Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Stand your ground

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Matt Abud

Lelo, a farmer in the eastern district of Los Palos, told of how he once carried an injured resistance leader Xanana Gusmao in a basket on his back, covered only by leaves.

On New Year's Day 2001, I watched the first sunrise together with some colleagues from the top of Mount Ramelau, the highest peak in East Timor. The mountain cast an arrow-like shadow to the west, and the whole country was laid out below us: northern and southern coasts, deep valleys rumpled together, dramatic mountain ridges criss-crossing each other all the way from the eastern coastal tip to the western border with Indonesia. It was a stunning view of a tiny country, where East Timor's Falintil guerrillas had fought a continuous war for independence ever since Indonesia's 1975 invasion. The view made me wonder how, with so little room to move, and pitted against an enormous military force, the guerrillas had kept their hopes alive for twenty-four years.

A year later, a bright young Timorese school student also confessed bewilderment. 'What did Falintil do, anyway?' she asked me 'They couldn't fight, they could only hide all the time.' It was January 2002, and six East Timorese colleagues and I were convening a discussion group at the student's school in Dili. We'd brought the discussion group together to clarify our own ideas, before starting on an ambitious story-telling project. In a few months, on 20 May 2002, East Timor was to gain full national independence. There was a great need for recognition and commemoration of the struggle and suffering that had led to the achievement of independence. Our seven-person team had been given the chance to produce a 12-part oral history radio documentary series, which would tell some of these stories. But what were the stories that people needed to hear?

Time to reflect

Our discussion group revealed that the students knew bits and pieces of their history - about the invasion, resistance, and massacres that took place in the 1970s - because their teacher had given them a project to talk to the older members of their families, and write up the stories. But they were largely unaware of events that had taken place throughout the 1980s, up until the Pope's 1989 visit and the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991. As we traveled around the country in the course of our work, people would tell us in great detail what had happened in their local area. But they didn't always know what was happening in other places, even though they commonly resisted the Indonesian occupation.

Certainly, information had been tightly controlled during the occupation. Within certain family and community networks, some stories were very well known. For example, primary-school students in the mountains were often aware of the Falintil guerrillas' activities in their area. But outside of those networks and areas, even with Timor's small, tight-knit population, oppression and suspicion kept many stories underground. After the Indonesian military's departure in 1999 these stories could now be shared with a wider, even national audience. Yet from 1999 onwards, the urgency of addressing material needs often meant there was no time for processes like storytelling, reflection, and other ways of dealing with a traumatic past.

When we talked to former resistance fighters, some were philosophical about East Timor's new reality, but many were disappointed or even bitter. Several of those who had fought as Falintil guerrillas, as well as those who had been part of civilian clandestine movement, had become marginalised in the economic difficulties and rapid changes that followed 1999's independence vote. Among a number of them, the absence of formal recognition has fuelled volatile frustrations and resentment.

For the East Timorese government, according such formal recognition presents something of a hot potato. Across the country a number of so-called 'security groups' have become established, and several observers say they could affect the country's stability. Many such groups claim strong resistance pedigree as the basis for their prestige; others dispute the veracity of those claims. For many reasons, social, political, and simply emotional, there has been a great need for Timor's memory and history to be gathered together and shared. When East Timor's independence began to draw close in 2002, non-government organisations, multinational funding agencies, resistance veterans and the UN administration, showed strong interest in making a start on this process. Beneath the aegis of a committee overseeing the demobilisation and reintegration of ex-Falintil guerrillas who hadn't been recruited into the defense force, they proposed an oral history radio documentary series that would begin broadcasting on Radio Untaet (which became Radio Timor Leste after 20 May 2002) in the lead up to independence.

We decided to call the program 'Tuba Rai Metin', which means Stand Your Ground. We put it together in Tetum, East Timor's national indigenous language (although with many other regional languages, it is not universally spoken). Radio, as an aural medium, also enhanced the material's reach. Tuba Rai Metin is therefore the first broadly accessible history of East Timor. As initially conceived, the series was to focus on the experience of the Falintil guerrillas, but this was quickly changed after many, including members of Falintil themselves, insisted on]the importance of telling how they worked together with the civilian clandestine movement.


People related stories of tragedy and strength, courage and comedy, and almost unvaryingly showed a great humility as they spoke about what they had seen and done. Lelo, a farmer in the eastern district of Los Palos, told of how he once carried an injured resistance leader Xanana Gusmao in a basket on his back, covered only by leaves. When Indonesian soldiers asked what the basket held he answered, 'Food for the pigs'. It was the same answer he gave his wife at home. She scolded him for putting the basket on the floor, only to be mortified with embarrassment when Xanana revealed himself.

Peregrinha, a young woman in the clandestine movement, recalled how she had intimidated East Timorese working for Indonesia's military by brandishing a pistol at them - a dangerous game of grass-roots brinkmanship which relied on nobody guessing the pistol was in reality a cigarette-lighter. Luis Katana recounted how he, together with colleagues, had jumped the US Embassy fence in Jakarta during the 1994 Apec meeting. He nearly didn't make it - Indonesian security forces grabbed his leg and were trying to pull him back to the Indonesian side of the fence. In the end, his friends on the other side, who had hold of his other leg, prevailed, and he dropped onto US soil.

People also told of how they communicated by hiding notes under a rock in the fields, to be collected after dark. Villagers explained how they left some leaves from their extra harvest turned over, as a signal to guerrillas for them to take it. Dogs were also an unsung weapon of the resistance - time and again sympathisers would call out to their dog, as a code to warn guerrillas in hiding that the military was approaching. In other warnings children threw rocks on the roofs of safe-houses, part of the games they were playing in the street, and an instant signal for those inside.

Knowledge empowers

Tuba Rai Metin was never an attempt to present a complete history. We did locate people's stories in rough chronological and thematic context, starting from 1975 through to the 1999 vote for independence. We aimed to put key points on the record, and to avoid emphasising any one historical phase over another. One powerful program included testimony from East Timorese who had lost family to internecine killings in the hills in the late-1970s, when Fretilin was the predominant authority. Another touched on splits between some Falintil commanders and Xanana Gusmao's leadership in the mid-1980s, which have ongoing ramifications today. In neither case did we attempt anything definitive, nor address in any great depth the many historical debates involved. But at least these parts of history could be put on the public record for a national audience.

This article is dedicated to Batista Canigio, Tuba Rai Metin team member who died of illness during the course of production.

Matthew Abud (mattabud@hotmail.com) has been working in radio in East Timor since 1999, and produced Tuba Rai Metin.

Representing history is a powerful issue of political legitimacy, in East Timor as much as anywhere else in the world. At its most obvious, current tensions between the Fretilin government and President Xanana Gusmao are contests for legitimacy at the national level. Fretilin places great store on its role leading the struggle in the seventies, and its enduring symbols, which command great loyalty, date from that era. Gusmao emphasises directions taken from the 1980s onwards when his own leadership began, which is held up as a more pluralist approach - and again, he and what he represents call up powerful loyalties. These differences were wrestled over during the resistance and many resulting splits are still alive and potent today. It is often difficult for East Timorese people (and international observers), who are not familiar with this history, and therefore have difficulty understanding contemporary East Timorese politics.

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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