National Catholic Reporter
September 9, 1994
MUSLIMS SPIT HOSTS IN TIMOR AS TENSION GROWS
By HUGH O'SHAUGHNESSY Special to NCR
[Hugh O'Shaughnessy, who writes for The Observer in London, was expelled from occupied East Timor at the end of July]
DILI, East Timor—The Indonesians, in occupation of East Timor since their invasion of 1975, have done themselves few favors over the past few months. Tension in this overwhelmingly Catholic country is running as high as it ever has during nearly two decades of dominance by Indonesia, its largely Muslim neighbor.
Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the Timorese apostolic administrator of the diocese, has a hard and thankless task trying to keep his flock calm in the face of repeated Muslim provocations.
'There is a good deal of tension here at the moment,' he said.
Sadly, Belo has not always had the support of the Vatican or the Catholic bishops of Indonesia. If, as rumor has it, Belo may be awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, he will surely have earned it.
The premeditated desecration of consecrated hosts by two Indonesian agents who spat them out and ground them underfoot at the little village of Remexio in June aroused fierce passions here. Those immediately responsible for the action were lucky to escape the hands of the enraged villagers.
The event sparked a series of reparation services in churches that, at the request of congregations from one end of the country to the other, often lasted from morning to late afternoon. The Timorese are very sensitive to insults to their religion.
The further sexual insults and personal offenses to two young Timorese nuns as they prepared to take entrance examinations for the University of East Timor in mid-July, made the already tense situation between the Catholic Timorese and the mainly Muslim occupiers all the more fragile. Those responsible were beaten up by students.
The following day a peaceful student demonstration in the streets of Dili was broken up with great ferocity by the police and by the army whose barracks adjoin the campus.
The action gave rise to suspicion on the part of many that the whole chapter of incidents was designed to make the Timorese, rather than the occupying forces, seem the aggressors. Many also suspect the assaults and desecration follow a pattern seen in the neighboring Indonesian island of Flores, also largely Catholic, and that the acts could be the result of pressure by the Muslim fundamentalist lobby in the Suharto administration in Jakarta.
These events come at a time when a new generation of Timorese is accepting the torch of resistance to Indonesian occupation that was carried with so much grief over the years by their parents.
It is the universal view in Dili — East Timor's dusty little capital city, wedged between parched mountains and warm sea—that the young people of the country are likely to carry that torch with as much enthusiasm as their elders demonstrated.
When the troops of Gen. Suharto over ran East Timor in the closing weeks of 1975, and when six months later his regime purported to annex the territory, the general opinion in Jakarta and abroad was that the 600,000 Timorese would never be able to withstand the attempts of a country with a population 25 or 30 times larger to swallow them up. In the case of the West, that opinion was larded with some wishful thinking, given that Suharto had proved himself a loyal Cold War ally in having a few years previously liquidated the Indonesian Communist Party and other organizations of the left.
But the Timorese, rudimentary though their society was after 450 years of fitful Portuguese colonialism, were not prepared to be absorbed. They fought.
They did so because they saw the invaders causing the deaths of their compatriots in horrifying numbers. Amnesty International in London estimates that 200,000 died in battle or from hunger and disease caused by Indonesian action.
The invaders were taking away their freedom, their language, their culture and their land, peopling it with a tidal wave of migrants from Indonesia. The very identity of the Timorese was at risk. Seeing the Catholic church as the only institution prepared to stand up for the people's rights, the Timorese converted in droves, a phenomenon that the Dominican friars from Europe had not been able to achieve during centuries of devoted effort.
Today the army that survived from the ephemeral Republic of East Timor, which was proclaimed in the last days before the Indonesian troops violated the border, has for years been operating as a small but determined guerrilla force, the 'Falintil'. Despite the fact that they have never received military aid from the outside world and that their leader Xanana Gusmao, was captured in 1992 and has been imprisoned in a jail in Indonesia, the Falintil have kept up an uninterrupted campaign against the Indonesian troops. In recent years it has never, of itself, threatened Indonesia's military hold on the country, but it has served as a beacon of immense symbolic importance inside and outside the country.
Timorese in exile, meanwhile, maintained a political presence for East Timor in the outside world.
Now, however, the Timorese feel they no longer have to choose between joining the dangerous and exhausting life of the Falintil in the mountains and a wrenching exile from their homeland.
The occupying forces brought educational possibilities to Timor, which they hoped would aid the process of assimilation of the Timorese.
The Portuguese language was suppressed and all instruction is now carried out in Bahasa Indonesia, the language of the larger country, with little attention paid to East Timor's history.
This has made a new national consciousness bloom among young Timorese, who are keen not to lose their cultural roots. "Rejection of the Indonesians has never been stronger," says Armindo Maia, vice rector of the University of East Timor.