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Green Left Weekly

Issue #431

December 6, 2000

Vital histories of East Timor’s resistance


East Timor: The Price of Freedom
By John G. Taylor
Zed Books/Pluto Press, 248pp

To Resist is to Win: The Autobiography of Xanana Gusmao
By Xanana Gusmao
Edited by Sarah Niner
Aurora Books/David Lovell Publishing, 256pp

Fighting Spirit of East Timor: The Life of Martinho da Costa Lopes
By Rowena Lennox
Zed Books/Pluto Press, 260pp

[These books are obtainable through AETA:  - BD]


Over the last year, a significant number of books have been released about East Timor. There remains an acute interest in the history of East Timor.  Former supporters of the Indonesian occupation — including former Australian prime ministers and past and present members of parliament — are revising and glossing over the part they played in the betrayal of East Timorese people’s right to self determination.

The events of 1999, along with the lies and distortions of 24 years of bipartisan policy in Australia have raised a healthy distrust among the Australian people about government foreign policy and what the major parties describe as the “national interest” — the safeguarding of Australia’s economic and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region over and above the rights and interests of the peoples that live there.

There are few books as comprehensive and easy to read as East Timor: The Price of Freedom by John G. Taylor. It is an updated and expanded version of his earlier book, Indonesia’s Forgotten War: The Hidden History of East Timor. When that book was released in 1991, it received wide acclaim.  Progressive journalist and film-maker, John Pilger, referred to Taylor’s work as “contemporary history at its finest”.

Published shortly after the arrival of the multinational peacekeeping force, Interfet, in East Timor last year, East Timor: The Price of Freedom is a must-read for anyone wanting a thorough and informative account of the struggle for freedom waged by the people of East Timor.

The opening chapter takes up from where Taylor’s previous work concluded, covering the critical period from the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991 through to the 1999 referendum and the Jakarta-backed militia terror that ensued.

Detailed attention is given to the chain of events which led to Indonesian President B. J. Habibie’s agreement in January 1999 to allow a “popular consultation” in East Timor and the insidious role played by the Indonesian military and their militia proxies that followed.

The book analyses East Timorese society as it existed prior to first contact with Europeans (Portuguese and Dutch explorers, merchants and missionaries). The impact of colonialism upon East Timor is explored, as well as the fluctuating and changing forms of resistance to Portuguese rule adopted by the Timorese people.

Among the most fascinating and well-researched parts of the book are the chapters which cover the period from the Portuguese revolution in April 1974 to the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Taylor portrays with clarity the tumultuous changes within East Timorese society associated with the formation of political parties and organisations and the participation of the East Timorese masses in the movement for national liberation.

Taylor accurately describes why and how the Australian, US, British and other Western governments gave extensive military, diplomatic and financial support to the Suharto dictatorship’s illegal occupation of East Timor for 24 years.

The horror of the occupation of East Timor — particularly the years from 1975 to 1983 — is extensively dealt with, as is the process which led to the successful re-organisation of the armed struggle and the independence forces under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao. The book also includes a very useful time-line of significant events in East Timor’s history.

Important insight

Another work which provides an important insight into East Timor’s struggle for independence is the autobiography of East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao. To Resist is to Win: the Autobiography of Xanana Gusmao is an English translation, edited by Melbourne-based researcher and solidarity activist Sarah Niner.

Gusmao’s autobiography began as a secret project in 1994, written while he was in prison in Jakarta. It includes, in chronological order, a collection of his speeches, interviews, essays, letters and political messages.

As Gusmao explains in the introduction, written in July 1999: “This collection reveals many things. It traces the development of the Timorese resistance over the last 24 years. The documents explain how the Timorese resistance transformed itself, with little contact or help from the outside world, from a ravaged group of guerilla fighters scattered over the land in the late 1970s, into a cohesive, inclusive structure, recognised and aided internationally, as a legitimate cry for self-determination.”

To Resist is to Win is an important book, not just because it is the life story of East Timor’s best known political leader. It provides an open and often frank appraisal of the successes and failures of the East Timorese resistance movement. This includes Gusmao’s dismay at the way “revolutionary” judgements were carried out against those suspected of betraying the struggle (an issue also raised at the Fretilin conference held in Dili in May).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book are the sections which trace the rebuilding of the independence struggle through the 1980s. There are very few sources in English that contain historical documents by the East Timorese resistance detailing this, especially the “ideological re-orientation” of Fretilin in the mid-1980s, when it formally ceased to identify as a Marxist-Leninist party. Hopefully more documents and histories from this period will be produced in the future.

Role of the church

The Fighting Spirit of East Timor: The Life of Martinho da Costa Lopes by Rowena Lennox looks at the role of the church in East Timor and the life of one of its most important figures.

The Catholic Church has played a mixed and contradictory role in East Timorese society. In the years of Portuguese rule, the church was one of the key social pillars of the fascist Portuguese state. But it was also the East Timorese institution within which developed religious and lay leaders who opposed the injustices of Portuguese colonial rule and, later, the brutal Indonesian occupation.

Bishop Carlos Belo’s predecessor was Martinho da Costa Lopes, the first East Timor-born leader of the church in East Timor. He is as much a national hero as Belo, though his life story and his struggle are little known to those outside East Timor. Initially a conservative figure (even representing East Timor in the National Assembly in Lisbon in the 1950s), Lopes was affected by the enthusiasm of the young urban East Timorese elite who began to openly question colonial rule in the early 1970s.

In 1975, Lopes was appointed the vicar-general of Dili. After the Indonesian invasion, he was the first prominent figure within East Timor to publicly denounce the barbarity of the Indonesian occupation. He was ridiculed by both the Indonesian and Australian governments (particularly by former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam) and was eventually forced to resign from his position of apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Dili in 1983.

The Fighting Spirit of East Timor is the culmination of nine years of research by Lennox. It is a fine tribute of an East Timorese leader committed to social justice and the wishes of his people for freedom. It is a good companion to the excellent work by Arnold Kohen, From the Place of the Dead: Bishop Belo and the Struggle for East Timor (Lion Books).

Green Left Weekly
GLW was launched in 1990 by the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), the socialist youth group Resistance and other progressive activists to present the views excluded by the big business media. In these days of growing media concentration GLW is an independent voice committed to human and civil rights, global peace and environmental sustainability, democracy and equality.

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