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Postcolonial Blues

East Timor’s Lost Generation

Fretilin supporters protest in Dili following the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, 30 June 2006. © Candido Alves / Newspix / News Limited
Fretilin supporters protest in Dili following the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, 30 June 2006. © Candido Alves / Newspix / News Limited  
Cover: April 2011
April 2011Medium length read
 

East Timorese troubadour Ego Lemos is sad. His career as a singer has finally won him acclaim, leading to a successful association with revered Indigenous singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Australia-wide gigs in 2009, and two awards for his theme song for the film Balibo that same year. But the fate of his generation weighs on his soul.

Known as generation foun (‘the new generation’), Lemos’ contemporaries are remembered principally for staging the pro-independence demonstration at Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, in the East Timor capital of Dili, which ended in a massacre by the Indonesian army. The movement in fact began in 1989 during a visit by Pope John Paul II when students held a demonstration and hit world headlines. Before that, the brunt of resistance to Jakarta’s occupation forces had been borne by the resistance army FALINTIL (the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor) fighting from the mountains.

Many of the students were captured and viciously tortured by the Indonesian military, but their actions heralded an urban uprising that provided crucial relief for the hard-pressed guerrilla army. Moreover, they spelled doom for military planners in Jakarta, who realised that all attempts to indoctrinate the younger generation had failed and that a second generation of resistance fighters would replace the old.

The demonstrators had been children at the time of the Indonesian military’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, and most had been educated in the Indonesian school system. The national language, Tetum, was their mother tongue and Indonesian was their second language.

Over a lime juice in a Dili cafe, Ego Lemos talks of his generation’s sense of exclusion after independence in 2002. “Most of generation foun are still unhappy about the way they’ve been treated. Firstly, concerning opportunities, I think they’ve been left out – nobody thought about what they could contribute after independence. Secondly, it’s about language, it is still a big barrier … we had no chance to learn like those who lived abroad.”

He continues, solemn and unsmiling. “The government decided on Portuguese as an official language but the new generation didn’t speak it, and only a small percentage spoke English. The leaders decided it without considering every aspect of this generation.”

He underlines that he is speaking of himself, too, but adds that the concept of generation foun as the ‘new’ generation is no longer meaningful: “I would call myself part of the ‘in-between’ generation. Most of us are now in our thirties, approaching 40. Today there is another generation foun, which has grown up after us.”

After independence many of Lemos’ generation had difficulty finding work because of the language policy. Unemployed and disillusioned, many left East Timor in disgust. They voted with their feet. There was a mythical chicken factory in Northern Ireland where they could at least earn money and send it home if they could not find work in the country they had fought to free. There was a prescribed route: Portugal still recognised Timorese as its citizens and its embassy in Dili would issue Portuguese passports. It gave admission to the European Community once the bearer had landed in Lisbon. Timorese could then travel on to the coveted jobs in the United Kingdom, assisted by dubious labour recruitment agencies in Portugal taking commissions from British factories. It is a story with a dark underside.

*

The first travellers appear on Becora Road, the main eastern entrance to Dili, before daybreak. A small army of people of all ages is in motion, bringing agricultural produce from mountain villages to markets in the capital. They trundle down the unlit street with handcarts carrying an assortment of fresh sweet potatoes, pumpkins or tomatoes, and greens, according to the season. Some carry their goods on poles, bowed down under kilograms of bananas, pineapples or the sweet passionfruit that grow so well here.

As day breaks the mechanised traffic kicks in: big white United Nations Police cars with sirens screaming compete with ambulances bringing patients to a nearby medical post. The yellow taxis that have infested Dili streets since late 2007 also begin to move, competing for trade.

I hail one and descend towards the city centre. Languid young men dot the roadside, ever-watchful, guarding the ’hood, sentinels of the unemployed. Vast numbers of neat schoolchildren in their crisp white uniforms appear as time for the first bell draws near, a reminder that the average birthrate in 2010 was 5.7 children per woman. At its post-independence height, the rate in 2004 was 6.9 children per woman; a society that saw itself as having survived a genocide was making up for years of war. The birthrate is now in slight decline but not enough to quell concerns that current development programs might be worthless if the population boom overwhelms them. The 2010 census revealed that the East Timorese population had topped one million (at 1,066,582), an increase of 15.5% on the 2004 census.

