The Monuments of Timor Leste

By Hannah Osborne-O’Donnell

Memorials and monuments are both sites of remembrance. They can commemorate the lives of great individuals, the deaths of individuals, victories, and tragedies. They can have the effect of promoting feelings of pride and patriotism or cause visitors to feel great sadness or even anger. These sites can be spontaneous. Something is often seen at sites of recent tragedies or meticulously planned out. Though the motivations behind the erection of a monument and the form that the memorial takes may vary dramatically, they all recount elements of the past, connect these elements to the present and carry on the memory of those elements to the future (Gurler and Ozer 2013.)

When it comes to the culture of memorializing that has emerged out of the context of the twenty-four-year Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, the diversity of memorials is especially put on display.  One of the elements that are often present in the monuments of Timor Leste is the depiction of heroes of the revolution. Heroes such as Nino Konis Santana are often depicted and memorialized by statues, plaques, and graffiti, demonstrating that these individuals’ veneration goes beyond government-sanctioned monuments and are genuinely seen as heroes by the people. Depictions of heroism and sacrifice serve as a background of a national identity. They create a unifying force for which citizens can build a shared history around, not everyone in a country knows each other, but everyone knows the national heroes (Arthur 2019).

Youth monument, Dili
12 November Youth monument, Dili [Photo: David Webster]
Memorials for martyrs, such as the grave of Sebastião Gomes and the statue also dedicated to him, serve a similar purpose. In the case of perceived martyrs, the memorials do not focus on glory or heroism. Instead, they emphasize the sacrifice of these individuals and aim to invoke a great sense of loss. Turning once again to Sebastião Gomes, how young he was when he died is often a key pillar of his depiction. When memorializing Gomes, it is not only a tragedy that he was killed but the loss of his potential is also mourned. The creation of a site invokes a shared emotional state, along with the shared history these monuments encompass contribute to the construction of a national identity (Arthur 2019).

Ruins or ruined buildings are another form of memorials present in Timor Leste’s culture of memorizing, which makes sense in the context of the country having been in turmoil for twenty-five years, with the long-lasting conflict resulting in destroyed buildings becoming a regular sight in the country. Though not all destroyed buildings gain the same significance as a purpose-built memorial, instead of meaning either pre-existed or was achieved through its destruction (Lemarque 2019.)

The now reconstructed Balibo House, where the five Australian journalists sheltered shortly before being killed in 1975, is an example of how buildings and ruins can gain significance. The journalists jokingly referred to the building as the “Australian Embassy,” even going so far as to paint an Australian flag on one of the exterior walls (Balibo House Trust 2021.) As some of the few foreign representatives in Timor Leste at the time of the Indonesian Invasion, this joke is relatively close to the truth. The significance gained through the journalists living in the building became more prevalent after being killed, and the home was partially destroyed. The Balibo Flag House officially became a site of memory in 2002 when the government of the Australian province of Victoria established the Balibo House Trust to fund the restoration of the building. The house now serves as an education and community center in hopes that this force of positivity continues the legacy of the journalists who lost their lives (Balibo House Trust 2021.)

Balibo House
  Australian flag painted on the Balibo House Museum, Balibo [Photo: David Webster]
Balibo House 2
Journalists paint the Australian flag, 1975. Panel from Balibo House exhibition.

As shown with the Balibo Flag House, when it comes to buildings or destroyed buildings becoming memorial spaces, the site undergoes a state of transformation from being a mundane entity into a place moving in its own right. This process differs these types of memorials from more traditional sites of memory. They were not constructed with the intended purpose of memorializing. The meaning present in this space can therefore be considered less manufactured than a war memorial. However, the mythos surrounding the building can be emphasized through the stories that are told about the site.

Screen shot of Timor memorials map

Representations of heroes of the revolution and the transformation of pre-existing buildings into sites of memory are only just two of the types of memorials found in Timor Leste. The map featured on this webpage features just a handful of these monuments, photos collected during a photo contest held in 2020 by the Centro Nacional Chega, which requested that contestants submit pictures of memorials. As shown by the map, the contest resulted in the submission of memorials from all corners of Timor Leste, some of which are well known, some more obscure. Dr. Marisa Ramos Gonçalves from the Centro de Estudos Sociais da Faculdade de Economia da Universidade de Coimbra and Dr. David Webster from Bishop’s University have decided to make use of this collection of images to study how the mass violence that occurred during the Indonesian occupation is memorialized by individuals, communities, and the government of Timor Leste. As a result of some of these monuments being lesser-known, the authors of this paper have decided to turn to the public to gain more information.

If you have any information about the monuments, such as their exact locations, please reach out to: dwebster AT ubishops DOT ca.



Arthur, Catherine E. 2019. Political Symbols and National Identity in Timor-Leste. Editorial: Cham Springer International Publishing.

Gurler, Ebru Erbas, and Basak Ozer. 2013. “The Effects of Public Memorials on Social Memory and Urban Identity.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 82 (): 858–63.

“History of the Balibó House Trust.” n.d. Balibó House Trust. Accessed August 24, 2021.

Lamarque, Peter. 2019. “The Values of Ruins and Depictions of Ruins.” In Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials, edited by Jeanette Bicknell, Jennifer Judkins, and Carolyn Korsmeyer, 83–94. Oxfordshire, England, Routledge.


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