Reconciling History and Nations in East Timor Is a Task for the Young
History might show that for more than two decades, the fates of East Timor and its giant neighbor Indonesia were inextricably woven together, but for many from both nations, that history has two opposing faces.
The former Portuguese colony that encompassed the eastern half of Timor Island had been part and parcel of Indonesia from 1976 until 1999, when the East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence.
The East Timor generation that straddled the eras of occupation and independence has a view of history that differs greatly from their Indonesian counterparts of the same generation.
For a group of 25 to 30 year olds from both countries, those differences became apparent during a flag-raising ceremony at the Indonesian Embassy in Dili to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the Indonesian republic.
Two East Timorese women, Maria Bibel and Wilhemina Lika, exchanged anxious glances when William, a member of the Indonesian flag-raising team, told them point blank that the “integration” of East Timor into Indonesia had followed a demand in 1975 from the Timor People’s Democratic Association (Apodeti), which he claimed — incorrectly — was the largest political party in East Timor at the time.
Maria immediately responded with her own explanation. “This is not true. When the Indonesians came here in 1975, we were already independent. Indonesia invaded our country.”
William and his four flag-raising friends — Yola, Waty, Amin and Marwanto — greeted her retort with silence.
After a long pause, they explained that William’s beliefs were what they all knew from their history books and news reports of the time, all tightly controlled by the Suharto regime.
For Maria and Lika, the Indonesian invasion in 1975 and the following occupation caused many hardships for their people — more than 100,000 deaths resulted either directly or indirectly from the annexation. For the five young Indonesians, Indonesia’s presence and rule in East Timor had not been all that bad.
The Timor tragedy is sadly not just about reconciliation between countries but between families as well. Despite Maria and Lika being East Timor nationals, their parents are now Indonesian citizens living in Atambua, a town on the Indonesian side of the border.
They were among the tens of thousands of East Timorese who either fled or were driven across the border following the eruption of violence surrounding the referendum for self-determination held in 1999.
Maria has never regretted her decision to stay in East Timor, but her father, a former member of the Indonesian military during the occupation, has not been able to accept her choice.
“He kicks me out of the house whenever I visit him,” Maria said.
She sees reconciliation as not only a means of improving ties between the two countries, but possibly also the relationship with her father.
Maria and Lika, both journalists, agreed that it has fallen to the young generations of both nations to look for what they have in common and build on that. They pointed out that they, and many of their countrymen, can speak Bahasa Indonesia and even know the words of the Indonesian national anthem.
Perhaps the meeting with William and his friends during the flag-raising ceremony could form part of that reconciliation.