The young taxi drivers practise the art of cool, perhaps to make up for their deficient skills as drivers. They are one step up from the sentinels, and like to show it. The men compete among themselves for the most exotic facial hair configurations, usually offset by piercings, and sculpt their hair into upswept monuments with lashings of Brylcreem. Cab interiors are works of art, with decorations for every taste. There are scarves with emblems of European soccer teams draped over dashboards, rosaries hanging from mirrors and pastel transfers of Our Lady of Fatima, flags of favourite nations (usually Australia or Portugal but never both) and images of Beyonce, Madonna and Britney Spears.

By now it is almost opening hour at the ANZ Bank on Lecidere corner, closer to the city centre. People move aside as five rough-looking men push to the front of the queue. Two are burly Chinese–Timorese pimps carrying overnight bags so full of money that they struggle to lift them. The other three stand guard. They have probably just emerged from one of Dili’s many brothels or illegal gambling joints and are depositing the night’s takings.

Brothels have become a feature of the new Dili. There were brothels before but many more were established after Indonesia’s 1999 withdrawal by enterprising Timorese and international post-conflict predators exploiting an influx of organisations and people into Timor. UN Police were among their customers, and the women were mainly trafficked from neighbouring South-East Asian countries.

The brothels have taken a firmer hold on city life since China began construction projects in East Timor after independence. As happens worldwide, the Chinese bring their own teams of workers, which sparks resentment among the local unemployed. Chinese prostitutes to serve the workers arrive soon after. The brothels are sometimes raided in combined operations by UN and national police – the Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL) – resulting in the detention and deportation of the women, but penalties for their traffickers and clients are rare.

The city centre is stirring as we approach, with yellow taxis increasing in density. It’s time for the morning gridlock, a sign of Dili’s new prosperity: a few years ago its traffic was that of an Australian country town. The drivers simultaneously pump their palms on their horns, swear at the motorcyclists weaving in and out, and shout out the windows to competing taxis. They’re losing their cool.

*

The question of the Santa Cruz generation is particularly relevant now because the country is preparing for elections in 2012. Whether founding leaders will stand aside for younger candidates is a question for debate, and of heightened interest because the UN may withdraw from East Timor soon.

Former guerrilla hero Xanana Gusmão presented as a reluctant presidential candidate in 2001, saying he would prefer to retire to become a pumpkin farmer. He won 82% of the vote for an office that is largely ceremonial.

The parliamentary poll that followed was won by the leading nationalist party Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) with 57% of the vote. Party chief Mari Alkatiri became prime minister, with Nobel laureate José Ramos Horta as foreign minister.

May 2002 saw glittering independence ceremonies in the presence of world dignitaries but, within months, violence broke out in the capital – a directionless outburst by an unemployed urban rabble that targeted no one in particular. The iconic Australian-owned Hello Mister supermarket frequented by westerners was torched, but so too were three houses belonging to the Alkatiri family. There was also an arson attempt on the city mosque – a symbol of Indonesian occupation.

From postcolonial times East Timor has held a record as a tough society prone to violence. Its extreme geography has shaped its character: long before the age of El Niño and La Niña, Timor’s early inhabitants struggled against climate extremes, labouring to cultivate crops from mountainous slopes and valleys, where meagre soils affected by drought, cyclones and floods were the enemy of food production.

From this harsh terrain a warrior, head-hunting culture evolved ruled by traditional kings, or liurais. Anthropologist Margaret King visited what was then Portuguese Timor in the ’60s and observed that “the emergence of a powerful liurai could plunge an entire area into bloodshed, adding materially to the great burden of difficulties already found in the island life.” Two eras of colonisation and resistance – against Portugal and then Indonesia – consolidated this belligerent heritage.

This culture served the Timorese well during their bitter anti-Indonesian struggle of 1975–99 but was incompatible with building a peaceful new society. Young people who confronted Indonesian tanks in the streets of Dili and Baucau had an ingrained tendency to answer violence with violence.

