Resistance burns bright as a massacre is remembered

Before being expelled from East Timor, Hugh O'Shaugnessy found that fear and loathing were still running high
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The Independent Online
TWO OF the Indonesian airforce's fleet of British-built Hawk warplanes made a low pass over Dili, the capital of occupied East Timor, on Friday morning. The message to the people below was obvious: there was to be no trouble this weekend.

Today, Sunday, is the fourth anniversary of the massacre by Indonesian troops and police of more than 200 Timorese demonstrating against the foreign takeover of their country. The killing, courageously filmed by the British cameraman Max Stael, was on TV around the world in 1991 and changed the course of Timorese history by showing an Indonesian atrocity as it was happening.

This weekend the Indonesians are warning that they will not hesitate to do the same again if necessary. The troops and police in riot gear in the streets, the warships at the quayside and the armour on patrol make the point forcefully enough. This time however, the Indonesians are trying to make sure they are not observed. As the week went by, foreign visitors, businessmen, hitch-hikers and journalists - this correspondent included - were tracked down by Indonesian agents and expelled. Nevertheless, there was time enough to take the political temperature in this tense and unhappy city surrounded by a ring of hills burnt brown by the hot sun of a tropical summer.

"We are in the middle of an intifada," said one Timorese. "And the protesters are getting younger and younger. It is down to the nine and 10-year-olds now." The local resistance leaders in this former Portuguese colony are making up their mind how far to encourage the children with their stones against the heavily armed Indonesians in their steel-plated vehicles.

The nights have become times of terror for the Timorese as the occupying army goes around in groups of four, often in civilian clothes, sometimes reportedly even in women's clothing, bursting into houses seeking those who lead the increasingly bitter opposition to the Indonesian occupation, whose 20th anniversary comes next month.

"Those are suspicious motor cycles," said one leading Timorese the other night. Indonesians, easily identifiable by their lighter complexions and their straight hair, are feared by the darker- skinned curly-haired Timorese. The sense of anxiety in Dili's darkened streets, empty despite the fact that no curfew is formally in force, can almost be touched.

Two decades after the Indonesians marched in and purportedly annexed the newly born Timorese republic to Indonesia in an operation which, according to Amnesty International, has cost some 200,000 lives, the spirit of resistance is burning bright. A third of the present population, the Timorese old and young, have nothing to lose. They are rallying to a cause which seems to gain momentum as the years pass.

At the quayside, scene of many executions of Timorese by the Indonesians in 1975, two landing craft ride at anchor, having delivered the troops and vehicles which the occupiers are using to overawe the population. A hundred metres away, beside a Banyan tree guarded by Indonesian police, a small gunboat, the Balibo, keeps watch. It is certainly not clear that military force will ever succeed in ending Timorese protests. The political dynamics of the situation do not favour the Indonesians.

On my first visit here in 1991, active resistance was confined to the Fretilin guerrillas in the hills, the brave but forlorn remains of a tiny army which the newly proclaimed republic of East Timor pitted against the troops of a country of 150 million people in 1975. It had somehow subsisted with no foreign assistance, capturing and often buying arms and ammunition from the Indonesian soldiers.

Today, four years later, the Timorese as a whole, with young people in the lead, are seizing the initiative if only out of despair. Fretilin - their leader Xanana Gusmao captured in 1992 and now sent to Indonesia to serve a 20-year prison sentence - is still alive but is not the force it once was. The unremitting pressures of the occupation have obliged ordinary Timorese to become more active or see their country taken from them and their cultural identity obliterated.

Under the Indonesian strategy of "transmigration", initiated to relieve the extreme pressure of population in the Indonesian heartland of Java, more than 100,000 immigrants have settled, taking what good agricultural land exists and displacing Timorese from business. Javanese have also flooded into the towns, taking over shops and offices, administering the schools and colleges which the Indonesians with some pride say are educating the locals in a way the Portuguese colonialists never bothered to do.

But in these schools the medium of instruction is not Portuguese nor yet the native language Petum but Bahasa Indonesia, the Javanese lingua franca of this vast archipelago of 13,000 islands.

The world's largest Muslim population is at the same time attempting to Islamicise the Timorese, who learned their Christianity from the Dominican Friars in colonial days and have rallied ever more fervently to the Catholic Church, their only effective champion against the occupying forces in recent years.

The drive against Christianity has been increasingly provocative in recent years. Indonesian government agents have taken communion at the altar rails and spat out the host, have publicly wiped their penises on the consecrated bread and have verbally molested young nuns.

The Timorese reaction has, as expected, been explosive. With Xanana in prison the only remaining Timorese leader is Bishop Carlos Filipe Belo, who was on the shortlist last month for the Nobel Peace Prize. His role is a difficult one. Under pressure from Indonesia not to speak out against the occupation, he is not able to count on the loyalty of the Indonesians among his clergy nor indeed on the wholehearted support of the Vatican, which is keen not to blight the prospects of the small but influential minority of Catholics in Indonesia.

Their land at risk, their economic life in jeopardy, their language and religion under threat, the ordinary Timorese see no alternative to protest, conscious that their calls will increasingly be heard in the outside world.

Despite the continuing menacing presence of Indonesian troops, the Timorese intifada cannot but get more serious and more committed.