would appear to be just another part of Indonesia… During the Portuguese period the roads in East Timor were very much worse than very poor, believe it or not they are now much better. Admittedly my last visit to East Timor was prior to the Dili massacre but I was subjected to absolutely no checking, question asking, form filling, photographing or other untoward attention… we also have to accept that as far as human rights go there are much worse governments in the region - Burma, China and North Korea for three examples.' 3

Such were the conditions in which the independence struggle proceeded.

Gusmao remained Leader of the Resistance and Falintil commander but his functions were frozen. After a period of intense confusion among Timorese inside and outside the territory, Nino Konis Santana became the new commander of Falintil until his death on 11th March 1998. Although the situation inside East Timor grew increasingly desperate in the 1990s, the situation outside the territory began to improve. There was growing labour unrest in Indonesia, which was slowly coming under pressure to adhere to international labour rights standards. East Timor was gaining recognition as a major human rights problem on the international stage.

A new generation of East Timorese came to the forefront of the resistance. This generation's second most visible contribution to the struggle in the 1990s (after their sacrifice at Santa Cruz) was their spectacular display of strategic non-violent action at the November 1994 APEC summit in Jakarta. Although the resistance faced unrelenting pressure and numerous setbacks, it also enjoyed important international victories during this period. A case in the International Court of Justice saw the court declaring that East Timor's right to self-determination was irreproachable, that East Timor remained a Non-Self-Governing Territory and that its people retained the right to self-determination.

The independence campaign achieved perhaps its most significant victory of the 1990s with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta.

Pressure increased on the Suharto regime in its heartland of Jakarta. After a long period of political submission, small opposition groups began to challenge the regime. In the second half of 1997, Indonesia faced an unprecedented currency crisis that severely devalued the rupiah and caused financial panic across the country. The political fallout was a sharp increase in demonstrations, with ever-growing student protests at several universities in Indonesia. These protests had begun at less prestigious universities but were spreading and becoming more and more strident in tone. Intense pressure built on Suharto, resulting in military crackdowns that killed or injured hundreds of people. Finally, at 9 a.m. Jakarta time, 21 May 1998, Suharto stood down and his vice-president Habibie was sworn in as President. The independence of East Timor was now well and truly on the agenda.




1Santa Cruz incident a turning point in our diplomacy, Tempo, 18-24 September 2000.

2B. Kahn, Letter to Tony Wheeler, 22 November 1992. Published in Documents on East Timor from PeaceNet and Connected Computer Networks, Vol. 19: December 1, 1992 - January 11, 1993. http://www.etan.org

3T. Wheeler , Letter to Bruno Kahn, 18 December 1992. Published in Documents on East Timor, Vol. 19: December 1, 1992 - January 11, 1993. http://www.etan.org