Outbreaks of civil strife continued sporadically after the 2002 events and in 2006 came to a dramatic head, when 591 soldiers deserted from the East Timorese army, now known as FALINTIL-FDTL (or ‘F-FDTL’). The government had ignored a petition from the soldiers alleging ethnic discrimination by commanders from eastern regions. By late April fires were blazing all over Dili as loyalist F-FDTL soldiers hunted down the deserters, now known as ‘petitioners’. Army commanders distributed weapons to civilian sympathisers.

In May the Fretilin party held a congress where there was an unsuccessful bid by reformists to replace Mari Alkatiri as party leader. The defeated dissidents walked out and the party voted to cancel liberal reforms, including vote by secret ballot, which had been introduced six years before.

The political drama took on a new complexion when military police commander Major Alfredo Reinado Alves and his soldiers deserted with their guns to join the fleeing petitioners in the mountains. Panicking residents fled the capital and civil war seemed imminent. Those who remained in Dili battened down in their houses as gunfire resounded in the streets and gangs of youths fought for their respective sides – westerners (caladis) versus easterners (firakus) – burning buildings as they progressed.

By 25 May the loyalist soldiers of the F-FDTL had surrounded the police barracks in central Dili where the PNTL worked under UN commanders. After the petitioners, the F-FDTL considered the Timorese police their greatest enemies, viewed as former Indonesian collaborators. A UN commander, Colonel Reis, spoke briefly with army commander Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak and negotiated a ceasefire, confirmed with the soldiers outside. The PNTL were to emerge unarmed and march in single file behind Colonel Reis. As they set foot on the road, the soldiers mowed them down with blasts of automatic gunfire, shooting some in the head at point-blank range, execution-style. Eight died instantly while 27 others lay and kneeled on the road moaning from near-fatal gunshot wounds.

The outcome of this conflict was a change of political mood in East Timor, with a plummet in the popularity of Fretilin and hardening of an old ethnic conflict between the caladis and firakus.

Public pressure mounted on the Alkatiri government to resign and on 1 June 2006 Interior Minister Rogério Lobato and Defence Minister Roque Rodrigues quit. Foreign Minister José Ramos Horta followed on 25 June and it was clear that behind the scenes a solution was being brokered to convince the prime minister, Alkatiri, to follow suit. He had held out against mounting calls for his resignation, but on 26 June he conceded.

Two weeks later José Ramos Horta was sworn in as acting prime minister, whose task it would be to prepare for new elections. These were to be held in two rounds, for the office of president on 11 March 2007, and for parliament on 30 June.

President Gusmão announced that he would not run again, but pumpkin farming was not now the alternative. He would head a new political party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT). Gusmão had struck a deal with Ramos Horta to trade places; Horta, in turn, announced his presidential candidature. There were two other leading contenders: Fretilin’s Francisco Guterres or ‘Lu-Olo’, and the Democratic Party’s Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araújo – a former cellmate of Xanana Gusmão, jailed for organising demonstrations in Bali in support of the Santa Cruz victims.

No candidate gained more than half the required vote in the first round, so a run-off was held on 9 May that returned Ramos Horta to office with 69%, to Guterres’ 31%. Lasama had polled 19% in the first round and lodged a formal complaint of vote-rigging, which was overruled by the High Court.

In the parliamentary poll on 30 June, Fretilin lost around half of its vote, plunging from 57% in 2001 to 29%, although it attracted the most votes in the 65-seat parliament, winning 21 seats to the CNRT’s 18. Former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri remained the Fretilin leader. CNRT and Fretilin refused to work with each other.

With 24% of the vote, Gusmão’s party formed the Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) with four other parties and, on 8 August 2007, the ex-guerrilla leader was sworn to office as prime minister.

By the end of 2007 Ramos Horta, Gusmão and Alkatiri, the three main players to date in East Timorese postcolonial politics, had been confirmed in their respective roles for the next five years.

*

José Luís Guterres had led the attempted reformist putsch in Fretilin’s ranks and was appointed deputy prime minister in the AMP government by Gusmão. He is a man of liberal views who spent the Indonesian occupation years as Fretilin’s diplomatic envoy to southern Africa, much of the time in Mozambique.

He disputes Ego Lemos’ view that the Santa Cruz generation are excluded from employment or influence. “The younger generation are already in power,” he asserts. “The strong majority are from the younger generation. It’s evident in the national parliament.”

