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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss