The battle for Timor-Leste’s past

In 1975, Indonesian forces invaded Timor-Leste, heralding an occupation that lasted 24 years and claimed the lives of up to a third of the population. Forty years later, another clash is underway: an internal “history war” over the official narrative of the country’s turbulent past

Originally published by Southeast Asia Globe (December 30, 2015)

Pedro Lebre remembers the day Portuguese colonial forces finally left his country. It was November 28, 1975, and the 24-year-old celebrated as Timor-Leste gained its independence after more than 400 years of foreign rule.

Nine days later, he looked on as that glimmer of freedom was extinguished. “It was very difficult,” says Lebre of the Indonesian invasion and subsequent occupation. “Portuguese colonisation had just ended, so we didn’t want another.”

Lebre took to the hills to join the swelling ranks of armed guerrilla cadres fighting the Indonesian occupiers. “We escaped to the forests. We had to sacrifice ourselves for independence,” he says. Later, in the 1980s, he returned to the capital, Dili, to become a member of the clandestine movement – civilians who provided food and shelter to the guerrillas, smuggled weapons and essentials, and sought to destabilise the Indonesian regime from within. “We didn’t know how or when we would finally achieve independence, it was just about resisting,” adds Lebre.

In 1999, a combination of international pressure, economic woes due to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and ‘democratising’ politics from the post-Suharto Indonesian government resulted in the East Timorese being granted a referendum on independence, and 78% of the population voted in favour. This brought an end to the 24-year occupation, during which between 100,000 and 200,000 people died from a population estimated at 600,000 in 1975. Timor-Leste was officially granted independence three years later on May 20, 2002.

Today, 64-year-old Lebre spends much of his time behind an old desktop computer in his Dili home, writing his memoir. “I’m enjoying writing about our history, there is a lot to be written,” he says. Once finished, this will be a welcome addition to a skeletal body of work on the country.

“There has been relatively little research into Timor-Leste,” says Clinton Fernandes, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia. “Major universities around the world haven’t devoted time to it. Major motion pictures and documentaries haven’t been made about it. Novels and memoirs aren’t [published] internationally about it.”

International understanding of Timor-Leste’s past is certainly limited, but the East Timorese people face an even greater challenge: how to write their own history.

According to Michael Leach, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, any post-conflict nation would struggle with writing its national history. Questions abound, such as, who should write it? How does it include disparate social groups? How does it foster a new national identity without blurring the truth?

One of the first tasks for independent Timor-Leste was to jettison historical narratives established by the Indonesian regime. A new story was adopted: one of struggle, or funu in the local Tetum language. It is a unifying tale, a positive saga of regular people fighting against foreign invaders for almost 500 years, and it fostered the powerful new sense of nationalism that is essential for any young country.

As Leach found in a 2006 study on the subject, this account is popular with the East Timorese people. Though it isn’t without its problems.

The first issue is that the story was shaped by the nationalists that led the independence movement, who articulated it initially in newspapers, speeches and propaganda during the resistance. When those same leaders penned the constitution of independent Timor-Leste in 2002, the narrative acquired official status.

“The constitution [essentially] requires the history of the independence struggle to be valourised,” says Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Deakin University, Australia. “Because of this, the people associated with it are also valourised and seen as heroes.”

Dom Boaventura, a figurehead of a 1912 rebellion against the Portuguese, became one symbol of funu, while contemporary guerrilla leaders such as Nicolau Lobato, Xanana Gusmão and Taur Matan Ruak were heralded as the heroes of the second anti-colonial struggle.

“[The historical narrative] gives political legitimacy to anyone with a role in the resistance,” says Kingsbury. Indeed, the independence leaders came to dominate the politics of post-conflict Timor-Leste. Gusmão was the country’s first president and Ruak assumed the position in 2012.

This politicised the historical narrative and, according to Leach, developed into a “history war” between the country’s political elites over the “ownership” of the independence struggle. Some members of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), the political party that announced independence in 1975 and began the armed struggle against Indonesia, claim that historical revisionism has taken place, putting more emphasis on the latter years of the struggle.

Many non-political groups have also voiced their anger at being left out of the narrative and denied the material and symbolic rewards of independence. This came to a head in 2006, when the country was destabilised by widespread violence. Dozens were killed, tens of thousands were left homeless and assassination attempts were made on both the president and prime minister.

It appeared that the state-endorsed historical account was not as unifying as once thought.

One of the core policies of independent Timor-Leste has been the remuneration of independence-struggle veterans. The NGO La’o Hamutuk estimates that, by 2013, there were 37,000 registered veterans collectively receiving annual pensions of $67m.

However, many former members of the clandestine movement have been denied veteran payments, and some believe their efforts have been devalued in the historical narrative, which is dominated by the guerrillas.

Women have also seen their role in the independence struggle overlooked. Speaking in 2010, the secretary general of the Popular Organisation of East Timorese Women, Lourdes Maria Araújo, told an audience: “It has now been [almost] ten years since we have restored our independence, but the leaders have forgotten the contribution and values [that women brought to the struggle].”

According to academic researcher Lia Kent, of the Australian National University, women played an instrumental role, making up 60% of the clandestine movement. However, she wrote in a recent essay, there is an “implicit assumption that the resistance was an overwhelmingly male struggle”, and the veterans’ scheme “has discriminated against women”.

A narrative that venerates the independence struggle also excludes, or even demonises, the section of society that supported the Indonesian occupation. How these people fit into the story as anything other than ‘traitors’ remains unclear.

The academic Douglas Kammen argued in a 2003 essay that, following the Portuguese exit, “with the abdication of the colonial master, the central metaphor of politics shifted from masters and slaves to traitors and nationalists… For older East Timorese, the labels ‘traitor’ and ‘nationalist’… remain powerfully alive”.

According to Leach, there has been a long-running process of reconciliation between independence supporters and the minority that supported and facilitated the Indonesian occupation. “There are bitter and unresolved legacies… just below the surface of East Timorese society, with a largely unaddressed history of violence, including crimes against humanity committed during the Indonesian occupation,” Leach wrote in an essay titled “The Politics of History in Timor-Leste”.

Another question is how the younger generation, which did not experience Indonesian occupation or the ideologies of the resistance, establishes its own historical perspective. As Leach argues, something “indigenous”, based on the history of Timor-Leste before Portuguese colonisation, or on everyday life during colonisation, holds more appeal for this generation.

Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Timor-Leste has only been independent for 13 years, a relatively short period of time to fully comprehend its complex and turbulent past. And it does appear that the government is trying to provide a landscape in which a historical narrative centred on struggle against colonial powers can be interpreted by future generations untouched by the fight for independence.

Earlier this year, the government announced an initiative called ‘National Mourning-End’, that encourages Timor-Leste to remember the past but not be consumed by it.

“[The initiative] is trying not to look back at the negatives and the claims for redress that are unable to be met, especially in terms of compensation from Indonesia and trials for crimes against humanity,” says Kingsbury.

Leach sees this as taking a pragmatic approach that says: “The loss of human life… will never be forgotten, but it is time to move to national development.” However, he adds, “there are a lot of victims who are arguably being left behind”.

Furthermore, the politics of history is becoming less divisive thanks to a rapprochement between the two main political parties. This was described in 2014 by Agio Pereira, the minister of state, as the “new politics of national consensus”. It culminated earlier this year with Gusmão handing over the prime ministership to a member of the opposition, Fretilin’s Rui Maria de Araújo – an act that was also symbolic of a generational shift. Araújo, aged 51, is the first head of state not from the so-called ‘75 generation’ of guerrillas, and was instead a member of the clandestine movement based in Indonesia.

According to Kingsbury, this changing of the guard means that the “elders” will become even more “venerated” as the heroes of the resistance, solidifying their positions as the founding fathers of Timor-Leste.

Leach, however, believes greater unity among the political classes and a new generation of leaders coming through will depoliticise history, allowing non-political actors to add to the narrative. It will also allow the country to develop a proper national history curriculum for schools. According to Leach, a curriculum does exist for primary school children, but not for older pupils, and this leaves teachers to expound the past on an ad-hoc basis. “The history of occupation is a very difficult thing to teach… many things are still not being spoken about. But this is common in any post-colonial society,” he says.

According to Fernandes, there are some “fine people” working in the education system, but they are hampered by the government’s lack of investment. “[However], the new prime minister is a breath of fresh air and [should] give these areas higher priority,” Fernandes adds. “I hope he does. His country depends on it.”

Back in Pedro Lebre’s humble Dili home, the former guerrilla agrees that now is an important time for the country. “We must move on and build a new Timor-Leste,” he says. “We must look to the future and not just to the past… But history is dynamic; it doesn’t end. I want to finish my memoir, but it’s difficult because once you have your eyes open to what is around you, you have to keep writing.”

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