Activist travels to occupied East Timor, 1989-99

By Olivia Hewitt

first page of Miriam Young's reportBetween 1975 and 1989 the world was barred from entering East Timor. On more than one occasion the international community would catch a horrific glimpse into the situation unfolding in the region between the East Timorese and Indonesian military forces. Indonesian authorities opened the territory to visitors for the first time since their invasion in 1989. Several activists took advantage of the opportunity to visit. Their trip reports provide a window into the situation a decade and a half after the invasion.

Reading trip reports by solidarity activists, it becomes clear that East Timor is deceptively beautiful, but something is unsettling that is commonly observed. The East Timorese lived under a heavy veil of oppression during the period of Indonesian control, which lasted from 1975 to 1999. In the hope of deconstructing the oppressed people of East Timor, solidarity activists travel to the epicenter of this struggle. Many activists have set out on a mission to preach for self-determination and solidarity for the people of East Timor.

This post discusses two key reports written by solidarity activists for East Timor. Miriam Young, a member of the East Timor Action Network/US, described her travels to East Timor and Indonesia from January 18 to February 5, 1995. Kirsty Sword, an Australian activist for East Timor, wrote an undated report entitled “Treading Carefully in East Timor.” Both reports mention similar and contrasting situations while traveling throughout the region. This post will explore living conditions and rights violations, alternative facts and information, and motivations of activists and travelers.

Life for an East Timorese under Indonesian occupation centered around survival. An entire village could suffer the consequences of one wrong word or action, in front of an Indonesian. Water shortages were a common tactic used by the Indonesian army. These scarcities quickly turned to severe food shortages leading to starvation within villages. As Young writes, the East Timorese lived in a climate of fear created by the Indonesian military and police repression. This was very apparent when she spoke with the people of East Timor as many were cautious before divulging the truth of what life was like during Indonesian control. They rarely felt safe disclosing the truth about the real situation in the region. If a traveler was being accompanied by an Indonesian escort little information would be exposed due to fear of Indonesian aggression. When Miriam Young spoke with a priest in Lospalos, he seemed uneasy and nervous. Young had the feeling the priest did not feel free to talk openly about East Timor and Indonesia’s conflict. It was only until he realized that her escort was East Timorese and not Indonesian, his manner changed drastically and he poured out stories of the atrocities that had taken place.

Solidarity activists traveled to East Timor in the hopes of exchanging information and to experience first-hand what they had heard and read over the years. Many activists realized the best approach to understand the situation was to talk to the East Timorese. It is in those situations an activist can gain rich and personalized information. During a visit to the beach, Miriam Young was approached by a young man who, much to her surprise, revealed the serious truths about Indonesian presence. She expressed out how uncommon this was when traveling throughout East Timor. Being an outsider, it is clear that it can take a long time to earn the trust of the East Timorese. Despite this, the man who approached Young spoke the truth to her and she asked him why he wasn’t afraid to talk to her. He responded by saying “he was not married and had no family and it didn’t matter if he died, he was not afraid” (Young, p. 7). He went on to explain that the Indonesians should get out of East Timor and that the cause of his hardships was due to the actions of the Indonesian army. He was an educated graduate but there were no employment opportunities for him or real future.

After speaking with several priests, Sword confirmed the growing number of student activists in East Timor, as reported by outside news sources. Young adults in East Timor were educated but just like the man on the beach, many were unable to find employment for a prosperous future turning to protesting and activism, as Sword reported. The people of East Timor express that two of the biggest problems are related to lack of education and employment opportunities, whereas Indonesian authorities claim unemployment is related to ethnic and religious tensions and agitation from the outside. The fact of the matter is centered around misinformation produced by Indonesian imperialists. They offer an immense amount of “alternative facts” to justify their presence and actions in East Timor.

Traveling to Indonesian-controlled East Timor could be very dangerous and many activists were aware of this fact. This became clear to the world when in 1975 two Australian television crews traveling in East Timor were killed during the earliest phase of Indonesia’s military intervention (also referred to as the Balibo Incident). Despite these risks, solidarity activists continued to travel to East Timor because they believe the risks were far less than the benefits to the people of East Timor. Within the international community, if there were no solidarity activists, reporters, and advocates for the East Timorese, the Indonesian military could continue terrorizing East Timor. The people of East Timor experienced decades of isolation from the rest of the world and their voices were stripped away. “Activists represent an interest and a concern from the outside” world to help the marginalized people (Young, p. 6).

As an activist or foreign traveler, it was important to register your presence in this region. Many travelers had to be “accompanied” to villages by members of police intelligence. Depending on who accompanied the traveler, this could alter the journey. The experience travelers had in East Timor relied heavily on where they went, who they spoke to, and who guided them throughout their trip. When discussing the situation in East Timor with a native East Timorese opposed to an Indonesian, the stories and explanations could not be more opposite. Referring to the Indonesian authorities’ distortion of the truth when examining the conflict, it was best described by Bishop Carlos Belo as “black is white and white is black”. Miriam Young was invited to the Indonesian Army Headquarters to speak with the military commander Kiki Syahnakri, who explained that the Indonesian military serves a dual function – that of security and prosperity. Throughout this visit, Syahnakri never answered any of Young’s questions and the explanations of the East Timor situation was not only bleak but justified Indonesian actions and their further involvement in the region. Many activists noticed among the people there was a sense of questioning whether or not the information received was reliable or not in East Timor. Often Indonesian information would be misconstrued and altered to divert or justify the actions of the authorities.

The Church represents a special and safe place for many people in East Timor. As Sword wrote, the boundless courage of priests and nuns was a source of hope to the local people. The Church plays an important role in the maintenance of Timorese cultural traditions. Young reported that women in a small village named Homé continue to practice the traditional craft of weaving. The Church was heavily involved in trying to revive and foster these traditional skills to safeguard their cultural survival. Furthermore, the Christian Church of East Timor had sponsored students in law, medicine, and economics with the hope of getting influential posts in the civil service filled by church members.

Solidarity activists from all over the world traveled to East Timor in the hopes of helping the people. The Indonesian government and foreign media outlets were criticized for misreporting factual information about the conflict. Activists were able to produce reports that provided the outside world with first-hand, uncensored experiences and conversations with the East Timorese. These reports are revealing documents that remain relevant today.