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When I was a boy, my mother used to tell me about her nightmares of Dec. 7, 1975, when US-made Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) Skyhawk jets dropped bombs from the sky and people screamed in panic amid prayers for God’s help.
Many people fled Dili for the mountains to seek refuge, hiding from the Indonesian soldiers. Many children were later born in jungles, beaches and mountain caves.
Some mothers had to abandon their babies as soldiers came to their homes, pulled them out and killed them.
I was born four years after the invasion. I never knew what to say when my mother, who later worked for the Indonesian government as a civil servant, recalled the horrors she experienced.
Prior to the invasion, Soeharto secured endorsement for Indonesia to “incorporate” East Timor from then-Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam during a meeting in Wonosobo, Central Java.
Facing mounting pressure from Indonesia, the two largest political parties in East Timor, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and the Revolutionary Front for East Timorese Independence (Fretilin) decided to form a coalition for
The alliance was short-lived, as the UDT soon quit to pursue its own political agenda. Following a meeting with some Indonesian generals, UDT leaders seized power in Dili and an armed conflict with Fretilin broke out.
The UDT then launched a communist purge, which gave a pretext to ABRI to invade East Timor.
Priests and nuns initially hailed the soldiers as saviors when they were deployed from the sea and the sky, remembering the link between churches and anti-communism at the end of the World War II.
However, they too were soon targeted by ABRI.
As the late Francisisco Xavier do Amaral, the first president of the short-lived Democratic Republic of East Timor, told the Timor-Leste Truth Reception and Reconciliation Commission in 2004: “Indonesian soldiers blew up church buildings and killed the priests and nuns. The Catholic priests and nuns soon realized what was going on and were regretful.
“We heard information passed on by Indonesian military intelligence that Fretilin was Communist, but at least they did not torture, kill and destroy our churches. Even some of our priests fled to the mountains and fought alongside Fretilin guerillas for independence.”
Other countries, especially Australia, did little to condemn Indonesia’s invasion. Australia eventually recognized Indonesian sovereignty over its tiny neighbor and on Dec. 9, 1985, the two countries announced a plan to jointly develop petroleum resources in the Timor Gap.
Citing Indonesian census data, Yale University historian Ben Kiernan has estimated that East Timor population stood only at 329,000 in October 1978, while 200,000 others lived in Fretilin strongholds in the hills.
Today, the people of Timor Leste remember the invasion and the 24-year occupation that followed. Every family has something to tell about the bitter legacy. Every household has lost one, two or more of their family members during the independence war.
People’s collective memory of the Indonesian invasion has persisted. The invasion dominates our minds. Memories of the period have been passed from generation to generation.
Timor Leste’s collective memory has been transformed into a historical imperative because of the length of the Indonesian occupation. Priests and nuns changed their minds and became strong advocates of independence due to cruelty and human rights violations during the occupation.
Many parents were willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters for the cause of independence.
After Timor Leste voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999, some leaders have prioritized reconciliation over justice, saying that harmonious relations are more important than accountability and the rule of law.
However, thousands of Timor Leste’s people still live with their memories of the past. The question is how they can move on to the future. It is the duty of historians to challenge the notion that history is written by the victors, especially when it comes to the occupation of Timor Leste.
Much has been written about the independence war and the birth of the nation. One of the most remarkable achievements was the final report of Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission.
About 8,000 interviews were conducted with victims and perpetrators, history makers and others. Unfortunately, this history has not been widely disseminated internationally.
On the other hand, some of the grimmest parts of Timor Leste’s past remain unexplored and existing historical narratives tend to be dominated by the interests of elites. Concerns about the loss of collective memory have become so widespread.
“The past is never dead,” the US author William Faulkner once said. “It’s not even past.” At this time, the role of historians is to give ordinary people the confidence they need to speak out about their own history.
The social purpose of history demands that we try to understand the past, which, directly or indirectly, relates to the present.
The writer is a historian based in Dili.