The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 3, 2001
Indonesian soldiers had come looking for Francisco Miguel Martins in the morning. Vigilantes equipped by the army, who were torching houses and shooting people, were looking for him too.
So the scholar hurriedly wrapped up his computer and television and buried them in the yard. Then he grabbed his diplomas, packed milk powder for his baby daughter, and ran for the hills with his wife and a dozen other terrified family members.
After the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia two years ago, vigilante militias terrorized the populace and destroyed everything of value, including the territory’s old university, where Mr. Martins was a lecturer in linguistics.
Today, the young people of this poor tropical land might still be waiting for a university to open. The United Nations, which is helping to rebuild, said other needs were more pressing. But the territory’s students and academics refused to wait. Last November, with the reluctant acceptance of the U.N., the National University of East Timor was opened by the former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, thought likely to become the nation’s first president in an election in the next several months. Its vice rector for academic affairs is Mr. Martins.
The story of the university’s creation shows how hungry a young country can be for higher education.
To say learning conditions are poor would be an understatement. The students don’t have textbooks and often lack desks, so they usually sit in class with their notebooks on their laps.
Some lessons are given in newly repaired classrooms. Others take place in the burnt-out—and clearly unsafe—main building of the former university. Blackened beams hang precariously from the ceiling, and charred stubs are all that remain of a banister that once ran up the main staircase. Few of the 120 faculty members have even a master’s degree.
Yet many students and lecturers say they are glad the new institution is open. Venceslau Cabral studied mechanical engineering for two years at a former public polytechnic college, which, along with the former private university, was the territory’s main higher-education institution under Indonesian rule. But two years ago, Indonesian authorities carted away the institutions’ equipment as they withdrew from the territory, and militias burned down both campuses. Last fall, Mr. Cabral resumed his engineering studies at the new university. “There is only theory, no practice,” he complains. “And our teachers are not of good quality.”
Mr. Cabral had hidden for 18 days in the mountains to escape the militias’ murderous rampage and watched as his parents and brother and sister were temporarily exiled to the western, Indonesian half of the island. Now he says it was all worthwhile. “We’ve gone through a hard time, but now we have our own university, and it will be used for the good of our nation.”
At the end of August, East Timor will hold its first elections to choose a government. The territory is expected to achieve full independence a year later. Freedom, when it arrives, will come at the end of a long, hard road.
For 450 years, East Timor was a poor, distant Portuguese colony. In 1974, Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship was overthrown, and the left-wing generals who seized power announced they would free the colonies. Indonesia responded by invading and annexing East Timor. The U.N. estimates that 200,000 Timorese died in the repression and famine that followed.
During the last years of Indonesian rule, the university became a focal point of the independence movement. Armindo Maia, who is now rector of the new university, was acting rector of the old one in 1997, when threats on his life forced him to flee.
Mr. Maia, a historian and developmental-studies scholar, went to the United States, where he testified before a Congressional human-rights committee about the abuses in his homeland. Then, with the help of the American Embassy in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, he became a visiting scholar for one year at the University of Minnesota. The United States, which for years had blocked international condemnation of Indonesia, a cold-war ally, was beginning to help East Timor.
In 1998, Indonesia’s strongman of 32 years, President Suharto, was forced from power. The following year, his successor, President B. J. Habibie, decided East Timor was one problem he didn’t need. He made a surprise announcement: The people of East Timor would be allowed to choose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence. The U.N. began hastily preparing for a referendum. The militias began a campaign of intimidation.
The polytechnic, too, had become deeply involved in the resistance movement. Without the knowledge of its Indonesian rector, activists held campus meetings to bring together the movement’s diverse elements, including Roman Catholic priests and representatives of Fretilin, a guerrilla group that had been fighting for independence since 1975. By the spring of 1999, the army had grown suspicious and begun patrolling near the campus, eight miles outside of Dili. Fearing an attack, lecturers and students rigged a high-voltage electric line on the campus perimeter to stop intruders. In May, the army arrived at the front gate anyway, and arrested 300 students and staff members—everyone it found there. They were released after three days.
A few days later, two students sneaked back to the campus to retrieve some documents and photographs they had hidden for the guerrillas in the campus water tower. Guards at the campus caught the students, and according to lecturers, they were tortured and killed.
At the university, similar political activity was taking place in the days leading up to the referendum. Mr. Maia and Mr. Martins, led a get-out-the-vote campaign. They worked clandestinely, producing fliers on laptop computers and trying to avoid the militias that were attacking anyone campaigning for independence.
Finally, on August 30, 1999, the referendum took place. Ninety-nine percent of voters turned out. Almost 80 percent chose independence.
