Remembering Timor-Leste’s independence
The air was full of dust, petrol fumes and smoke from the roadside snack stands. People milled in the streets, thousands of us, waiting for the road to be reopened. I had just left a ceremony on the outskirts of the capital, Dili, marking Timor-Leste’s independence and the road was blocked by Timorese army and police officers in order to let through the convoy of VIPs leaving the celebrations with a motorcycle escort. A massive traffic jam had piled up and frustrated drivers yelled out of their windows and held down their car horns. Then, the fireworks started.
The day was meant to be a celebration of 20 years since the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia. But in that moment, as the fireworks started, the crowd all did the same as me – we ducked, instinctively. It was muscle memory reaction to the sound of gunfire. A realisation passed through this crowd – it’s just fireworks – and we all laughed. Strangers slapped each other on the back and shook hands as we stood on the crowded roadside, trying not to get hit by the endless stream of large four-wheel-drives under escort carrying the officials away.
It was a moment that said so much of a society still so collectively traumatised by the events of their independence, 20 years ago. Inside the stadium at Tasi Tolu, where victims of the Santa Cruz massacre had been buried in 1991 by the Indonesian military, speeches had been made, music played and prayers read. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was there as Australia’s representative, as was Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. Speakers noted Australia’s role in recognising the Indonesian occupation of their country after the 1975 invasion.
I remember Falintil commander David Alex gently ribbing me for being an Australian when I first met him in early 1997 in the hills near Timor-Leste’s second-largest town, Baucau. He asked why Australia did not support the independence fighters. Later that year, Alex and his men ambushed an Indonesian police convoy, killing 30. A massive operation was launched by the Indonesian forces, which captured Alex and his men. He was never seen again.
I watched Morrison closely as the ceremony proceeded. The prime minister looked as though he couldn’t wait to get out of there. On his day in Dili, he answered only three questions from the press. In many ways though, he was an unwanted guest. Despite the fact he’d just signed off on a new agreement that extended Timorese control over their oil and gas reserves, an air of resentment lingered. Some felt the Australians had waited too long and negotiated too hard over the deal.
There was also the controversy surrounding the prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery, a case that is very well known in Timor-Leste. Before Morrison’s visit, José Ramos-Horta urged the Australian government to drop the charges against the pair. “I would never as leader of a country prosecute someone if we spied on some country and they came to us or the media and said ‘I have just been asked to do something that is completely unethical and has nothing to do with the national interest’,” he said. In Dili, some people gathered with banners and chants to greet Morrison. Their message for the Australian government was clear: stop the prosecution of these men for revealing the fact Australia bugged their government to gain advantage in the oil and gas negotiations.
But the roots of the tension stretched back further than that. Yes, Australia had led the peacekeeping force that finally pushed out the Indonesian military and restored peace, and for that they were grateful, but for so many Timorese it came too late. Their houses were already burnt, their relatives already killed and their towns depopulated by the time the Australian-led force officially arrived on September 20, 1999. Many were forced to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia by the Indonesian military, the police and militia members who drove around the streets loading people into trucks at gunpoint to take them to Indonesia, before looting and burning their houses, shops and whole towns.
The sense of betrayal was related to me in Dili by an old friend, Pedro Lebre. From the mid-1990s, Lebre ran a hostel, Villa Harmonia, in the suburbs of Dili. It was a modest place, frequented by backpackers and tourists on a budget. But also, as Lebre knew, many of us staying there were journalists posing as tourists. I stayed with him many times. Almost daily, even when I was the only guest, the Indonesian intelligence would pay a visit to the hostel and ask Lebre what I was doing there. He would tell me to get inside and then would meet them in the driveway to patiently explain I was just another tourist, a bum even, whom he couldn’t get rid of. The Indonesians left me alone to get some work done in an environment where foreign journalists were either banned or, if they were allowed in, heavily monitored to the point where contact with the independence movement was impossible.
In 1999, when the pro-independence ballot result was announced on September 4, the Indonesian government began its plan of retribution against the people of Timor-Leste. It is estimated as many as 2600 people died. We journalists in Timor had known about and published stories on Indonesia’s planned retaliation. In the chaos, troops targeted Lebre’s hostel, where a team of Australian volunteer electoral observers was staying. As they later explained to me, the soldiers came at night, first shooting the dogs before rolling drums of leaking petrol down the drive, yelling they would kill and burn them. Of course, this was happening all over town. They backed up their threats with a cacophony of gunfire. Australian ambassador John McCarthy himself collected them and drove them to the airport for evacuation. Lebre said to me, not bitterly, just matter-of-factly, “We stayed only to protect the Australians, then they left us.” He isn’t the only one who feels this way.
My friend José Antonio Belo, the editor of one of Timor’s most influential newspapers, was in 1999 a former student activist and guerilla turned journalist. After the referendum, he sought sanctuary at the United Nations compound in Dili, along with some 3000 other Timorese. When Indonesian troops besieged the compound, the UN announced it would evacuate all foreigners. Belo fled into the hills behind the compound. He survived and even came back down through the gunfire to deliver me tapes for Associated Press from Max Stahl, who was filming up there. Belo implored me to go back with him up the hill as he believed the UN would abandon Timor-Leste, which, in effect, it did.
The Howard government eventually struck a deal to temporarily offer refuge to a few hundred Timorese who had worked for the UN. But this deal also gave Indonesia exactly what it wanted: the freedom to take and to kill without any witnesses who could hold them to account.
Estimates suggest between 100,000 and 300,000 Timorese died during the Indonesian occupation of their country. It was a decimation. Life is still hard for most people in Timor-Leste. Outside the hotels in the centre of town, which charge $US100 a night, there is no reliable clean running water, no hot water, intermittent electricity and expensive and unreliable communications. There is a massive youth unemployment problem, which leads to crime and other social problems. Healthcare remains under-resourced and child deaths from preventable diseases are common.
Generally, though, there is a certain discipline that has come out of the independence struggle. The universality of the shared trauma of that time binds those survivors together and makes the nation unique and strong. Everyone lost somebody; everyone lived in fear of the Indonesian military and knew the terror of the night when they would come. People were “disappeared”, others shot on the street in broad daylight. Australia’s inaction has not been forgotten. I remember an Australian editor saying to me back in 1998 when I tried to file a report on two Timorese deaths, both shooting victims of the Indonesian military, one fewer than five metres away from me: “If you don’t have more than 10, we are not interested.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Fatal inaction". Subscribe here.