He points to Fernando Lasama, 47, who was appointed parliamentary speaker after the 2007 elections and is indicated by many as a figure to watch in 2012. “Some exaggerate the need for a generation of change,” he adds. “One or two of the leaders of the ’70s remain in power, but in a democracy like ours there is already a mechanism … we cannot create a dichotomy between the old and the new.” I ask him to comment on the disparaging description attributed to former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri of Indonesian-educated graduates as “super-mie” (“instant noodle”) graduates, to which he replies that Alkatiri said he was misquoted. He then continues in the same vein, underlining that some of those educated in Indonesia have been decorated for their resistance activities: “Some are working in the private sector, some are in parliament, this country is very open, there is no obstruction.”         

José Luís Guterres reviews the AMP government’s achievements in other fields, pointing to the social peace and apparent prosperity that has prevailed for most of its term, and its affirmation of the private sector as the motor of the national economy. He mentions the introduction of East Timor’s first old-age pensions and pensions for veterans of the liberation struggle.

Last January the parliament approved a budget of US$1.26 billion thanks to a bumper year for oil revenues that brought in US$2.172 billion, most of which goes straight into a Petroleum Fund to accrue interest for future generations.

In truth there has been social peace for only three years, not a sufficiently long time by East Timorese standards to guarantee stability. On 11 February 2008 the country came to a standstill with news of assassination attempts against both the president and the prime minister by a group of men led by renegade officer Alfredo Reinado.

Reinado had returned to Dili from the mountains in July 2007, where he was arrested and held in the city jail, alongside many of the petitioners. Within a month he escaped with around 50 men and took to the hills, evading arrest throughout 2006. He survived a botched attempt by Australian soldiers to recapture him at Same, 81 kilometres south of Dili, in which five of his men were killed. Seasoned SAS troops swarmed down on the group from Black Hawk helicopters but failed to capture Reinado. His men’s rifle fire holed the fuselage of one of the Black Hawks, forcing an abrupt landing.

The Timorese army and police took over the manhunt without success – until Reinado appeared unexpectedly at the gate of Ramos Horta’s residence one morning with a band of armed men. The president had earlier been mediating with him unofficially, and at a trial in 2009 it was alleged Reinado had received a phone message asking him to meet Horta there. Reinado and henchman Leopoldino Exposto were shot dead soon after they entered the compound. Returning from a morning run, the president was shot by another of the group. His life hung in the balance for several days.

Prime Minister Gusmão’s residence in the Dili foothills had been surrounded by petitioners soon after the presidential attack. Shots were fired as he fled by car, but he was unhurt.

José Luís Guterres’ discourse is disquieting. It is not that it is a spin doctor’s view of politics, because he is not that sort of figure; it is rather that he and his fellow politicians seem to be genuinely unaware of the time bomb of accrued pain and bitterness that lurks beneath the surface of this country, the product of the unattended legacy of war and the widespread sense of injustice that goes with it. The alienated Santa Cruz generation, like many others who have suffered imprisonment or torture, has difficulty adjusting to the rapid social change underway in the land they fought to save. They see a large foreign community that works for the public good on the one hand – and for this is welcomed by the average Timorese – but contributes daily to the systematic degradation of the nation’s cultural heritage on the other.

The president works from an immense Chinese-built palace with what appears to be a blue plastic roof, while luxurious gated communities are everywhere on the rise. They insulate expatriates from violence, but also from contact with East Timorese society. The contrast in living conditions is glaring. Opposite the palace there are angry banners erected by squatters who built shanties on land here after the violence of Indonesia’s 1999 scorched-earth retreat. Now this marshy land is earmarked as a site for the national library, and its 50 families earmarked for eviction. “The people need housing, not a library,” one banner reads, while another declares: “Timorese people have become guests in their own land.”

*

Ego Lemos speaks of his mother, who set him on the musical path. She can’t read or write, but she plays a mean harmonica. During the occupation war Lemos’ father and his two siblings died, leaving only him and his mother. Sometimes they almost starved but she always found ways to arrange some food and protect her son from danger.