The militias responded with an orgy of destruction, wrecking and burning all they could, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, and forcing a quarter of the population of 800,000 to the Indonesian half of the island, in an attempt to keep as many people as possible under Indonesian control. Some are still waiting to return.
For independence activists especially, the first days after the referendum were filled with terror. Shortly after voting, Mr. Martins and 27 members of his extended family were given shelter in a Protestant church.
After five days, continuing attacks by militiamen in the neighborhood made it too dangerous to stay in the church and the family crept home amid the sound of gunfire and the sight of burning houses. Mr. Martins spent that night sleeping in the downstairs hall. The next morning, at the sound of approaching soldiers, he bolted out the back and down a dry well in the garden. The soldiers demanded to know where he was; Mr. Martins’s wife persuaded them he had already fled.
The terrified family now gathered to discuss what to do next. Some wanted to go to the Indonesian army for protection, but Mr. Martins argued that such a step would spell his certain death, because of his pro-independence activities. Finally, they agreed to make a run past the marauding and often drunken militiamen, into the nearby hills. Mr. Martins buried some of his belongings and gathered his most important documents to take with him. At the edge of town, the group met two militiamen. One drew a pistol and ordered them to a nearby military post for transport to the Indonesian half of the island. Mr. Martins’s sister pleaded with them and insisted the family would not turn back. The militiamen let them pass. Three hundred yards later, they were welcomed by young men armed with machetes, who were helping people escape the city. The family spent the next month sleeping on the ground under cut palm fronds, watching the city below them burn, and listening anxiously to the radio.
Three weeks after the referendum, an Australian-led intervention force landed to restore order. Mr. Martins and his family returned to their looted and vandalized homes. He spent the following month interpreting for the doctors and nurses of the Red Cross, who had arrived to treat the injured at the main hospital.
A few family members, including Mr. Martins’s 57-year-old father, had been forcibly removed to West Timor. Mr. Martins never saw him alive again. The older man died as he was returning to Dili on foot, convinced that his son had been killed in the violence.
The U.N. then began the gigantic job of rebuilding this wrecked land and preparing it for independence. To the international officials, higher education was not a priority.
East Timor had some 6,000 college students. But it had 200,000 school-age children, and 90 percent of their 1,000 elementary and secondary schools had been damaged or destroyed.
Nearly everything else the new country would need had been deliberately wrecked: telephone exchanges, administrative buildings, businesses, fishing boats, farms.
The Indonesian military, which many hold responsible for the destruction, appears to have decided to make an example out of East Timor for any other rebellious province—there are several—that might seek independence.
East Timor lay devastated and smoldering. Yet only months after the U.N. took control, young people began demonstrating here in the seaside capital to demand the reopening of a university. The protests grew increasingly angry.
The U.N. gave in, but reluctantly, because preparations for a new university were not well-enough advanced, says Rezene H. Tesfamichael, the U.N.’s coordinator for higher education here. Mr. Rezene, as he is known, is himself from a new country, Eritrea. He admits that the decision had as much to do with getting angry young people off the streets as it did with providing skills needed by the nation-to-be.
The university officially opened on November 17, 2000, and soon 4,000 full-time students were enrolled. An additional 1,500 who failed to score high enough on an entrance examination were accepted into a one-year program intended to prepare them for university studies.
A good deal of work had already been done. Shortly after they returned from the hills, in September 1999, a large group of Timorese academics, led by Mr. Maia, began preparing for a new institution. They worked for almost a year without pay, supported by spouses or relatives who had found jobs with the U.N. or other aid organizations.
The year represented a labor of love, says Mariano Renato Monteiro da Cruz, the new university’s vice rector for administrative affairs. “We were working for our country.”
They were offered a chance to forgo all the work, and accept the authority of the former rector of the old Indonesian university. He was an Indonesian Catholic priest, known to colleagues and students as Father Theo.
In the days before the referendum and the ensuing militia violence, Father Theo packed up what he could of the university’s computers and textbooks, and fled to West Timor.
Shortly after the Australian-led force re-established order, Father Theo returned to Dili and met with Mr. Maia and his colleagues. He proposed that they form a branch of a new university he intended to establish in West Timor. The East Timorese refused, and now appear angry that Father Theo did not return all the university property as soon as the violence ended.
