Challenges of reconciliation: lessons learned from Timor-Leste – summary of presentations

“Challenges of reconciliation: lessons learned from Timor-Leste” was a workshop held in October 2019 at Bishop’s University. The most recent post summarized the presentations of Father Jovito Araújo and Hugo Fernandes. This post summarizes the research shared by Amy Rothschild (Ithaca College, USA), Lia Kent (Australian National University), Hannah Loney (The University of Melbourne, Australia), Kate Green (Seed Change Canada) and Cintia Gillam (St. Mary’s University, Canada).

By Tomas Pelz

Amy Rothschild started her talk by describing her first experience seeing East Timor which left her shocked about the extent of destruction and the danger that exists in romanticizing East Timorese resistance for westerners. She continued by saying that the Timor-Leste truth commission (CAVR) report did much more than uncovering East Timor, they were writing the first history of East Timor, as well as their process in deciding how the past would be remembered. A heroic tales of resistance? A history of pain and oppression? Or a mix of both?

She then went on to discuss the shift from focus on resistance and victimization, to a focus on the heroes and the struggle for liberation. Changes in narrative and framing of the past resulted from this focus on heroes. There was a shift from a focus on victimization to heroes and heroism, framing resistance as a narrative of struggling heroes, focused on struggle rather than suffering. Due to these hero narratives, there are now many false veterans, who identified as such because the identity of ‘victim’ has been devalued and is not a popular thread of discourse in the newly independent nation. The identity of the ‘victim’ came to be seen as mutually independent from the ‘veteran’ and as having no agency, as not having resisted the Indonesians.

Lia Kent spoke about the struggles many experienced and continue to experience post-independence because of the many conflict casualties which have not been recovered, and ordinary people’s connections to them. She argued that the recovery and burial of the dead is very important for many to the process of reconciliation, in some aspects, one of the key pieces of reconciliation. Many died during the occupation, with death at its highest from 1975-80. Many of those who died did so in unknown locations and so left a legacy of non closure in the minds of their loved ones.

She explained that to the Timorese, the dead are not inanimate objects: they have spirits and make up the spiritual landscape. The spirits of these victims, if left uncared for, can cause misfortune and negative effects. So it is important to recover these bodies and perform the proper rituals, in which rocks and soil from the sites of the massacres must be taken and infused with the spirits of the family members who will then be buried in proper graves.

Finally, she described locally organized efforts undertaken by local commissions, villages, and municipalities. These efforts are often led by former resistance members who go and look for the bodies of fallen resistance members to properly bury them. These efforts also include the remains of civilians and children who were affected as part of the ‘participating population’. These efforts are partly funded by the government, which gives some money, and by veterans who put in some of their own veterans benefits. She concluded by saying that the fate of the nation was at risk because the conflict dead have not found peace and doing so is critical in the process of transitional justice

Hannah Loney outlined the role violence and terror played during the Indonesian occupation (1975-99), calling it central to the occupation, of which women were often targets many times, either directly or as a way to hurt their male partners and family. Many structures and policies were targeted toward women and their role within the family, such as the Indonesian national family planning program, which during the 1970s became central to the Suharto regime in creating and implementing their ideals of society.

The state, then, during the occupation, played a central role in gender construction and sanctioned views of women in which women were to be wives and mothers. Women’s roles under family planning included being loyal partners, breeders, and teachers. She said women were expected to participate in national development and support government policy. However, centralized authoritarian leadership affected the way the program was implemented, especially when it spread to East Timor during the 1980s. She said that attempts to implement this program enhanced violence and coercion. Family planning was pushed through a social and economic framework in order to try and glaze over the negatives. Bishop Carlos Belo saw the program as being implemented by the Indonesians without consideration for the wellbeing of the Timorese people, taking on the character of genocide. In the meantime, the Catholic church transformed from a colonial actor to a strong defender of human rights and of the East Timorese people.

However, even with the Catholic church becoming a defender of human rights and the East

Timorese, many women still faced forced sterilization, often without their knowledge. This was a method of violence and abuse used against women, a systematic way to control and eliminate a population. For the East Timorese it was a scary and deeply affecting act that left many with trauma.

Kate Green spoke about the work Seed Change (formerly USC Canada) has done in East Timor, like their work on a watershed management program, land rehabilitation program, and in the implementation of rules to allow the land to recover. This was community based and communities came together and decided on the rules that would govern rule implementation and land rehabilitation programs. She also highlighted Seed Change’s focus on small community seed banks and exchange programs so that small communities have access to a wider variety of foods and crops which are important to communities and people in both the physical spiritual sense because many people remember themselves and others surviving on it for years.

Focusing on Ataúro island and Nino Konis Santana national park, Cintia Gillam discussed the benefits of eco-tourism and protected areas with NGOs creating and taking care of these areas. She warned, however, that with the creation and limiting of accessible waters due to the creation of protected areas, women were losing or had already lost their ability to fish from the shore and catch small fish and octopus with which they could make a little money themselves and which was part of their traditional activities. Men had boats and could go around these protected areas but there were and are still some problems, such as if they had a motorized boat or big enough boats to make it out into the fishing areas. Many ended up losing their livelihoods, as well as their lands, to the children of perpetrators of the Indonesian occupation who now hold positions of power.