In mid 2010 Lemos visited a cousin working in Dungannon, Northern Ireland. He was shocked at how the – around 1000 – East Timorese were living there. At the Moy Park poultry processing plant most are shift workers. “I can see in their eyes that they are not happy. Their environment and the culture has created psychological problems,” he said. “It’s a culture shock … Some work 12 hours a day just standing, working with machinery, which keeps rolling and they must keep packing.” He spoke of a “sentiment of suppressed anger”, and said he advised them to stop bottling it up because “eventually you will hurt others, if not hurt yourself.” He noted that the Timorese had split up into their own ethnic groups and did not socialise as one community any more. “Sometimes there’s domestic violence, too,” he added, “stemming from anger at their work.”

In June 2004 the BBC had reported an attack by white racists on Timorese workers in Dungannon, and in December 2005 there were press reports of Timorese and Lithuanians fighting a pitched battle outside the factory. The website National Alliance News (“news for white people worldwide”) ran a British National Party statement about the incident: “Ulster [province of Ireland] BNP predict such incidents will continue to occur so long as the UK Government continues to encourage mass immigration … that allows companies like Moy Park to hire cheap immigrant labour ahead of local people.” Having survived the brutalities of war and occupation in East Timor, generation foun had become prey for the far Right in Europe.

In August last year, a month after Ego Lemos’ visit, there was shock in Dili at news of the murder of 29-year-old Luisa Cabral Pereira Silva. She had worked at the Moy Park factory since arriving from Timor with her husband and two children six years before. They had since separated and she was out walking with a boyfriend when her former partner attacked him with a large knife. He escaped, and her ex-husband then stabbed and killed Luisa with two blows, before plunging the knife into his own stomach. He survived, to be charged with murder, and faces a long sentence in a British prison.

This was the first public indication of how troubled some Timorese migrants to the UK were. However an earlier, similarly disturbing, event in Dili had been kept from public view, although Timor Post journalist Rosa Garcia had written a story on it before it was hushed up. She had gone to school with ‘A’, the central figure of her narrative, who cannot be named. She fills in some aspects of the story, as does A’s brother, Jorge.

Garcia has images from A’s Facebook page showing him at a park in Oxford with his two small children. There is another photo with Timorese friends posing before London Bridge and a third of his wife and kids in London’s Hyde Park. The page features images of Timor’s first guerrilla hero Nicolau Lobato, with revolutionary slogans in Tetum.

After the Santa Cruz demonstration in 1991, A’s family was harassed by the Indonesian military. Soldiers visited their house, and telephoned constantly. Under this pressure A fled to Portugal in 1996 and was granted political asylum, returning to Dili briefly in 2000 to see his family. He had previously been studying economics at an Indonesian university.

In 2002 he moved from Portugal to England to work the night shift in a turkey processing plant in Manchester, but then found better conditions at a BMW plant in Oxford. His life seemed to be on the right track. In May 2010 A returned unexpectedly to Dili with his Timorese wife and two children, aged three and five. Jorge was delighted to see his younger brother back to stay. “He had saved some money to set up an internet cafe with billiard tables,” he remembers. “He bought five tables, but then ran out of money.” Jorge guessed something was troubling him but said his brother was “a closed person, who never discussed problems, he was someone who didn’t talk much.” It seems A believed his wife was having an affair.

On the morning of 28 July 2010, A wrote a letter to his brother and another to his wife. He then called his two children into the house, held them to him and reached for a can of petrol, which he poured over them before lighting a match immolating them all.

The three charred figures were rushed to Dili hospital by a relative, where the two small children were pronounced dead. A survived for two days more. The letter he left for Jorge was a disjointed attempt at self-justification and comfort to his relatives, studded with political phrases. “Our people have been liberated,” he wrote. “Don’t be sad. I know what I’m doing, life’s like this.”

His act was very distant from what most Timorese consider life to be like. In a devout nominally Catholic society such as this, suicide is considered a sin and children are especially sacred, so for those who heard of the case it was simply a heinous crime moved by jealousy.

A’s old friends from the Santa Cruz days met and attended his burial at a small beachside cemetery. They have discussed his death endlessly, as an act with political overtones by one of their generation – East Timor’s best and brightest – who feel they have been denied a chance to participate in the society for which they sacrificed all.

About the author Jill Jolliffe
Jill Jolliffe is a journalist who has reported on the Balibo Five story for more than 35 years. She has been a correspondent for the Guardian and the BBC. She is the author of Finding Santana and Balibo.