Father Theo went on to establish a new institution in West Timor, near the border with East Timor. He says he feels committed to serving those who identify with Indonesia, including most of the academic staff members of the University of East Timor, the old private university. His new institution and the new university in East Timor have not cooperated so far. But recently, in a good-will gesture, Indonesia’s Education Ministry sent a letter to Father Theo asking for academic volunteers to help beef up East Timor’s new university. “I announced it here,” says the priest. “But up to now, there has been no response.” With few exceptions, the 120 faculty members at East Timor’s new university are from the territory. Some taught here before the referendum; a few have returned from study abroad. Only two hold Ph.D.’s, and six have master’s degrees. A few in the technology section, one of the university’s five major divisions, lack even bachelor’s degrees, holding only two- or three-year diplomas. The university’s only visiting lecturers are language teachers: 12 from Portugal and 7 from Australia. “Of course it is not a university in the real sense of the word,” says the U.N.’s Mr. Rezene. But the academic staff members are “committed people,” he adds. “I’ve been amazed to see what they’ve been able to do.”
Faculty qualifications are expected to rise over the next few years, as Timorese return home with advanced degrees earned in other countries. Portugal, Brazil, and Australia have already offered to sponsor scores of graduate students.
“We’ve been inundated with offers,” says Helder da Costa, director of the university’s Research Center. “But we have so few faculty members that sending them abroad would leave gaps.”
Just how does a group of people create a national university, with almost no resources? “We decided to be pragmatic,” says Mr. Maia, the rector. For a start, they took over most of their curriculum from the old university and polytechnic. They dropped courses on Indonesian history, Indonesian patriotism, and national defense, which used to be required.
Several countries are helping the university. Japan has already agreed to rebuild the burned-down campus of the old polytechnic, at Hera, outside Dili. It will become the home of the university’stechnology section. Japan will also help develop the section’s curriculum.
Portugal renovated a former high school and grounds for the university, and the attractive complex is now the university’s most modern part. Portugal is also helping develop a curriculum for the education section. Australia, only a few hundred miles from East Timor, is working on the agriculture curriculum.
Workmen are busy turning an old gymnasium, adjacent to the main campus, into a library, with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
A red shipping container sits in the yard, filled with almost 40,000 books donated by several groups in Australia. An additional 30,000 books, stored elsewhere, have been donated by Portugal. They will all be moved into the new library when it is ready. But there is no rush; very few students know English or Portuguese. The university is still rather ad hoc. The technology section’s main office is a large classroom. Faculty members there prepare lessons on a few computers. The lessons are printed out and given to students in place of textbooks.
Inacio Freitas Moreira, dean of the section, works at one of the crowded room’s plain desks. He says many Timorese are still depressed and nervous after living through the destruction of their land. “It is important for the university to be operating,” he says, “so that people have something constructive to do.”
The university has wasted no time in beginning research to help the fledgling nation grapple with pressing economic and social issues. The university’s Research Center is using students to collect data for some policy-oriented projects.
One study, for example, will chart price variations for nine basic food commodities, including flour, sugar, and vegetables. The aim is to come up with proposals to stabilize prices, which have fluctuated wildly. The volatility has hurt many families, which have few resources to absorb price jumps. Mr. da Costa, the center’s director, says the new country needs the university to calmly examine such issues, away from the pressure of politics. “Here discussions can be freer than in government,” he says.
Mr. Maia says the new university “needs to provide as many professionals as possible for the development of the country.” He says certain costly disciplines, like medicine, as well as most Ph.D. programs will probably be beyond the university’s grasp. For such training, students will be sent abroad.
As Mr. Maia and his colleagues build up a university practically from scratch, they face one unusual and particularly thorny issue: the choice of language. The government-in-waiting, headed by the resistance leader, Mr. Gusmao, has declared that East Timor’s “official” language is Portuguese, the former colonial language, which almost no one under the age of 50 speaks. East Timor is also pledged to develop a “national” language, Tetum, the most widespread of several local languages. English and Indonesian are favored for business.
The resistance leaders were educated mostly in Portuguese, and they feel a strong emotional attachment to the language. At their insistence, all young children who have started public school in the last two years are being taught in Portuguese—a controversial decision. For practical reasons, teaching at the university is mostly in Indonesian, because it was the previous language of education and all young people speak it. Some academics want to keep Indonesian at the university. Many others want to gradually replace it with English, Portuguese, or both.
Although few students speak English, many say that it is the language they want the university to adopt, and quickly, because it will help them secure jobs or study abroad in the whole Asian region. As they struggle to develop a university and a country on the ashes of their devastated homeland, many lecturers and students here say they are hopeful—an attitude buoyed by the presence of several thousand international aid workers. Their hundreds of white four-wheel-drive vehicles, zipping around, are a constant reminder that the international community cares, at least for the time being.
Elvira Pereira Ximenes is a first-year student of biology at the new university. Her uncle and aunt and their three children are still waiting to return from West Timor. A friend of hers was killed as he tried to flee the violence that accompanied the referendum. Yet she feels East Timor’s freedom was worth all the sacrifices.
“First we suffered,” she says in her recently acquired and halting English. “But soon we will be happy.”
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Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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