School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS)

Companion to East Timor

Regeneration in the 1980s

On 26 March 1979, the Indonesian government declared that East Timor had been pacified. However, for all its claims of normalization, Indonesian rule relied heavily on two pillars: its military presence and its ability to minimize international awareness of the situation.

There was little doubt about the outcome of a conventional fight between the Indonesian military and the guerillas. These poorly armed local adversaries were no match for a military with air power and artillery at its disposal, as well as weapons and equipment purchased from Western governments. Indeed, a consistent pattern in the first half of the 1980s was that a resistance attack on a legitimate target such as an Indonesian military unit would be followed by a severe and indiscriminate response against combatants and non-combatants alike, then deportation of the survivors to Atauro.

There were serious threats to food supplies as a result of East Timorese civilians being forced to accompany the Indonesian military on its operations. These civilians were subsistence farmers, who would be unable to plant their crops in time for the next harvest. The Apostolic Administrator of East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes outlined their concerns in his reply to a letter from Bishop John Gerry of Australian Catholic Relief. The Monsignor's reply gained international attention. Concerned that the US Congress and media were asking searching questions about East Timor, the Indonesian government invited former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to East Timor in March 1982.

Whitlam denounced Monsignor da Costa Lopes on his return to Australia. He said that Monsignor Lopes had 'done a great deal of harm to relations between the Australian and Indonesian governments, and the Australian and Indonesian peoples ... I believe that the Bishop is suffering from an identity crisis. He does not realise that the days of the Portuguese … are past. And he, and I regret to say, up to half the clergy – probably at least half the clergy in Timor – are nostalgic… I say he's a liar. He is a mendacious and malicious correspondent … I am convinced that what the Indonesian Government is doing in East Timor … is visibly beneficial … There's no denying the evidence of one's eyes. There are new schools, including secondary schools, there are new or reconstructed hospitals and dispensaries. There are now many more kilometres of asphalt road, and there is proper provision for increasing the amount of food.' 1 The Indonesian government and its allies continued to repeat Whitlam's claim that Indonesia's presence was benefitting the people of East Timor.

Suharto visited the US in October 1982. Given the laudatory press coverage that had greeted him before, he may have expected a similar welcome. He would be disappointed. Arnold Kohen led the effort to remember East Timor. In November 1982, a month after Suharto's visit to the US, the question of East Timor came up once again at the UN General Assembly. It was an important moment for the East Timor cause, with Indonesia making a determined effort to win. East Timor barely survived the vote: 50 states voted in favour, 46 against, and 50 abstained. The issue was taken off the General Assembly's agenda and referred to the 'good offices' of the UN Secretary-General, who was required to consult 'all parties directly concerned.' 2 International solidarity kept the East Timor issue alive from the time of the 1982 UN vote until the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre.

Indonesia's military superiority and its flagrant violations of international humanitarian law resulted in a one-sided military contest. By 1985, many members of the East Timorese resistance were beginning to realize that armed conflict ought to be secondary to the international diplomatic struggle. They could bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Indonesia by working with, or coordinating their activities with, international campaigners.

A new generation of East Timorese now joined the resistance. They had grown up under the occupation, had almost no knowledge of Portuguese rule and no desire to continue the Fretilin-UDT-Apodeti feuds of the past. This new generation invigorated the resistance and achieved significant victories in the 1990s.

Towards the end of 1988, President Suharto visited Dili and proclaimed that East Timor had 'equal status' with the other 26 provinces of Indonesia. Travel restrictions on East Timor were lifted: East Timorese could leave, Indonesian citizens could enter, and foreign visitors could visit eight of the thirteen districts. East Timor had become an open province. But the climate of torture, repression and intimidation continued.

The church hierarchy inside the territory was becoming even more outspoken about the occupation. Monsignor Belo had put his name to a public statement signed by the Timorese Council of Priests, reaffirming the right of self-determination and warning of cultural aggression under the occupation:

'In East Timor, we are witnessing an upheaval of gigantic and tragic proportions in the social and cultural fabric of the Timorese people and their identity is threatened with death… An attempt to Indonesianise the Timorese people through vigorous campaigns to promote Pancasila, through schools or the media, by alienating people from their world view, means the gradual murder of Timorese culture. To kill the culture is to kill the people.' 3

Under pressure, he later disowned the statement. In 1988, however, he drafted a statement that was read in churches throughout East Timor on 5 December that year: 'We disagree with this barbaric system and condemn the lying propaganda according to which human rights abuses do not exist in East Timor.' 4 The statement was published in the New York Times under the headline, 'Bishop says Indonesia Tortures in East Timor.'

On 6 February 1989, Belo was appointed Bishop Titular of Lorium, a historical relic of Rome rather than an East Timorese diocese. He retained the position of apostolic administrator of the Dili diocese. 5 On the same day, he wrote privately to UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, insisting on a political solution:

I am writing to your Excellency to bring to your attention that the process of decolonization in Portuguese Timor has not been resolved by the United Nations and should not be allowed to be forgotten. We, the people of Timor, believe we should be consulted about the future of our land. As the person responsible for the Catholic Church and as a citizen of Timor I hereby request your Excellency to initiate a genuine and democratic process of decolonization in East Timor to be realized through a referendum. The People of Timor ought to be heard through a plebiscite on their future. Until now they have not been consulted. Others have spoken in their name. It is Indonesia which says that the people of East Timor have chosen integration but the people themselves have never said this. Portugal hopes that time will resolve the problem. But in the meantime we continue to die as a people and as a nation…' 6

Pope John Paul II visited East Timor on 12 October 1989. A demonstration broke out at the front of the congregation as the Mass was coming to a close. The inevitable police crackdown followed. On 17 January 1990, US Ambassador to Indonesia John Monjo visited East Timor. There was another pro-independence demonstration, followed by another harsh crackdown. Yet these episodes made it clear that the youth in East Timor were becoming bolder and more desperate. On 27 September 1990, the Australian lawyer and solidarity activist Robert Domm visited East Timor and conducted an interview with Xanana Gusmao himself. His interview was the first occasion that any outsider had contacted members of the armed resistance since the loss of the illegal radio more than a decade before. It was a significant publicity coup for the movement, shattering once and for all the Indonesian claim that the resistance had no support among the East Timorese population. The Santa Cruz massacre occurred on 12th November 1991, causing international awareness of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.




1 Gough Whitlam interviewed by Richard Andrews on ABC TV's Four Corners program. The complete transcript was issued as a press release by Indonesia's UN mission on 28 April 1982.

2 General Assembly Resolution 37/30: Question of East Timor, 23 November 1982.

3 R. Archer, The Catholic Church in East Timor, in P. Carey and G. Bentley (eds.), East Timor at the Crossroads. (London: Cassell, 1995: 124).

4 A. Kohen, From the Place of the Dead. (New York: St Martin's Publishing, 1999: 135).

5 A. Kohen, 1999, p. 130.

6 Ibid, p. 137.